Mountain Desert District In Care Pilot Program

Denver/Boulder Cluster

The Mountain Desert District in care program has been in existence the longest and is the most developed and complex of the in care pilot programs. It supports Unitarian Universalist seminarians at Iliff School of Theology, a Methodist seminary in Denver, and Buddhist Naropa University in Boulder. It began in 2000 when Unitarian Universalist Rev. Joan Van Becelaere was on staff at Iliff and provided institutional support for Unitarian Universalist theological students.

An Idea Took Root

In the early years (2000-2006), what started as an excellent idea to meet a perceived need took shape and became a program. Iliff professors became aware of and open to Unitarian Universalist students and their varying theologies. Conversations with Iliff staff ensured that the Unitarian Universalist full-time internship was acceptable for credit. A course on Unitarian Universalist History alternated annually with one on Unitarian Universalist Polity. Students led worship once per year in the seminary chapel. Rev. Van Becelaere coached students on financial aid options offered by Iliff and the Unitarian Universalist Association.

Area Ministers Joined The Effort

Over time, Rev. Van Becelaere worked with ministers in the area to gain their support of seminarians.

  • Ministers became guest speakers at brown bag lunches held on the Iliff campus.
  • Clergy invited students in aspirant status to the local Unitarian Universalist Minister Association (UUMA) chapter meetings as long as the aspirants read and “signed” the UUMA Guidelines, including its Covenant and Code of Conduct.
  • Ministers invited students to process at ordinations and installations and accompany them to memorial services, weddings and General Assembly.
  • Students who had completed a homiletics course were invited to preach at Unitarian Universalist churches that did not have ministers.
  • Rev. Van Becelaere taught students to lead Board Retreats, and Denver congregations invited students to do so occasionally.
  • Ministers offered mock interviews to students preparing to see the RSCC and MFC.

The Project Sought And Received Funding

As the program took shape, it required funding. The Mountain Desert District paid Rev. Van Becelaere for some of the workshops she led, and it paid UUMA rates and mileage for outside speakers. Iliff submitted an application to the St. Lawrence Foundation to fund a liaison to Unitarian Universalist Students position. The grant was awarded, and Rev. Jann Halloran filled that role.

A Planning Team Expanded And Structured The Program

Over the next few years, leaders of the program emerged and formed a planning team: District Executive Rev. Nancy Bowen, Rev. Kirk Loadman Copeland and Rev. Tracey Wilkinson. They worked to expand, evaluate, revise, and create workable structures for the program.

Expanded Involvement And Strengthened Structures Year By Year



  • The Rev. Halloran invited ministers in the Denver/Boulder Cluster to become vocational advisors to students. She trained ministers and matched them with students.
  • The planning team hosted a gathering at the beginning of the school year where students and vocational advisors met and were given an overview of the program.
  • There were more ministers involved in the program than students, so clergy who were not matched were invited to be guest presenters at monthly lunches at Iliff.

Student-Led Worship

Students led worship at Iliff for the entire student body.

Seminary Courses for UUs

Rev. Bowen and Rev. Loadman-Copeland worked with Iliff to begin the process of adding two courses: Unitarian Universalist Religious Education and Unitarian Universalist Theology.

Cluster and District Support

  • The Denver/Boulder Cluster adopted the program allowing for seamless integration with the district and cluster calendars and events.
  • The program was named Living into Covenant.
  • The Mountain Desert District applied for and received a planning grant from the UUA Panel of Theological Education.



  • Students were surveyed to determine their needs and interests.
  • The Mountain Desert District applied for a grant from the UUA Panel of Theological Education and received funding for a Project Facilitator and stipends for faculty to teach three Unitarian Universalist identity courses at Iliff.
  • Rev. Wilkinson became the Project Facilitator.
  • The original planning team became a Steering Committee.
  • An electronic portfolio was developed. It is a PDF document which students can use to collect and maintain the documents and data they use for the fellowshipping process, resume writing, and their ministerial record.
  • The Steering Committee expanded in numbers and the focus so that the program could include lay leadership development and support of religious educators in the credentialing process. That allowed people from both of those groups access to what ministerial students were learning, and helping them discern if they wanted to enter the path to ministry.


Spiritual Direction

A local minister led a spiritual direction group for Iliff students.Two ministers offered individual spiritual direction to students at reduced rates.

Students Initiatives

  • Seminarians organized social events and visits to congregations.
  • A Google Group was started for better communication.
  • Interns began meeting together for mutual support.

Programs/Lay Involvement

  • The Steering Committee organized and delivered workshops on discernment and Emotional Intelligence for lay leaders and students.
  • The Steering Committee arranged Quaker-style Clearness Committees for students, lay people and ministers.

Organization and Communication

  • UUA staff met with in care teams from Denver, Metro New York and Minneapolis.
  • A workshop was held at General Assembly about in care programs.



The Steering Committee developed and delivered a workshop named “Nuts and Bolts: Getting to Preliminary Fellowship” which maps the Unitarian Universalist ministerial credentialing process to the educational requirements.

Encouraging Congregations Described

The Steering Committee recognized the important role of the home congregation for those who feel called to ministry. They identified characteristics that are common to those congregations who successfully nurture future religious leaders. They developed a description of these “encouraging congregations”:

  • Cultivates a continuum from lay to ministerial development
  • Offers a robust program to train lay leaders
  • Invites members to consider a vocation in religious leadership
  • Assists with vocational discernment
  • Supports theological students in their home congregation with leadership opportunities
  • Offers quality ministerial internship programs

Student Initiative/Communication

Several students organized a “road show” that they took to congregations about the in care program. It included worship, a description of “Encouraging Congregations” and conversation about how much students value congregational support.



The steering group formalized its structure, added members, and began meeting monthly to deepen and broaden program development.


The Steering Committee conducted an intensive evaluation of the program as required by the UUA’s Panel on Theological Education. It included a participant survey and independent consultant interpretation of results

Discernment Meetings

A member of the Steering Committee began offering one on one discernment meetings to students who were considering seminary.

Naropa University

Several students enrolled at Naropa University. They were matched with Vocational Advisors and included in all Living into Covenant programs.


Program Offering/Lay Involvement

  • A discernment program was facilitated by Catherine Kelsey, who is on the faculty at the Iliff School of Theology. Approximately 22 lay people attended because of their interest in exploring the possibility of becoming a minister or working in some other capacity in a UU congregation.
  • Interns and their supervisors met as a group on a regular basis to share learnings

Student Initiative/Communication

  • Students organized a program they call “Infusions.” They visit a different church each month to participate in worship, meet with the minister afterward, and then meet together to discuss pressing issues they face on their journey.


  • Funding from a grant was received.

Communication/Lessons Learned

At a national gathering of in care program leaders, the Steering Committee presented the results of the program assessment. Lessons learned were documented:

  1. Every year is different: the students are different, their needs are different, their levels of discernment are different. So, in some ways, program leaders begin anew each year to see what the students need and want, how they want to create community, how they want to be part of the program.
  2. Living into Covenant is good at helping student/minister leaders to emerge and gives them a way to participate and get to know the larger community. Not all seminarians become leaders, but there are many paths for those who want to do and learn more.
  3. At least half of the students change advisors at about two years. Sometimes the relationship hasn’t worked well. Sometimes a student wants to work with an advisor with different skills or a different context: a more “challenging” advisor, a more pastoral advisor, a small church or large church minister; a chaplain or community minister; a minister with a strong justice portfolio.
  4. For ministers and churches, the program can be a win-win. Congregations get to know potential interns. Seminarians are better able to find and develop internships tailored to their learning needs.
  5. The program has facilitated stronger interpersonal relationships among ministers who now more freely exchange information, share problems and concerns, and help one another.
  6. The interns in the metro area get to know one another and create their own group each year. If people discern partway through the preparation or credentialing process that ministry is not the right path for them, they are supported by the program.
  7. If individuals encounter difficulties in the credentialing process and yet feel called to ministry, the Steering Committee and Professional Advisors support them and guide them to develop a plan for their success.


  • A grant was received to further the work.
  • The design of the program was expanded to include distance learners.


Organization and Communication/Lay Involvement

  • A lay leader was added to the Steering Committee and Rev. Kelly Dignan became Project Facilitator.
  • The Steering Committee expanded to nine members, and for better organization and communication, each member assumed one or more portfolios. Portfolios include:

    • Project Facilitator
    • Student Advisor/Liaison with Iliff
    • Liaison with Naropa
    • UUA Assessment Preparation (MFC, RE Credentialing)
    • Discernment
    • Nuts and Bolts (Details of the Unitarian Universalist ministerial credentialing process)
    • Communication
    • Liaison with Religious Educators
    • Liaison with ministers in Preliminary Fellowship
    • Liaison with lay leaders and Encouraging Congregations
    • Outreach/Liaison with the UUA
  • The Steering Committee implemented other processes to institutionalize the program and ensure its sustainability. Those included:

    • All action items are completed and reported via email rather during monthly meetings
    • Each meeting has 45 minutes dedicated to a strategic discussion led by one or two committee members
    • Term limits were implemented for Steering Committee membership
    • Discussion tools were used at each meeting (method similar to a talking stick)
    • A tool was implemented to expedite decision making
    • Financial statements were reviewed monthly

Program Offering/Lay Involvement

  • A day-long leadership development workshop was offered to students, ministers and lay leaders. There were 103 attendees including six students from 13 congregations