A listening session with leaders from churches, ministries, and theological institutions in seven denominations shaped the grant request.
The Lilly Endowment, Inc., has awarded the Reformed Church in America a $1 million grant for work that will build up flourishing congregations for the present and future church.
“We are hoping this grant helps the RCA and our churches be more flexible and agile as they curate learning around innovation and the twenty-first-century church,” says Eliza Cortés Bast, coordinator for Local Missional Engagement and special projects, who has been helping facilitate the pre-implementation stages of this grant project.
“The grant is really [about] what it means for churches to take the best of our treasured traditions, address the changing landscape of Christian community, and find ways for those two things to help the church of the future flourish,” she says.
The grant will fund an “innovation lab” for congregational and staff learning communities, with emphases on contemplative spiritual practices and relationship building. Leadership teams will explore justice, culture, leadership, and theology through a lens of innovation. These communities will build on the equipping work of Transformed & Transforming, the RCA’s vision for ministry that prioritizes discipleship, leadership, and mission.
“God is on the move! This is another sign of a wonderful future for all of us in the RCA,” says Eddy Alemán, RCA general secretary. “This grant leans into the hallmarks of our vision—discipleship, leadership, and mission—as we imagine new ways to be the church and to help our congregations do the same.”
The first wave of grant-funded work will allow denominational staff to pilot a shortened version of the innovation lab. Increased flexibility and reduced rigidity in staff systems will help support innovation in congregations and encourage deep, lasting change. Additionally, allowing staff to go through the process first will help build empathy and proper support for congregations as the process will be adapted for them—and it will prepare staff to respond more nimbly to whatever changes result from the Vision 2020 process.
The second wave of the grant will entail an 18-month learning community for congregations. This will be “an incubator to try out new forms of church—to help churches know who they are, and, rooted in that identity and in a clear knowledge of their communities, to go after wildly imaginative new applications of long-held Christian practices, as they follow Christ in mission,” as the grant proposal reads. Church leadership teams will “try on” spiritual practices, discover new ways to build relationships, hear from experts, and begin to implement innovations in their respective ministry contexts.
“With curiosity and enthusiasm, I am eager to get after the designing of this incubator—to help congregations try on new forms of church with innovative and theological savvy,” says Jill Ver Steeg, RCA chief operating officer. “Our goal is to see churches thrive not just next year, but 10, 20, and 50 years in the future.”
The third wave will begin as participants in the learning community host their own innovation labs and share their learnings with others.
“This grant will enable us to really see how the various segments of our denomination, from individual to congregation to classis to regional synod to denominational office can work together to strengthen ministry within our communities,” says Andy Bossardet, coordinator for Thriving Leaders, Thriving Churches, who has also been facilitating this grant’s pre-work. “This is not merely a one-off, but a sustained effort at transforming leaders and organizational structures to be responsive to the Spirit’s work across the continent.”
In July, prior to the submission of the grant proposal, Cortés Bast and Bossardet hosted a listening session that gathered 18 leaders from a variety of denominations, theological institutions, and ministries—academics, missiologists, church planters, pastors, entrepreneurs, innovators, community developers, and denominational staff. From these on-the-ground practitioners came the prioritization on relationship building and spiritual practices, as leaders emphasized a need to return to the kind of church recorded in Acts 2, for the church to be more like a family and less like an institution.
“This is not a ‘business as usual’ grant. We’re reimagining the mental model of church,” says Alemán. “We’re not just hoping to produce a program that’s appealing; we’re instituting deep change in our organization so that every program we offer is affected by this and will evolve, for the good of God’s church.”
The grant will run through 2022.