Overview of Women at the Wellsprings

Who is this program for, and what is the overall structure?

Women at the Wellsprings is comprised of twenty women who are currently serving in pastoral leadership in a congregational setting in the southeastern US and are willing and able to make a full commitment for the duration of the program. Participants in the program were selected through an application process.

These twenty women pastoral leaders will gather at the Benedictine Sisters Retreat Center in Cullman, Alabama, five times over the course of two and a half years for sessions of eight days each.  Four days of each eight-day session will follow a schedule of structured presentations, allowing Day 2 and Day 7 to be more unstructured for acquaintance time and sabbath rest, while Day 1 and Day 8 will be travel days for arrival and departure. The acquaintance time will provide the opportunity for connecting and reconnecting with the various participants on an informal and leisurely basis, helping to form a supportive community.  Participants will make a commitment to be present at all five sessions and for all days of each session. 

Each day will include common prayer with the monastic women at Sacred Heart Monastery, daily peer group sharing (such as theological reflection, faith sharing, Lectio Divina, current issues, and pastoral concerns), and leisure time for rest, exercise, or simply relaxing with a good book.  The Retreat Center’s setting within two hundred acres of lush, natural beauty offers an environment conducive for participants to let go and rest in God. 

What is the purpose of Women at the Wellsprings?

In our retreat ministry of the past forty years we have listened to many women ministers tell us of their theological training, but bemoan their lack of training in spirituality and their need for sustaining spiritual practices. We have also heard women ministers describe a great sense of isolation, loneliness, and exhaustion.  Here in the Deep South there are relatively few women pastoral leaders, and these often serve in small and relatively isolated parishes.

As a retreat center planted in the midst of a Benedictine monastery, we offer a rich heritage of contemplative practices that can contribute to spiritual resilience.  Through this project, we wish to share the spiritual resources of the monastic tradition to strengthen women pastoral leaders in need of resiliency and to share the Benedictine values of hospitality and community with women ministers in need of a genuine welcome and connection with others on a similar journey.

When will the five sessions be held, and is there a topic for each session?

The sessions are scheduled for the following dates and with the following topics (note that dates have been changed due to COVID):

April 14-21, 2020 (changed to November 2-9, 2021)
Topic: Women Creating Community
Primary Presenter: Sister Cecilia Dwyer, OSB, of St. Benedict Monastery in Bristow, VA 

November 3-10, 2020 (changed to April 19-26, 2022)
Topic: Practices of the Spiritual Life
Presenters: Sisters of Sacred Heart Monastery will speak on various contemplative prayer practices, primarily from the monastic tradition

April 6-13, 2021 (changed to November 2-9, 2022)
Topic: Leadership
Primary presenter: Rev. Dr. Teresa Fry Brown, Bandy Professor of Preaching; Candler School of Theology, Emory University

November 2-9, 2021 (changed to April 11-18, 2023)
Silent Retreat
Retreat Director: Rev. Dr. Bonnie Thurston, Disciples of Christ minister; former William Orr Professor of New Testament, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.

April 19-26, 2022 (changed to November 1-8, 2023)
Topic: The Unique Role of the Woman Pastoral Leader
Primary presenter: Rev. Dr. Susan Henry-Crowe, General Secretary of the General Board of Church and Society of The United Methodist Church.

Will there be a cost to participate?

All program-related expenses, including transportation to Cullman, will be funded by a grant from Lilly Endowment Inc.’s Thriving in Ministry Initiative. The grant will also help cover the costs of spiritual direction in your area of residence, and will reimburse a set amount for Sunday pulpit replacement if needed while you are attending a Wellsprings session.

Who are the Benedictine Sisters and why are they sponsoring this program?

The Benedictine Sisters of Cullman, Alabama, a Roman Catholic monastic community located at Sacred Heart Monastery in northern Alabama, has sponsored an ecumenical retreat ministry on their monastery grounds for the past forty years, offering a quiet and nurturing environment for groups and individuals of many denominations who come seeking to grow in the spiritual life. Among these guests have been women pastoral leaders of various Christian denominations and traditions. Conversations with these women awakened in the Sisters a desire to give more support to women in congregational ministry. The Lilly Endowment Inc. has provided funding for us to do so through their Thriving in Ministry Initiative. With this support, we are pleased to offer Women at the Wellsprings: Drawing from Timeless Springs to Nourish Ministry Today. 

Will my congregation be involved in any aspects of the program?

Each participant is responsible for forming a team of people at her home church, or within her denominational structure, who will spend time in prayer and reflection with her at key points throughout the three-year program.  This local support team will offer needed personal feedback as well as help to discern ways to incorporate what is learned into the dynamics of the church. These parish or congregational support teams are also to be invited into the same kinds of rhythm as the participant.

The parish support team for each participant will meet with the participant after each gathering to support the continued practice of prayer that is generated by the time of renewal.  The goal is to foster long-term practices and not simply have “bursts of spiritual renewal” followed by “business as usual.”

Will participants be able to spend time with the Benedictine Sisters?

Surrounding the Women at the Wellsprings community is the Benedictine community of Sisters, women of deep prayer and hospitality. This experiential and relational dimension will enhance the integration of the sessions’ content.  There is a wonderful reciprocity with the hosting community through mutual sharing between the Sisters and the women in the program.

The Sisters of Sacred Heart Monastery will serve as prayer partners to the participants of Women at the Wellsprings. Each woman holds the other in prayer, establishing a bond between two Christians committed to furthering God’s kingdom.  In the interest of ecumenism, the pastoral leaders will be invited to periodically address the religious community to share insights into the Word of God, thus enriching the lives of the sisters.

In addition to this sharing, in the second of the five eight-day sessions, several Benedictine Sisters will share with participants the contemplative practices of their Benedictine monastic tradition as part of the Women at the Wellsprings program content.

What is the Benedictine Sisters’ hope for the program?

Drawing from the rich spiritual monastic tradition, it is our primary goal to help women pastoral leaders in congregational settings discover and practice a rhythm of prayer and spiritual practices for sustaining their congregational ministry so that they may come to know the value of community in fostering spiritual resilience.  Discernment and clarity come only when the pastoral leader is deeply grounded in a sustaining practice of prayer, which is developed over time and in community with others.  We want to draw together a community of women pastoral leaders and give them space and time for developing a strong practice of prayer and spirituality.

We want to explore the ways in which the rhythm of prayer that is integral to monastic communities can be used to nurture women pastoral leaders personally in their role as pastoral leaders within their congregations.  This will require openness on the part of the host monastic community as well as the pastoral participants.  Theological, scriptural, and experiential reflection will be a part of this exploration.

Although the focus will be on the individual participants, we expect that the impact of the program will overflow into their current and future ministry.  In addition to the personal thriving that we anticipate will be the fruit of this program, we hope to find ways in which the pastoral ministers can teach prayer and spirituality to their congregations, thus allowing the program content to spread beyond the participants.

I am recently ordained, or conversely, I am beginning to look toward retirement and/or transition from congregational ministry. Would this be a good program for me?

Women at the Wellsprings is designed for women who have had sufficient experience in congregational pastoral leadership to have encountered some of the challenges that come with sustaining one’s spirituality for the long haul and have wrestled with some of the unique challenges facing women in ministry. Conversely, the program is not designed to address issues of role transition for women pastoral leaders beginning to look toward transitioning away from congregational ministry. The spiritual resiliency the Wellsprings program seeks to foster is geared those seeking to sustain and thrive in congregational ministry for the long haul.

I am a hospital chaplain, or I work for a not-for-profit religious organization. Am I eligible for Women at the Wellsprings?

In keeping with the goals of the Lilly Endowment Inc.’s Thriving in Ministry Initiative, Women at the Wellsprings is for women pastoral leaders in congregational settings.