Dioceses recruit congregations to form ‘learning communities’ in Lilly-funded revitalization initiative

By David Paulsen
Posted Jun 30, 2021

[Episcopal News Service] Three Episcopal dioceses and an Episcopal seminary were among the recipients last year of $1 million Lilly Endowment grants supporting innovative approaches to revitalizing congregations. As part of Lilly’s Thriving Congregations Initiative, they committed to helping congregations “deepen their relationships with God, build strong relationships with each other and contribute to the flourishing of local communities and the world.”

Now, after months of planning and preparation, the Episcopal recipients are launching their programs with diverse cohorts of congregations from across The Episcopal Church. Each program’s “learning communities,” as Lilly labels them, are intended to foster experimentation and collaboration between the congregations as they look to the church’s future.

“We’re at a moment when I think there’s an urgency to embrace change,” the Rev. Jenifer Gamber, director of the Diocese of Washington’s program, told Episcopal News Service. “The Episcopal Church has many treasures. We have a gift to bring the world. … All of this is to exercise our capacity to share that gift and also to discern what is truly a treasure and what needs to be left behind.”

The Lilly Endowment primarily supports the causes of community development, education and religion. It awarded 92 grants totaling $93 million in September 2020 to a broad range of Christian organizations through its Thriving Congregations Initiative. Each participating Episcopal program received $1 million for work spanning three to five years.

  • The Washington program, called Tending Our Soil, will work with 36 of the diocese’s congregations divided into three successive cohorts. Diocesan coaches will help the congregations learn about their communities, discern their missions and develop new ministries.
  • Similar to Tending Our Soil, the Diocese of New York’s Episcopal Futures is recruiting an initial cohort of 20 congregations that will discern how to become “vital, viable and vibrant,” with an emphasis on developing lay leadership. Two additional cohorts are planned.
  • The Diocese of Indianapolis received one of the Lilly grants for a joint project with the Diocese of Northern Indiana that seeks to maximize community uses of church buildings at all 82 of the dioceses’ congregations.
  • The Iona Collaborative, an ongoing program of the Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas, is using its Lilly grant to launch a new project focused on missional discernment among what it calls “bi-vocational congregations” – congregations without full-time, permanent clergy. The first cohort of 15 includes congregations from across the United States.

The Rev. Nandra Perry, director of the Iona Collaborative, held a kickoff meeting on Zoom with leaders from eight of the participating congregations on June 19. “I felt incredibly encouraged about the future of the church after this first meeting,” Perry told ENS. Most interaction will happen online because of the congregations’ geographic range, from Wyoming to Pennsylvania, though an in-person gathering is scheduled for April 2022.

With the grant from Lilly Endowment, the Iona Collaborative is able to add staff members and contract labor to expand its administrative capacity and accommodate the needs of all participating congregations as they develop plans for future growth.

Perry called it an exciting privilege to be part of Lilly’s Thriving Congregations Initiative. “This is hugely important work, thinking seriously and also really systematically about what helps congregations thrive,” she said. “And I think that word ‘thrive’ is really important: What does that mean, what does it look like, how do you measure it?”

The Lilly initiative comes as many mainline Christian denominations continue to struggle with a decades-long decline in church attendance and membership. In March, Gallup released poll results showing that, for the first time, religious membership had dropped to fewer than half of all adults in the United States. In The Episcopal Church, baptized members totaled 1.8 million in 2019, down 17% in 10 years, according to the church’s most recent parochial report data.

But the coordinators of the Episcopal programs that are participating in the Lilly initiative told ENS that they see new opportunities for missional growth and experimentation in this moment despite the downward membership trends. The COVID-19 pandemic “kind of broke church as we knew it,” Perry said, and participating congregations “seem to me readier than they would have been had COVID not happened.”

The goal of Tending Our Soil in Washington will be to teach skills for “adaptive change,” said Gamber, who is planning an official launch in September for the program’s first cohort of congregations.

In recent years, the diocese had produced a strategic plan that identified church revitalization as a key goal, said Gamber, who joined the diocesan staff in July 2020 as director of Washington’s School for Christian Faith and Leadership. Lilly’s Thriving Congregations Initiative seemed to align with those diocesan goals, Gamber said.

On June 24, the diocese announced the 12 congregations participating in the first round of Tending Our Soil. They come from all regions of the diocese and represent a wide array of ethnicities, theological backgrounds and historical roots, Gamber said. They will be divided into four groups. Each group of three congregations will be assigned a coach, and will spend the first year “listening for what God is up to” in the congregations and their communities, Gamber said.

After hearing God’s call to mission, the congregations will spend much of their second year developing plans to heed that call, by identifying ministry priorities, commissioning leaders, further engaging with neighbors and experimenting with new ministries. And at each step, they will share what they’ve learned with the other congregations in their group.

The Diocese of New York also is building on a recent strategic plan, finalized in 2017, as it pursues church revitalization through Episcopal Futures. The program’s managing director, Abby Nathanson, is recruiting a diverse mix of congregations from across the diocese to participate in the Learning Communities funded by Lilly. She estimates the grant would allow her team to accommodate up to a third of the diocese’s nearly 190 congregations in three rounds over five years.

The first 20 or so congregations will get started in February 2022. The diocese isn’t setting preliminary expectations for their discernment, Nathanson told ENS.

“Churches are entering the Learning Communities program with a huge range of perspectives and goals,” she said. “Some people are coming in, and they’re like, ‘We have no clue what we want to do, we have no clue what we need to do next, but we know that what we have been doing so far isn’t sustainable.’” Other congregations come to the program with new ministries in mind and want help discerning how to successfully bring them to life, she said.

Episcopal Futures also plans to use part of its Lilly grant to prioritize accessibility, Nathanson said. Program materials will be translated into multiple languages, and low-income congregations and parishioners can request financial aid, such as childcare reimbursement, to make it easier for them to participate. After the 18-month discernment process, congregations will be eligible for seed money to help launch their new ministries.

In Indiana, the dioceses of Indianapolis and Northern Indiana have partnered with the nonprofit organizations Partners for Sacred Places and Indiana Landmarks to rethink how church buildings can become greater community resources.

With the Lilly grant, Indianapolis is working with Northern Indiana on four cohorts of congregations to go through the program over three years. The first group of 17 congregations participated in an orientation session in early June, and a mix of virtual and in-person trainings are planned for the fall.

“We’re really trying to help our congregations get to know their communities really well,” Brendan O’Sullivan-Hale told ENS. He serves as Indianapolis’ canon to the ordinary for administration and evangelism and is one of the program’s leaders. “Very often our congregations don’t look very much like their neighborhoods,” he said, citing examples of predominantly white churches located among mostly Black and Latino communities. “We’re asking those churches to probe why that is the case.”

In the process, those congregations will be encouraged to consider “the concept of congregational space being civic space,” he said. After learning more about their neighbors, church members might find opportunities to offer parish buildings as gathering spaces for local organizations and events, especially those that are consistent with the church’s mission. For churches that are struggling financially, renting out their space for community functions also may help them achieve sustainability.

“All mainline denominations have this challenge,” O’Sullivan-Hale said – many Christian congregations are attached to beautiful old structures that are no longer fully utilized, even on Sunday morning. By taking a physical inventory of the two dioceses’ congregations, he said, this initiative “is intended to be a demonstration project,” which eventually could be replicated by other dioceses and churches.

– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.