For the Board’s Director of Wholeness Education, COVID-19 presents a critical opportunity reach more people virtually.
The Reverend Lori Neff LaRue plans the popular Well-Being Retreat across a year. When COVID-19 canceled the 2020 gathering, she had a little over two months to devise an online alternative. Her question: How could we do it in a way that feeds people’s souls while utilizing a virtual platform?
“We had a lot of conversations before getting to Well-Being Respite,” Lori said of her colleagues at the Board of Pensions, where she is Director, Wholeness Education, and a member of the Education team. Well-Being Respite, like Well-Being Retreat, is open to Benefits Plan members, spouses, and surviving spouses.
Well-Being Retreat is a multi-day gathering around wholeness co-sponsored each August by the Board and the Presbyterian Foundation. It is usually at Montreat Conference Center, in the North Carolina mountains. Instead of an in-person gathering, Well-Being Respite will be held virtually as four monthly three-hour offerings, each focused on a different dimension of wholeness — financial, spiritual, vocational, or health — and how the current landscape shapes the understanding and application of it.
“There’s a richness that comes from being together in person,” Lori said. “Our challenge is to move into a virtual space in such a way that the movement of the Holy Spirit does not get stifled.”
While the cancellation of Well-Being Retreat saddens Lori, she said that “gathering face-to-face is a privilege. Not everyone has the time or the resources to travel to North Carolina for a multi-day event.” Amid the pandemic, economic crises, and protests seeking racial equality and justice, Well-Being Respite needed to be something different. “I have been very intentional to ensure we are not monolithic.”
Being intentional is fundamental to who Lori is. Growing up in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, she knew she wanted to serve the church. Her confirmation Bible was filled with little pieces of tissue marking the passages in Timothy that speak to serving the church.
In her mid-20s, after years of being active in her church, Lori told her pastor: “I feel like God is nudging me to run for president of the congregation.” The pastor told her that God must have made a mistake or that she must have misheard God because the denomination does not allow women to serve in leadership roles.
“I was washed over with this sense of humiliation,” Lori said. “There were women in charge of education and stewardship. It didn’t occur to me that I couldn’t be president of the congregation.”
Lori began attending and eventually joined a Presbyterian church. “Within a year, I was ordained as an elder and people were encouraging me to consider the ministry,” she said. “It created this space for me to be me and who God created me to be.”
While earning a Master of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, she assumed she was “too outspoken” to be a pastor. But within three months of graduating and being ordained, she was serving in pulpit supply and later became a part-time transitional pastor while working full time at Princeton Seminary.
“I discovered preaching and teaching are my passions,” said Lori, who held several positions at the seminary, including Dean of Student Life. She joined the Board of Pensions in January 2017 from The Association of Theological Schools (ATS), where she was director, accreditation services.
At the Board, Lori is responsible for planning, developing, implementing, and delivering face-to-face and online educational programs for plan members that are rooted in the Board’s Theology of Benefits, which holds that God wishes life abundant for each of us. Her work provides the opportunity to teach, preach occasionally, and use her administrative skills.
Well-Being Retreat was a fledgling Board venture when Lori arrived. She quickly developed it into one of the Board’s most popular programs. 2020 would have been its fifth year.
“There is so much joy for me in planning and leading the retreat and in supporting and caring for our members,” Lori said. “For me, Well-Being Retreat was one of the critical turning points in my understanding of what wholeness education at the Board of Pensions could be,” she said. “At each retreat, we strive to create an experience in which participants will be nourished, especially spiritually.”
Now, COVID-19 has presented another critical turning point, an opportunity to “create offerings and space so that no matter where you are, there are opportunities for you to come to the well and be nourished,” Lori said. “It has invited us to engage in a different understanding of what it means to be the Church and what it means to hold God’s people.”