UCC Local Church Ministries receive $1.25 million to nurture ‘love of children’
The Faith INFO (Education, Innovation and Formation) team of the United Church of Christ is expanding its focus on some of the youngest in the denomination.
A grant of $1.25 million from Lilly Endowment Inc. will help to make this possible.
Carrying on the spirit of the denomination’s Three Great Loves campaign, launched in 2017, Faith INFO is honing in on the “love of children,” said the Rev. Trayce Potter, who serves as the UCC minister of youth and young adult engagement. Her position is shifting to encompass children and youth, with a new emphasis on ages birth through 12.
‘A better world for our kids’
Some of this focus has developed from what Potter describes as “a great need” coming out of the COVID pandemic, where “one of the things we’ve been hearing on the Faith INFO team is that people who’ve been doing children and youth ministry can feel like they’ve been out here by themselves.”
It’s also a way to recognize that faith formation begins much earlier than age 12 — an age that is often considered mature enough for confirmation and baptism. “If Jesus was prepared to teach in the temple at 12, the formation of his faith had to begin in early childhood,” the grant proposal says.
“I believe that the UCC is one of few institutions that really can create a better world for our kids,” Potter said. “So waiting until they’re in sixth grade to start that work, you’ve lost a lot of years. Now we’re saying we are committed to do this work from birth, and I think that sets us apart from a lot of other denominations.
“Not only are we saying it, but we now have the resources to create programs and curriculum, and to really invest in our congregations so that they can do the hands-on work.”
‘Our youngest siblings’
The grant from Lilly Endowment follows an invitation for the UCC to apply for its Nurturing Children Through Worship and Prayer Initiative. The aim of the national initiative is to support faith-based organizations as they help children grow in faith and deepen their relationships with God.
“We are deeply grateful and excited that Lilly Endowment has taken notice of the consistent efforts of the Faith Education, Innovation and Formation team of the National Setting to provide resources and experiences toward the spiritual development of our youngest siblings,” said Associate General Minister of Justice and Local Church Ministries the Rev. Traci Blackmon.
“We look forward to engaging more deeply this work in collaboration with our local churches and communities of praxis.”
The denomination is seeking to create cohorts and spaces for local youth workers to experiment with methodologies and learn together toward building intergenerational church spaces where young children are integral participants. Grant funds will support developing innovative and experiential learning tools and curricula for young children across the spectrum of physical and mental abilities.
Much like churches currently can be designated as WISE for mental health support, Open and Affirming for LGBTQ inclusion or Creation Justice churches, the UCC plans to build resources and networks that would support a designation of child-centered churches.
“The hope is to redesign children’s ministry for the denomination,” Potter said. “We are looking at doing this through a series of webinars, through trainings, through redesigning worship spaces in the local churches. And it would lead to a new designation of churches that would be recognized by the denomination saying that you’ve done the hard work and are fully committed to how young people develop.”
Faith INFO wants to build a picture of how UCC congregations already center children.
So the team has planned a series of surveys for congregations to share how kids are currently engaged in worship, what curriculum and resources are being used, and what is working and what isn’t. An initial round of questions was included with 2023 yearbook reports collected earlier this year.
More ways to gather feedback are planned for the coming months.
Potter encourages congregations to complete surveys as they receive them. These will also help to identify local church leaders for small cohorts and “learning labs” where they can share knowledge and create more intentional worship practices that include and nurture children.
Lilly Endowment launched the Nurturing Children initiative in 2022 as part of its commitment to support efforts that strengthen the religious education and formation of children and enhance the vitality of Christian congregations.
The UCC’s Local Church Ministries is one of 26 organizations taking part in Lilly’s initiative. They represent and serve congregations in a broad spectrum of Christian traditions, including mainline Protestant, evangelical, Catholic, Pentecostal, Black church, Hispanic and Asian traditions. Many organizations also serve churches that describe themselves as nondenominational, ecumenical and multi-denominational.
Lilly Endowment Inc. is a private philanthropic foundation created in 1937 by J.K. Lilly Sr. and his sons Eli and J.K. Jr. through gifts of stock in their pharmaceutical business, Eli Lilly and Company. While those gifts remain the financial bedrock of the Endowment, it is a separate entity from the company, with a distinct governing board, staff and location. In keeping with the founders’ wishes, the Endowment supports the causes of community development, education and religion and maintains a special commitment to its hometown, Indianapolis, and home state, Indiana.
The principal aim of the Endowment’s religion grantmaking is to deepen and enrich the lives of Christians in the United States, primarily by seeking out and supporting efforts that enhance the vitality of congregations and strengthen the pastoral and lay leadership of Christian communities. The Endowment also seeks to improve public understanding of diverse religious traditions by supporting fair and accurate portrayals of the role religion plays in the United States and across the globe.
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