The episcopal church has an offer clergy would be foolish to refuse, according to the Rev. Mark Tusken, rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Geneva, Ill. A self-described workaholic, Tusken cleared his calendar three years ago and accepted an invitation to attend an eight-day, nearly all-expense-paid retreat at a southwest Florida conference center. The retreat was one of 10 the Church Pension Fund sponsored that year as part of its nascent clergy-wellness initiative known as CREDO -- Clergy Reflection Education Discernment Opportunity.
At age 48 with 24 years of ordained ministry behind him, Tusken does not usually experience life-changing moments on clergy retreats. This time he came away with a plan for restoring peace to all aspects of his life: his physical health, financial picture, ministry and spiritual development.
"In the end, I would say the most important thing was that it gave me a chance to pray and think through who I am so that I could move forward in the years ahead,” said Tusken, “to reflect on my life and where I believe God is calling me to move, or directions God wants me to take,” he said.
Nearly 1,600 active clergy -- a little more than a quarter of the church's clergy population -- have attended CREDO retreats since it began in 1997. More than 500 are expected to attend 18 conferences in 2004, and the roster is filled already for the 22 to be held in 2005. A design team of CREDO Institute, the nonprofit corporation that operates the program, is planning a CREDO II for clergy interested in building on their original experience and is experimenting with an abbreviated CREDO for lay professionals. A Spanish-language conference is being planned for Hispanic clergy in Province 9 and domestic dioceses.
Get in touch with ‘self’
The business of CREDO according to William Craddock, director of CREDO Institute, is about helping clergy “to understand more fully who they are and who God is calling them to be,” as a crucial step in ensuring their health and fulfillment.
The idea for CREDO came out of a Wellness Initiatives Advisory Committee the fund organized in 1994 in response to an escalating rate of clergy disability cases, many of which the fund thought were preventable. Adhering to the axiom that structure determines behavior, the committee looked at how the fund might steer clergy toward healthier lifestyles, said Craddock. The 1997 General Convention subsequently approved two of the committee's ideas: providing an early-retirement option for clergy with 30 years of service and providing periodic personal-growth and development opportunities.
Attendance is by invitation only. CREDO officials estimate more than 90 percent of the 7,100 active clergy have received invitations.
Clergy active in the fund’s pension plan -- meaning clergy with at least a year of service up to those retired but younger than 70 -- are randomly selected to attend one of the eight-day conferences organized around age ranges. Clergy receive their invitations a year and a half in advance, to ensure prospects can clear their calendars and do the extensive preconference study that includes evaluations from 12 key associates.
The conference's goal is not so much to reach an epiphany as to develop a roadmap to wellness, said Lesslie Keller, treasurer for the Diocese of Chicago and a member of the CREDO finance faculty team. “The experience is not meant to be a mountain-top experience. It is meant to help people reflect on their health and financial state, and discern whether or not some changes need to be made, some letting go or taking on of things.”
Out of the discernment, each participant develops a plan, a personal covenant based on his or her reflections and learnings. “It can be something as simple as ‘I am going to come home and make sure I have a will,'” Keller said. "Anything from the small to the global."
For Tusken, the goal was to bring vitality back into his life in each of the four areas. That largely has happened, he said, adding, “I think I am a healthier priest because of it.” His parish is, too, he said. “It was an encouragement to me, and a byproduct of that is, I think the parish itself is encouraged.”
The conference is not about theology, but rather taking stock of one’s life, he noted. That can lead to renewal as well as recasting priorities and vocation. “One person who went through CREDO with me announced at the end that he had decided that he was going to move away from ministry."
Keller, who attended a faculty CREDO in 2001, said a lasting benefit for her had been the close relationships she developed with her conference’s small-group members.
Similarly, Tusken keeps a photo of his group that he looks at regularly and has his CREDO stone -- a pebble etched with the CREDO logo given to all conference participants -- in his bath cabinet to serve as a reminder each morning of his decision to live differently.
Another Chicago-area priest, the Rev. Gina Volpe, keeps her stone in her wallet. It serves as a kind of talisman, or prayer device, and as a check on unhealthy impulses such as opting for a fast-food burger instead of a salad, she said. Volpe, who works in parish ministry and as a full-time hospice chaplain, said the conference put her back on track.
“For me, it was a reminder that the only way I can serve someone is if I am truly taking care of myself as well,” said Volpe. “It just brought me back with a reminder that I am serving God. I am not serving the bottom line at hospice. I am not serving a corporation, or this event or that event. I am serving Christ.”
In the 18 months since, she has stuck to her plan, including daily prayer. “Before I was breathing through it, but now it is my breath,” she said. “If I don’t do it, I don’t breathe.”
CREDO’s holistic approach is unique; no other denomination has anything like it, said Craddock, noting the closest is an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America health initiative.
The $2.4 million program is funded largely through the Church Pension Fund's reserve. Participants are asked to pay $500, or 10 percent of the cost of a conference, but scholarships are available. “No one is turned down,” Craddock said.
The institute’s other key partner, the Office of Pastoral Development, looks to deepen its relationship with CREDO through developing a CREDO II experience for bishops nearing the end of their episcopates. The program, which would supplement the weekend Orderly Transition Conference operated by the College of Bishops, would work much more intentionally on identifying the “vocational pull” felt by bishops who are three to five years away from retirement or a change in ministry.
Though CREDO has been criticized on some fronts -- namely the exclusion of spouses and partners from the conferences and a lack of parish involvement -- participants consider it the best insurance policy for clergy wellness and fidelity to call in the church.
“It is one of the finest things being done, I believe, by the Episcopal Church,” said Tusken. “I don’t know of anything quite like it.”
To learn more about CREDO, visit http://www.episcopalcredo.org/.