Episcopal recipients of $6 million in Lilly grants focus on lay leadership, community engagement, digital growth

By David Paulsen
Posted Jan 24, 2024

St. James’ Episcopal Church in Independence, Iowa, regularly organizes free Hot Dog Fridays. The community meals exemplify the kinds of local outreach that the Diocese of Iowa hopes to build on with its Regional Mission Initiative. Photo: Elizabeth Duff Poppelwell

[Episcopal News Service] Four Episcopal dioceses and one Episcopal parish are launching new initiatives focused on congregational vitality and leadership development after being awarded a combined $6 million in the latest round of grants from the Lilly Endowment’s Thriving Congregations Initiative.

The Episcopal grants were awarded to the dioceses of Albany, Iowa, Spokane and Vermont, and Christ Episcopal Church in Denver, Colorado. Each of the individual grants totaled more than $1 million, to be used over the next three to five years to develop, test and assess their new programs.

Overall, Lilly awarded grants to 104 faith-based recipients “to help congregations flourish by strengthening ministries that lead their congregations to deeper relationships with God, enhance their connections with each other and contribute to the vitality of their communities and the world.”

In Vermont, the Episcopal diocese plans to use its grant to establish an initiative called Communities for Spiritual Vitality, focused largely on training lay members to take on greater leadership roles in small, rural congregations. The diocese is partnering with the neighboring Diocese of Massachusetts.

Vermont Bishop Shannon MacVean-Brown, in an interview with Episcopal News Service, noted that 18 of her diocese’s 42 congregations are in the middle of clergy leadership transitions, which already requires lay leaders to do more. Communities for Spiritual Vitality will organize groups of lay leaders from the two dioceses into cohorts that will follow a two-year curriculum mixing in-person gatherings with clergy-led training in formation and discipleship practices.

“Part of what I hope people will gain from this is knowing that they’re not alone in it,” MacVean-Brown said. “There are other people engaged in this work. There are other people trying to figure out, how are we going to be church in this time that is so different from what we understood?”

The Diocese of Albany, based in New York’s capital city, extends north to the Canadian border. It will use its Lilly grant to help establish the Albany Blooms Thriving Parish Initiative. Like Vermont, the Diocese of Albany plans to develop local leaders partly through online workshops and in-person retreats.

“We will be better equipped to support the good work our parishes are already doing throughout the 19 counties of New York which make up our diocese,” the Rev. Meaghan Keegan, Albany’s director of administration, said in a news release.

“We will grow together by addressing the spiritual health of our congregations, by learning how to identify and overcome challenges and by reaching out in our communities united with the common mission of sharing the Gospel of Jesus.”

The Diocese of Spokane, which includes the eastern half of Washington and northern Idaho, is launching Building Bridges, Healing Divides with its grant from the Lilly Endowment. It aims to create “a culture of listening, learning, and development” among the diocese’s congregations, “particularly among individuals and groups who differ from one another in meaningful ways,” according to a diocesan news release.

And in the Diocese of Iowa, the grant money is being used to establish the Regional Mission Initiative. The diocese will hire three regional missioners to work with its congregations, meeting regularly with clergy and lay leaders for training and support as they reimagine their churches’ roles in the state’s shrinking rural communities.

The survival of those churches is intertwined with the survival of their towns, the Rev. Meg Wagner, the diocese’s canon to the ordinary, told ENS. The Regional Mission Initiative will encourage congregational leaders to deeply engage with the rapidly changing needs of their communities.

For example, “could our churches offer places where, by hosting things like farmers markets or arts events or concerts, it promotes that kind of cohesion in a community,” said Wagner, who serves as the Iowa initiative’s project director. “We believe this is where God is calling us.”

This is the second round of grants in the Lilly Endowment’s Thriving Congregations Initiative. Four Episcopal recipients participated in the first round, awarded in 2020, to support their innovative approaches to congregational revitalization.

In this new round, the grant awarded to Christ Episcopal Church in Denver will support expansion of its online community and ministries, which formed during the COVID-19 pandemic. The congregation calls its initiative the Narthex, after the space within a church just outside the nave where parishioners pass through and congregate before services – “a place of encounter between worship and the world.”

Christ Church is now developing a pilot group of six affiliated Narthex congregations, with plans to grow into a larger peer-mentoring network, all focused on equipping the leaders of online faith communities with the technology and skills they need for digital evangelism and ministries.

“We need parishes to be incubators of innovation amid the myriad social and cultural changes we are currently navigating,” Colorado Bishop Kym Lucas said in a diocesan news release. “Leadership comes in many forms, but I firmly believe new initiatives are most effective when they originate at the grassroots level. I am delighted not just for Christ Church Denver, but the wider diocese, denomination and beyond.”

– David Paulsen is a senior reporter and editor for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.