CHICAGO, IL (September 30, 2015) — Terri Cunliffe decided to drop out of college because she didn’t know what she wanted to do with her life. To help earn rent money, she took a part-time receptionist job at a nursing home in Edina, Minnesota.
Cunliffe began bringing her guitar to work and singing with the residents. She played piano for their worship services, and the residents loved talking with her. About six months in, the administrator pulled her aside and said she needed to return to school to get a degree in nursing home administration.
Last February, Cunliffe was named chief executive officer for Covenant Retirement Communities. And her motivation for working is no longer the money.
“It’s really in my heart,” Cunliffe says. “It’s definitely a calling.”
Cunliffe describes herself as a “dyed in the wool” Covenanter. She grew up attending Crosstown Covenant Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota, went to Covenant camps, and attended CHIC. So it seemed a natural fit when she did her 2,000 internship hours at Covenant Village of Golden Valley in Minneapolis.
On a vacation in Florida she had lunch with her former pastor from Crosstown Covenant, Bill Sandstrom. He introduced her to the vice president at Covenant Village of Florida. A year later, while still in her twenties, she was hired to be the assisted living director.
When Cunliffe married another Minnesotan, whom she met while he was doing mission work in Florida following Hurricane Andrew, they decided to have the wedding in Florida. Their reception was at the retirement community.
“I had my whole family schlep all the way from Minnesota because I couldn’t imagine having my wedding without the 400 people of my extended family there,” she says, adding, “I think my husband’s family kept looking at him and asking, ‘Do you have any idea what you’re getting yourself into? Your reception is in a retirement community!’”
She has held multiple positions at CRC throughout her 27 years there, the most recent being chief operating officer. When she transitioned to her new role in June she requested a service of blessing, which was led by a chaplain from one of the retirement communities.
“That was important to me,” she says. “I wanted to make a public profession of faith that even though I was leading the organization, this is really God’s work. This is God’s business, and we are the leaders of his business.”
The service included a portion in which the staff made a profession to help her live that commitment. “Because I stood in front of the central office team, they now have permission to hold me accountable,” she says. “I believe that’s who we are as a church, that we’re the Covenant church and not just an extension of it.”
“What makes it ministry is how we go about our business,” she says. “It’s about the people first, and the business second. Now you have to have the business or you won’t have anything, but it’s about the people first.”
That has generally been easy for Cunliffe. “I love the people,” she says. “No matter what position I’ve held, my absolute favorite place is being with the people.”
“I’m a big believer that everyone needs seven hugs a day. People will come up to me in the communities and ask, have you had your seven hugs? I say, I’ll never tell you.”
Putting people first also means helping them serve others, Cunliffe says. She is adamant that even people in skilled nursing facilities can continue to serve God.
“I have seen retired pastors do a phone ministry,” she notes. “They can’t get out and about. They can’t get to the hospitals, but they continue their ministry, just in a different way.
“I think that’s one of the cool things about retirement communities,” she adds. “We can help people do what they’ve always done but help them think about different ways to do it. When you’re going through a life change, a physical change, you’re not always at your creative best so being able to help residents explore different ways to exercise their gifts and their passions is one of the benefits of being in a community.”
That is, after all, where they helped Cunliffe discover her passion.