United Church of Christ

Trees, dance and a neon sign among UCC grant recipients' creative plans

The spirituality of dance, a 500-mile walk and a neon sign are on the list of creative plans being made by United Church of Christ pastors and congregations that have received grants in the 2019 Lilly Endowment National Clergy Renewal Program.

The Rev. Juliana Holm, Lilly grant recipientEighteen UCC churches are among 150 congregations of various denominations that received funding this year. The grants are announced each fall by Christian Theological Seminary, which manages the program for Indianapolis-based Lilly. A list of the UCC churches and more on the grant program can be found here.

Pastors preparing for their grant-funded sabbaticals frequently mention travel, the arts, meditation, learning and time with family as priorities. In many cases, their congregations, co-recipients of the grants, will take on growth opportunities that closely parallel those activities.

Here are some of the creative ways this year's UCC recipients plan to use the grants.

Time in trees

In Denver, "Spending Time in Trees" will be the theme for Lead Pastor Christopher Gilmore and Sixth Avenue UCC, which received about $23,000. A prayer tree and tree banners in the sanctuary will mark the start of Gilmore's sabbatical on Arbor Day, April 24. His travels will range from rhododendron forests in Nepal, to orchards Ireland and Palestine, to tree sites in southern Africa and Colorado. In his absence, a worship organizer and preachers (17 ordained ministers belong to the church) will lead worship centered on tree-related scriptures. A book study at a botanical garden, a biweekly devotional on trees and the planting of a tree upon Gilmore’s return are also part of the plan.

Backpacking the Jesus trail

In rural Pennsylvania, Pastor Juliana Holm (pictured above) and Brush Valley Fusion of Faith (also known as Rebersburg Charge) will use their grant of $18,054 to build on their recent years of focus on Bible narratives. She will visit ancient and Reformation church sites; the congregation will follow her progress in study. "I'll backpack on the Jesus trail from Nazareth to Capernaum," she said. She'll trace the apostle Paul's steps in Greece, volunteer in Germany and spend retreat and reflection time in Italy and Scotland, among other May-to-August sabbatical activities. Back home, study and worship will feature texts linked to Holm's travels, while a book group studies Ruth Everhart's "Chasing the Divine in the Holy Land."

Dancing sabbatical

The Rev. Steven Price, Snow MiserIn Rochester, N.Y., Pastor Steven Price and Community Christian Church will have a "Dancing Sabbatical," April to July, thanks to a $49,095 grant. Dance is sometimes part of their worship and fellowship, and Price belongs to a gay men's dance troupe, The Rochettes (he's pictured with them at right, in sunglasses). Now he and the church will have "an opportunity to go further," he said. He'll study paintings of dancing saints at a San Francisco church, audit a course on the spirituality of movement and dance, "explore the rhythm of monastic life in Scotland, and take dance classes where people with and without disabilities learn together." The church's music-and-dance journey will include inviting the community to drum lessons and a prom with a special invitation to people with disabilities.

Who are our ancestors?

In Wisconsin, Community Church of Fontana, almost 130 years old, has never celebrated an anniversary. Soon it will, based on a July-to-October focus on "exploring roots, engaging in reflection and building energy for renewal," said Pastor Ruth Costello. In addition to a sabbatical pastor, their $25,913 grant will fund activities in which she and the church will ask, "Who are my/our ancestors? What is the impact of my/our heritage on our/my faith? How can that understanding be a gift to our church and the surrounding community?" In travel and contemplation overseas and in the U.S., Costello will explore her own spiritual lineages, which range from Irish Christian to Native American. Members will also study their family trees.

Beauty creates wonder

In Connecticut, Pastor Tim Hare of Trumbull Congregational Church said "beauty and its capacity to create wonder" will be the June-to-September theme. His travels with family will include pilgrimages "to special places of natural and created beauty around the world." A churchwide workshop and books for a congregational read will be among the ways Trumbull's $45,000 grant will be used. A local professor will give a series of lectures, "God's Strange, Beautiful Universe: A Mathematician's Perspective on Beauty in the Worlds of Nature and Thought." These, Hare said, "will launch a time of sharing 'beautiful recommendations' for the congregation to experience throughout the summer: hikes, exhibits, books, etc."

Striving to be 'unbusy'

In Illinois, "I cherish the wisdom of Eugene Peterson's essay, 'The Unbusy Pastor' – yet I am anything but unbusy," said Associate Minister Katherine Willis Pershey of First Congregational Church of Western Springs. "I will undertake a joyous and restorative sabbatical centered on some of the critical activities Peterson prescribes: prayer, including yoga, which is one of my central spiritual practices; reading, including several Peterson books; leisure, including travel; and solitude" – many of these with family. A favorite preacher and writer of Pershey's will preside over an April sabbatical send-off. Members will receive devotional books "centered on prayer practices to deepen their own spiritual lives during my sabbatical time," she said.

Meals, hospitality, community

In Florida, Good Samaritan Church of Pinellas Park and Pastor Jen Daysa, recipients of $48,809, plan "parallel experiences that will expand and deepen [our] understanding of how to build beloved community," she said. Meals and table rituals will be a way for the church to learn to build community and reflect on its role in the early church. The spring-summer season will include interaction with diverse people via guest preachers, meals hosted by immigrant-owned restaurants, and a series of dinner parties with people from the community. Daysa said she will travel with her family, "visiting sites of ancient dinner churches around the Mediterranean" and learning historic and current practices of hospitality and community.

Walking 500 miles

In Massachusetts, while Pastor Angela Wells-Bean takes a famous pilgrimage on her June-to-August sabbatical, members of UCC, Congregational, of Burlington will engage in spiritual enrichment programs and "have opportunities to deepen their own relationships with God," she said. "My husband and I are going to walk the Camino de Santiago with our son, who will be 1 year old. There are many pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela, the city in Spain where the pilgrimage ends. We will be walking the French Route, which begins in southern France and goes over the Pyrenees Mountains. It's about a 500-mile walk. We plan to be gone for about 45 nights."

Neon sign, steampunk worship

Also in Massachusetts, members of First Congregational Church in Billerica will be led by a guest pastor and a team of church members in focusing on creativity and a study of "who we are and whose we are," September to November. Pastor Katherine Adams will pursue three goals: connecting with family, ancient faith and her own creativity. She said goals 1 and 2 will include European travel with her husband. She especially looks forward to a Roman catacomb and its painting of Priscilla "raising her body in worship of God – it is spiritually very meaningful." For Goal 3, "I am going to apprentice as a neon sign maker. Since I've been 3, I've always wanted to make neon signs." Hers will be a 6-foot-tall cross with three flashing arrows that she'll "work into a steampunk worship service when I get back."

Churches and pastors interested in applying for National Clergy Renewal Program grants can do so at this web page.

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