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Gathering First Fruits

Gathering First Fruits


Lilly Summit Calls for Movement for Systemic Change

By James Goodmann, Sim Associate Director
Indianapolis, January 16, 2019

Emphatic was the tone: “Nothing less than a movement is necessary for us to tackle the economic issues that have plagued American Christianity for so long.” This from a man who chose to forego a part of his cancer treatment regimen to utter those words before hundreds of people, as though his life and working legacy depended upon it. In the words of Dr. John Wimmer, a program director in Lilly Endowment’s Religion Division, Lilly Endowment and its partner organizations are on a mission: fomenting a movement to eliminate “a culture of silence and shame” that accompanies those carrying seminary debt into their active ministries. 

This stigma referred to by Dr. Wimmer has become a pervasive silence and a barely-admitted-to syndrome among the leaders of many congregations across North America, even in the safest of spaces. It’s a stigma that follows many ministers into the middle of their careers with obvious impacts on their overall well-being – and with a reciprocal impact on their confidence in leadership and a secure sense of vocation. Congregations, too, are a party to this vicious cycle – in which the indebtedness of their leadership (and thus their own long-term sense of well-being) is a part of the deep background of their life together. This syndrome calls out to the whole church for remedy and for the participation of all facets of church structures and cultures to break this cycle that undermines the well-being and flourishing of the church, as a whole. 

Dr. Wimmer addressed his opening remarks to a roomful of program leaders from seminaries and other church organizations who have been working for five years to replace that stigma with the solidarity and support of denominational leaders and the cooperative efforts of seminaries and other institutions of theological education. His brief comments set a dramatic tone for the opening of Gathering First Fruits: A National Summit on the Economics of Ministry was convened by Lilly Endowment, January 16-18, 2019 in Indianapolis. As someone with more than a decade of experience in partnerships with the Endowment in various institutions, my heart skipped a beat to hear an Endowment spokesman called for an actual movement that had implications not only for the financing of theological education but for the whole of leadership formation across American Christianity. It was a gathering much-anticipated by Lilly Endowment and, by their estimate, the organizations in attendance represented more than 200,000 congregations of various denominational and confessional affiliations across the United States. 

This summit focused on the work of more than 110 projects funded by Lilly Endowment through three initiatives that address the economic challenges facing Christian seminaries, churches, and clergy in the United States. The projects are coordinated by three organizations funded by Lilly Endowment: The Association of Theological Schools (ATS), In Trust Center for Theological Schools and the Center for Congregations. Hosted by the Center for Congregations in Indianapolis, the conference was funded by a Lilly Endowment grant. 

For the first time, the Society for the Increase of the Ministry (SIM) was invited as a representative organization to this larger initiative and recognized for its efforts in raising the diversity and quality of leadership in the Episcopal Church, along with critically addressing the economics of theological education. I was a part of a team of six: three from SIM staff (executive leadership and associates); two from the Board of Directors; and one organizational consultant. The invitation to SIM as an independent agency – not a seminary! - was itself, a significant omen of the atmospheric shift in the focus of this gathering and all that it implied. 

The presumptions of affluence in many denominational cultures, Endowment leaders observed, have created shadows where “reality is banished,” where pastors live in marginal conditions even among their more affluent parishioners, as they struggle over decades to pay their educational debts. For communities of lesser means and with their own struggling economies, the shame is compounded by the parallel struggle of many churches just to keep their doors open. Event speakers, principally Dr. Christopher L. Coble, vice president for religion at Lilly Endowment, celebrated the efforts of the 110 projects in the initiatives. They are working to break the vicious cycle created by seminary debt and working to help church cultures to be rededicated to the health and well-being, financial and vocational, of ministers. But they also called attention to the rapidly shifting landscape of American Christianity – that Christianity and its leaders no longer attract the culture-wide deference that it and they enjoyed as late as a generation ago. “Intangible perks,” Coble argued, like reduced college tuition for pastors’ children, discounts on haircuts, groceries and other preferential treatment, have all dried up leaving pastors and priests dependent upon salary alone to carry them. The current economic status of congregational leaders leaves them in a position much like other wage earners at their level, something unsustainable in the long term – especially given current congregational models of support for ministers. 

What the debt challenge brings most dramatically to life are issues associated with sustainable leadership development across American Christianity. Questions of sustainability for traditional forms of seminary education, as a whole, linger along with the unfortunate legacy of educational debt. Already, a wide swath of curricular experiments, inside and outside of seminary contexts, is underway through ATS and other organizations, that portend significant changes in the ways that formation for ministry is imagined and enacted and paid for. 

With this band of allies and partners along with project leaders and their teams from 67 seminaries and other church entities, Lilly Endowment has positioned itself as a convener and leader in this movement to do nothing less than re-imagine leadership across the church. SIM’s experience over 161 years, both in identifying and funding Episcopal clergy and its late experience in partnership with the School of Theology in Sewanee gives it a practiced and significant share in that movement and its priorities, and in the modeling of equitable and creative solutions. Through the Future of the Faith campaign of Summer 2018 and SIM’s revision of its scholarship program to diversify, racially and culturally, the leadership of the church, the organization is strongly positioned to be an advocate for an emerging generation of leaders and for purposeful renewal of economic structures of theological education. 

At the Indianapolis event, there was also corresponding input from Dr. Matt Bloom of the Well Being at Work/Flourishing in Ministry projects at the University of Notre Dame, and from leaders across the church where debt management for clergy in their dioceses and judicatories had become a priority. Input from leaders of color, among whom debt impact is even more dramatic, further underscored a problem that is no longer the province of disadvantaged communities, only but is a common and growing one. The experiences of these latter communities call further attention to the relatively privileged position enjoyed by white and male pursuers of their respective vocations above women and candidates of color. 

The partnership between the School of Theology at the University of the South and the Society for the Increase of the Ministry (SIM) was among the celebrated initiatives, and SIM Project leaders and their team eagerly looked forward to this meeting in Indianapolis. Characterized by Courtney Cowart and Tom Moore (current and previous Executive Directors of SIM) as a unique “systemic answer to a systemic problem,” this partnership has been at work for more than five years to address the rising cost of theological education across the Episcopal Church and the incumbent burden on new church leaders precisely as they begin their ministries. The systemic answer that spurred this partnership lies, in part, with creating a centralized fund for theological education across the denomination and educating the church about the qualities of leadership that current times demand. But in addition to economic re-structuring around funding the education of leaders, this same project has also developed partnerships with four Episcopal dioceses for reimagining mission and for the notice and nurture of potential leaders through a unique contemplative, conversational and design process, Living in the Green. 

The early success of Future of the Faith campaign, an outgrowth of an earlier smaller campaign by SIM (“It Matters Who Leads”) coupled with a revision of SIM’s scholarships to diversify the leadership of the church, has drawn the notice of significant numbers of people within the Episcopal church. Particularly in the case of the renewed character of scholarships, they are gaining the attention of the church at large, especially those serving as ethnic missioners and others committed to ministries of social justice and reconciliation and to enhancing the cultural diversity of the church’s mission.

Because the mainstay of project leadership had moved from Sewanee to SIM in 2017 and 2018 and is now located at a significant conversational crossroads at the Episcopal Church Center in New York, even greater attention is being paid to this initiative and its activities, particularly at the 79th General Convention and in the seasons beyond. 

The Lilly Endowment-convened summit was significant, not just for the shared learnings across seminaries and theological schools in North America, but mainly for what Lilly Endowment has learned through these partnerships dedicated to restructuring the economics of theological education. Pointing to the diverse work of these initiatives, Dr. Coble said that their coverage of the pathways to ministry, from seminarians to curacies, and their creation of communities of “mutual living and learning,” portends something for the larger church – namely that churches, as a whole, “get off the couch and live and think beyond spiritual self-maintenance,” that they become their truest selves in identifying with their mission of sharing abundant life, not least by reimagining the “economics of ministry” and the life of the local manifestations of the church “that we call parishes.” 

One of the leading questions to this gathering was, “What if your programs worked?” or what if their lives were extended toward reaching the solution that inspired your original vision? For SIM, the implied question in Dr. Coble’s query about the nature of success is whether, beyond solving the financial puzzle around funding theological education, the broader context of leadership development is sufficiently re-imagined – to accommodate not just a changing church and culture but the imagination and initiative of those who aspire to leadership in the church right now. 

“Nothing less than a movement is necessary for us to tackle the economic issues that have plagued American Christianity for so long.”
– John Wimmer, Lilly Endowment 

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