Valerie Bridgeman. Photo courtesy of Bridgeman.
Valerie Bridgeman / Photo courtesy of Bridgeman

Lilly Endowment To Award $75 Million To Help Pastors Preach Better

Lilly Endowment To Award $75 Million To Help Pastors Preach Better

News Article by Tracy Simmons | Religion Unplugged

Valerie Bridgeman knows good preaching. Her dad was a pastor, and for 45 years now she too has been behind the pulpit.

Currently, she serves as Dean and Vice President for Academic Affairs at Methodist Theological School in Ohio (MTSO), where she also teaches homiletics and Hebrew Bible. And she still preaches.

“It’s always funny to me when people say, ‘Oh the homiletics teacher can preach,’” she laughed. “Isn’t that what you want?”

More than a decade ago she founded WomanPreach!, which according to its website, “brings preachers into full prophetic voice around issues of equity and justice in the pulpit and in the public arena.” The organization began as a training ground for women, but is now open to all genders.

Now, in partnership with MTSO, the organization has $1 million in funding from the Lilly Endowment as part of its Compelling Preaching Initiative.

The new endeavor, announced Nov. 30, will make $75 million available to help Christian pastors “strengthen their abilities to proclaim the Gospel in more engaging and effective ways.”

“At many points in history, Christian preachers have needed to adapt their preaching practices to engage new generations of hearers more effectively,” said Christopher L. Coble, the Endowment’s vice president for religion in a press release. “They have taken the Gospel message into fields and homes, and used print, radio, television and other new technologies and media to expand the reach of their ministries. Many religious leaders believe that churches may now be at another inflection point when preachers may again need to adapt to changing communication practices and forms of media to ensure that the Gospel message is accessible for all audiences. With this new initiative we ask, ‘What needs to be done today?’”

In an invitational round of the initiative, 32 grants were given out, including the funds to MTSO.

Bridgeman said the Compelling Preaching Initiative is needed because, as religious author Phyllis Tickle once wrote, the church changes every 500 years. That’s happening now, Bridgeman said. 

“We have to respond to the world changing,” she said. “How do we do that as preachers, as pastors, as teachers, as professors, as Christians? How do we speak to it? That’s the work.”

Good preaching, Bridgeman said, is when a sermon relates to real life and not in an “individual self-help” type of way.

Too often, she said, sermon illustrations are unrelatable to those in the pews.

Sermons, too, she said, should include a call to action.

“I think of preaching as shaping a community of believers who represent God on earth collectively,” she said. “How do we display God’s love and care for God’s world together?”

WomanPreach! aims to help clergy do that through preaching intensives, webinars and The Jarena Lee Preaching Academy, which is a weeklong intensive specifically for Black women. Plans are for the academy to be held in 2024 at the MTSO campus.

Bridgeman explained that by collaborating with MTSO, WomanPreach! can strengthen their existing programming, expand their public support base and build a cohort of learning communities so preachers can have a network to call on. 

Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis also received $1 million as part of the invitational round of the Compelling Preaching Initiative.

“In Dominican history preaching really originated not at something at the pulpit, but a way in which the faith was disseminated in various ways and modalities and through people in all kinds of contexts,” said Rev. Mark Wedig, president of the institution. “Preaching and teaching are very interrelated to each other.”

The school offers the only Catholic Doctor of Ministry in Preaching program in the country and Wedig said the grant from Lilly builds on the work they’re already doing to improve preaching.

He added that a $50,000 planning grant from the endowment helped them determine there was a need to specifically reach Black Catholic communities nationwide, and Hispanic parishes in Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas (Region 9 in the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops), where priests often aren’t available to lead a parish fulltime.

“We’re trying to address frontiers, communities that really have been underserved,” he said.

The school plans to provide training and resources to permanent deacons and lay pastoral associates in those areas.

Wedig noted that the needs for the Hispanic and Black communities differ, and the Institute is working with consultants to tailor the offerings.

Wedig said permanent deacons often don’t have training in preaching, so Aquinas Institute plans to roll out programming that includes mastery of preaching, online classes, a discussion and resource portal and in-person retreats. He said these would likely include three cohorts that are in short (one or two month) segments. He hopes the classes will be available within a year.

“The great hope is to invigorate those communities,” he said, noting that there’s already a lot of excitement around the new program. 

Duane Kelderman, senior consultant at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship said the Compelling Preaching Initiative is important, especially now.

“I think it’s needed because there is a growing consensus that the Christian narrative is no longer as compelling as it once was, especially among the young,” he said. “I don’t think anything in the narrative needs to be fixed. Jesus rose from the dead. But we do have to ask some deep questions. How do we connect with our culture?” 

The Calvin Institute hosts the Compelling Preaching Coordination Program, which will facilitate mutual learning among current and future grantees in the initiative.

“What I like about this initiative is the different angles and visions that these grantees are going to give us. We have seminaries, denominations, universities, non-profit organizations, including major media outlets,” Kelderman said.

All these organizations together, he said, are raising the question: What does it mean to be the church right now? And, he added, it examines what preaching looks like beyond the center aisle on Sunday mornings.

Kelderman said conversations these proposals are sparking will have a long term impact and hopes grantees will be able to work together in re-thinking preaching. 

“Collaboration is of high value in an initiative like this and we have a real strong conviction that one plus one equals three,” he said, adding that he’s excited to see what “surprise fruit” the initiative brings.

Lilly expects to give out about 60 grants up to $1.25 million each as part of the program. Proposals are due May 15, 2023, though an Interest Form is due sooner, on March 1, 2023. More information can be found online.

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