Southwest Receives Lilly Endowment Grant for New Thriving Bi-Vocational Congregations Program


Initiative provides resources to help smaller Episcopal congregations embody bi-vocational ministry, grow in spiritual maturity, and transform relationships within their wider community

Austin, TX — October 9, 2020 — Seminary of the Southwest (Southwest) has received a grant of $1 Million from Lilly Endowment Inc. to help establish Thriving Bi-Vocational Congregations: Envisioning New Life in a Changing World [TBVC].

Funded through Lilly Endowment’s Thriving Congregations Initiative, the aim of the national initiative is to strengthen Christian congregations so they can help people deepen their relationships with God, build strong relationships with each other and contribute to the flourishing of local communities and the world. 

Lilly Endowment is making nearly $93 million in grants through the initiative. The grants will  support organizations as they work directly with congregations and help them gain clarity about  their values and missions, explore and understand better the communities in which they  serve, and draw upon their theological traditions as they adapt ministries to meet changing needs.

Directed by the Iona Collaborative, a program of Seminary of the Southwest, the TBVC project focuses on the transformation and revitalization of Episcopal congregations led by bi-vocational and part-time clergy or lay leaders. According to the seminary grant’s Project Director, the Rev. Nandra Perry, Ph.D., “Statistical data highlights that over 35% of Episcopal congregations are served by supply, bi-vocational or part-time clergy. Through the seminary’s ongoing commitments to bi-vocational ministry and from our conversations with bishops, canons and other leaders in the Iona Collaborative, we recognize an urgent need to better support these smaller churches. Over the course of three years, leaders from 22 congregations will participate in online peer learning communities. They will work together to envision new models of congregational vitality and community engagement responsive to the new realities of church life in a rapidly changing, post-pandemic world.”

Because successful implementation of the bi-vocational model of ministry is a work of the entire faith community, Southwest’s grant focuses on four basic components of congregational learning: (1) understanding and embodying bi-vocational ministry; (2) discerning core vocations and theological coherence in their mission and values; (3) transforming congregational relationships with their wider local communities; and (4) facilitating growth in Christian maturity of individuals and congregations. These bi-vocational congregations will thrive in the course of revitalized and reimagined ministries for Christ’s service to the world.

“We are particularly excited about the design of the TBVC grant because it allows us to partner with The Episcopal Church and Episcopal Relief & Development in their joint project Called to Transformation,” said The Very Rev. Cynthia Briggs Kittredge, dean and president of Seminary of the Southwest. “Through this collaboration, we will deliver their theologically grounded, Asset-Based Community Development curriculum to participating churches. In this way TBVC will connect small and rural congregations to one of the Church’s most vibrant and visionary initiatives, establishing networks of information and support for thriving bi-vocational ministry centered on community engagement.”

Seminary of the Southwest is one of 92 organizations taking part in the initiative. They represent and serve churches in a broad spectrum of Christian traditions, including Anabaptist,  Baptist, Episcopal, evangelical, Lutheran, Methodist, Mennonite, Pentecostal, Presbyterian,  Reformed, Restoration, Roman Catholic and Orthodox, as well as congregations that describe  themselves as nondenominational. Several organizations serve congregations in Black, Hispanic and Asian-American traditions.

“In the midst of a rapidly changing world, Christian congregations are grappling with how they can best carry forward their ministries,” said Christopher Coble, Lilly Endowment’s vice president for religion. “These grants will help congregations assess their ministries and draw on practices in their theological traditions to address new challenges and better nurture the spiritual vitality of the people they serve.” 

Lilly Endowment launched the Thriving Congregations Initiative in 2019 as part of its commitment to support efforts that enhance the vitality of Christian congregations.

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Lilly Endowment Inc. is an Indianapolis-based private philanthropic foundation created in 1937 by J.K. Lilly Sr. and sons Eli and J.K. Jr. through gifts of stock in their pharmaceutical business, Eli Lilly & Company. Although the gifts of stock remain a 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 exists to support the causes of religion, education and community development. The Endowment funds significant programs throughout the United States, especially in the field of religion. However, it maintains a special commitment to its hometown, Indianapolis and home state, Indiana. The principal aim of the Endowment’s  grantmaking in religion 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 their pastoral and lay leadership.

Founded in 1952 by Bishop John Hines, Seminary of the Southwest is one of ten accredited seminaries in The Episcopal Church. Southwest’s vision is to be a community for formation and leadership within the church supported by a strength of program, endowment, and environment that assures excellence in theological, counseling, and pastoral education. Offering graduate degrees in Divinity, Clinical Mental Health Counseling, Anglican Studies, Spiritual Formation, and Religion, Southwest presents a rich intellectual environment and stimulating and challenging community for learning and formation. Southwest provides excellent residential formation for ordained ministry, offers professional master’s degrees to a range of lay professionals in a range of denominations and faith traditions, and serves the church through innovative models for local formation and ongoing training.

The Iona Collaborative is a cooperative project directed by Seminary of the Southwest, currently including twenty-nine Episcopal Dioceses. Its mission is to provide high quality resources for theological education at the local level. In addition to providing over 450 hours of digitized teaching for use in dioceses educating and forming students locally for ordination and lay leadership, the Collaborative also offers 65 teaching videos to resource lay formation and spiritual care in congregations, workplaces, and all settings where ministry takes place. Additionally, the Collaborative directs Thriving in Bi-Vocational Ministry, a continuing education and mentoring program for new and recently ordained bi-vocational clergy generously funded by a separate grant from Lilly Endowment Inc. To date over 80 bi-vocational priests and deacons have participated in yearlong courses in Spiritual Formation and Practices, Preaching, and Congregational Leadership.