Yale Daily News

The Yale Divinity School announced last week that it received a $1 million grant to establish its new program called “Reimagining Church: New Models for the 21st Century.”

The grant comes from the Lilly Endowment, a national philanthropic organization founded to promote and support religious, educational and charitable purposes. The Lilly Endowment created its Thriving Congregations Initiative in 2019 to help congregations strengthen their own ministries, enable people to deepen their relationships with God and enhance their connections with others. Through the initiative, the Lilly Endowment has given grants ranging from $223,180 to $1 million to a total of 92 organizations, including universities and religious centers. The Divinity School will use its grant to help 40 congregations throughout Connecticut find new approaches to congregational life and community engagement in the 21st century.

“We get a win-win with this,” Director of Professional Formation Alison Cunningham DIV ’84 said. “We get really good work happening in the congregations, but we also help equip our students even further to advance their work in congregations when they leave here.”

As part of the program, Cunningham explained, congregations will participate in guided workshops led by Divinity School faculty and select students to help design new ways to approach ministry. The program will also bring in leaders who already have visions for congregations in the 21st century to help facilitate this work.

Cunningham said the program will focus on 10 congregations in each of the next four years, starting in the immediate New Haven area and expanding to a broader group across the state. The congregations may be of any size or Christian denomination, she added. According to Cunningham, the Divinity School’s selection process for congregations has not been finalized.

Around 10 divinity students in an “advanced internship” group will work to facilitate conversations in the congregations, Cunningham told the News. She said that this group will be composed primarily of students who have strong leadership potential and see themselves working in ministry after they leave the Divinity School.

“It’s not mine to say what the church is going to look like in the 21st century,” Cunningham said. “What our role will be is to engage congregations … and participate with them in rethinking their own vision and mission for this century. We’re not handing them anything. We are facilitating that conversation and partnership with them, with both clergy and lay leaders of the congregations.”

According to Cunningham, the Divinity School is perfectly positioned to help congregations address these issues because of both the school’s broad range of students and its access to world-class libraries and other scholarly resources.

She also said that the school’s long-standing relationships with congregations throughout Connecticut — specifically through an existing internship program for Divinity School students at congregations throughout the state — will be very important for this program.

“It makes sense that we can be a hub for this,” Cunningham said. “But this is really about the congregations, it’s really about how they thrive in the 21st century. We’re there to support them. It’s less about us than it is about them and our ability to help facilitate their process.”

Associate Dean of Ministerial and Social Leadership Bill Goettler told the Yale Divinity News that the Divinity School is “uniquely suited” to participate in the Thriving Congregations Initiative because of the school’s resources, including important networks, exceptional libraries and the capacity to convene religious leaders. He said that these resources provide “leadership for change and growth,” according to the Yale Divinity News.

“This grant will enable the School and 40 churches to think about ways to re-envision the Christian mission in a post-pandemic world,” Divinity School Dean Greg Sterling said, according to Yale Divinity News. “We hope that these efforts will lead to vibrant and growing communities of faith in a society desperate for spiritual answers.”

Communications director for the Lilly Endowment Judith Cebula told the News that the Thriving Congregations Initiative selection process was “competitive.”

She said that the endowment received more than 800 applications and used an “extensive review process” to select the 92 organizations receiving grants. She said these organizations demonstrated exceptionally high levels of commitment to congregations and to supporting their vitality.

“Lilly Endowment is encouraged by Yale Divinity’s School’s commitment to churches in New Haven and across Connecticut,” Cebula wrote to the News. “Through its program, Yale will invite 40 congregations in the state to examine and reimagine their missions and ministries. The congregations will also have opportunities to participate in workshops led by influential leaders from a variety of backgrounds. These workshops will be especially helpful to congregations as they consider new ways to engage and support their neighborhoods and communities.”

Cunningham said that interested congregations may reach out to her office at the Divinity School to be considered for the program.

Julia Brown | julia.k.brown@yale.edu