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Organizations provide resources for clergy, parishes

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To help clergy and congregations with ongoing challenges, many granting organizations provide access to workshops, classes, projects, funds and more.

Parish ministry can really wear you down. Just ask Anna Olson, the rector of a struggling Episcopal church about 70 miles north of Fresno, Calif.

It’s often a life lived in the weeds, struggling to keep congregations spiritually and financially vibrant while fending off the feelings of isolation and exhaustion that come with pastoral leadership, she said.

“It’s easier in parish ministry to think your problems are yours alone – and that they are all your fault,” said Olson, the rector at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Mariposa, Calif.

But fortunately for Olson – and for thousands of other ministers and congregations in the U.S. and Canada – there are many resources to address the daunting array of challenges facing clergy and parishes.

Intense, around-the-clock demands

Many of those solutions are made possible by granting organizations like the Religion Division of Lilly Endowment, Inc. Through endowments, foundations, seminaries and other agencies, the Endowment supports clergy and worship renewal programs, funds for academic fellowships, clergy book-writing projects and more.

The modern realities of ministry necessitate that ministers more intentionally embrace practices that rejuvenate their callings and ministries, said Robert Saler, executive director of the Center for Pastoral Excellence at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, one such Endowment funded program.

“The pastors I talk to are aware that church exists in a very different culture than it did a generation ago,” he said.

Those differences include a broad skepticism about organized religion that denies the pastorate the cultural capital it once enjoyed. The rapid rise of the internet and social media means ministers are never really fully at rest or out of the public eye.

“I think all of these factors speak to the 24-hour demand ministry makes on pastors,” he said.

Lilly Endowment clergy renewal programs offered through the seminary targets precisely that stressful trend, Saler said.

The programs seek to help congregations by providing pastors brief periods of renewal, reflection and inspiration. The center grants $7.5 million to about 150 congregations annually, Saler said.

The program is not about bringing clergy back from the brink of burnout, but helping them reconnect with the passion that brought them into ministry. Those respites, usually three to four months long, also help them nurture family ties and other important relationships, he said.

The program does not require ministers to produce a book or other project, Saler added.

The clergy renewal programs also emphasize the role of the parish in the grant process, Saler said. Many congregations go on to build in clergy renewal periods because they see how it benefits the entire church. They also see pastors can’t get away for rejuvenation without parish support.

“Even in healthy situations functioning well, the daily demands of ministry are intense enough -- and around-the-clock enough -- that it can be very beneficial for pastors to step away.”

Thinking deeply, theologically and biblically

Resources also are available when it’s an entire congregation that needs to step back for reflection and renewal, said Kathy Smith, the associate director and program manager for grants programs with the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, located in Grand Rapids, Mich.

An example is the Vital Worship Grants Program the institute administers on behalf of Lilly Endowment.

The program’s goal is to enable congregations and other worshiping communities to engage in a process of study, introspection and collaboration to vitalize worship.

Vital worship, Smith said, connects intergenerational faith formation with facets organic to congregations, such as intercessory prayer, visual arts and the Lord’s Supper.

“Our hope is that we would help people to think deeply and theologically and biblically about worship and then think carefully about what forms and styles and elements of worship are fitting for their own contexts,” she said.

Currently the institute awards about 30 worship grants a year, with amounts ranging from $5,000 to $15,000.

Recipients use the funds to spend a year to explore ways to transform worship with multigenerational participation, she said.

And Smith emphasized that the grants are available for new church plants and established churches in North America. Congregations can be of any size and may include non-church worshiping communities, such as nursing homes.

“Our constituency is broad: Protestant and Catholic and a wide variety of worship practices.”

Congregations that have participated in the process report not only vitalized worship, but vitalized discipleship as a result.

“We think worship is a practice that deeply forms our faith.”

‘Fruitful and life-giving’

Olson has developed an abiding faith in the role Lilly Endowment-funded programs can form and revitalize discipleship.

She has found renewed inspiration through two grants from the Louisville Institute, a foundation founded by the Endowment and housed at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Kentucky.

The first Pastoral Study Project grant she received culminated in the 2016 book titled Claiming Resurrection in the Dying Church: Freedom Beyond Survival.

She is using her current Pastoral Study Grant for a project titled “Resourcing the Scrappy Church.” She has used the grant to create a study group of lay and clergy leaders to examine how under-resourced parishes can still offer vibrant ministries.

“How do you make an impact from the margins when you don’t have everything you need to be a success – especially when Jesus was not that hot on being a success,” Olson said.

The grant-funded projects have an added benefit for Olson: burnout avoidance.

“It’s been tremendously fruitful and just life giving to participate in these projects,” Olson said. “It’s helped me remember I am not alone in this.”




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