Three UCC organizations receive $3 million total in Thriving Congregations grants

Lilly Endowment Inc. announced the 2023 grantees of its Thriving Congregations Initiative, and three different United Church of Christ organizations were among the recipients.

The Illinois Conference and the Church Building and Loan Fund (CB&LF) each received $1.25 million grants. In addition, Lilly Endowment awarded a $500,000 grant to the Damascus Project — a shared theological education ministry of the Minnesota and Wisconsin Conferences.

Thriving Congregations helps faith organizations develop and enhance programs that directly aid congregations in strengthening their ministries.

“We are excited about the possibilities this grant will allow us to explore,” Illinois Conference Minister the Rev. Molly Carlson said in a press release. “We know that we share Lilly Endowment’s commitment to the importance of the local church and look forward to this new way to partner for a better world.”

“I couldn’t be more excited about this extraordinary grant,” said the Rev. Shari Prestemon, Minnesota Conference Minister. “I’ve always believed the Damascus Project is key to equipping a healthy and vibrant future for congregations and individual members in our two Conferences, and this grant offers an amazing opportunity to realize its full potential. It’s incredible news.”

Supporting transition in Illinois

The Illinois Conference will use its funds to help congregations maintain their vitality during pastoral transitions.

“We observed that, post-COVID, there has been a notable shortage of clergy looking for a new call, with the ‘Great Resignation’ being a notable piece of that,” Carlson said, adding that this has been a point of discussion at recent Council of Conference Ministers meetings. “As there is also a shortage of interim ministers, especially for small, part-time and rural congregations, it is nearly to a crisis point. Interim time is stressful for congregations anyhow — and these additional layers really up the anxiety.”

She estimated that about 30% of the Illinois Conference churches are “in transition,” that is, somewhere between the announcement of a pastor’s departure to the installation of new settled pastor. “I think that is fairly consistent across the UCC,” she added.

The Thriving Congregations grant will help expand the support the Conference has already been providing to these congregations and allow for added programs, such as retreat and learning opportunities for church leadership during transitions.

“We attempted in this grant to enhance the services we already do — with a staff stretched too thin to do nearly as much as we could do a decade ago — by adding staff and partnering with area agencies to help,” Carlson said. 

She noted that getting a new program like this rolling is a huge undertaking; but, as she said, “The need is great.”

Online learning network

Up north, other needs are being fulfilled through a unique inter-conference partnership.

The Damascus Project is an educational ministry that’s utilized by both Minnesota and Wisconsin settings. But leaders are hoping this grant will help expand its network even further.

The Rev. Stephanie Perdew, director of the Damascus Project and author of the proposal, says that the grant will support two of the project’s main objectives:

  • Teaching laity and clergy to collaborate in UCC polity through shared leadership and governance;
  • Nurturing the vitality and drawing upon the wisdom of small and rural churches for the benefit of the wider church.

“I suggested applying for a Thriving Congregations grant to allow us to attend to those two objectives,” Perdew said. “Our proposal aims to create a set of Thriving Congregations courses for clergy and laity to learn together about the aspects of how to best live out our polity via healthy communication, shared leadership, missional assessment and good governance.”

She noted that the project also will create an online confirmation program to support small and rural churches, which may not have many confirmands in a given year.

“The grant supports course design, curriculum review and beta testing, instructor stipends, needed technology upgrades, and will allow us to keep course registration costs modest,” Perdew said. While congregations in the project’s home conferences will have priority, “we do envision opening the offerings to those across the UCC,” she added.

These will be available through the online Damascus Project Network, which serves as both a learning and social media space.

“We will be happily busy in 2024 as we create new courses, and invite laity, clergy and young people to learn with us toward the thriving of their congregations and our witness in the world,” said Perdew.

Transformative ministries

Meanwhile, CB&LF will use its $1.25 million to establish a new project called Transform Church-Transform Community 2.0 (TC2).

Under CB&LF’s guidance, the project will convene 50 congregations from marginalized communities to identify ways to align theology and mission in a post-pandemic society.

“Contrary to the prevailing narrative of decline, there has always been a remnant of congregations and church leaders who see glimpses of God’s new thing,” said Executive Director the Rev. Patrick G. Duggan in CB&LF’s press release. “Our hope and expectation is that TC2 will turn those glimpses into full-blown visions that ultimately lead to a new generation of transformative ministries that will engage and uplift the communities they serve.”

For the full list of 2023 grantees, visit Lilly Endowment’s Thriving Congregations Initiative page here.


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