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Dakotas-Minnesota Area receives $1M grant to address economic challenges facing pastors

By: Christa Meland, director of communcaiton, Minnesota UMC and Doreen Gosmire, director of communication, Dakotas UMC

The Dakotas-Minnesota Area of The United Methodist Church has received a $1 million grant from Lilly Endowment Inc. The funding will be used to help pastors develop stronger financial literacy skills, reduce or eliminate personal debt, and become equipped to foster a theology of generosity within their congregations.

The funding is part of Lilly Endowment’s initiative to address economic challenges facing pastoral leaders. Earlier this year, the Dakotas-Minnesota Area was invited to apply for a grant and, in March, received a $50,000 planning grant to conduct research and assess needs.

“The mission of the church is not to raise money or pay apportionments—it is to make generous disciples,” said Dakotas-Minnesota Area Bishop Bruce R. Ough. “However, many of our clergy have debt and limited financial resources, and scarcity thinking paralyzes us. The Lilly Endowment grant will allow our churches and clergy to become financial stewards of God’s resources to expand ministry beyond our imagination. I am grateful to Lilly Endowment for its expression of faith and resources for the Dakotas-Minnesota Area.”

Grant to provide training, grants, and resources

With the help of the grant, the Dakotas-Minnesota Area will offer:

Financial literacy training for clergy in their first three years of ministry: This includes a seminar on the uniqueness of clergy finances and how to manage clergy taxes and housing allowances; a 12-week Financial Peace University course (or similar program); and mentoring from more established clergy on the practice of tithing and the biblical principles of giving.

Grants through a Ministerial Excellence Fund: The fund will provide grants of up to $2,000 for clergy who complete the 12-week Financial Peace University course to apply to their personal financial goals (for example, savings, debt relief, or retirement) and educational debt-reduction grants of up to $5,000 for those in their first seven years under appointment.  The fund will also be used for strategic appointment-making at the discretion of the Cabinet—for example, to assist with transition costs or to temporarily support the salary of a gifted pastor who takes a new appointment at a financially challenged but high-potential congregation.

Two years of financial management training for new clergy: All new clergy will receive in-depth education on the skills and best practices of nonprofit leadership/management, either on-site or through online learning. The idea is that clergy would begin this process after completing the three-year Clergy Leadership Academy.

Professional consultation: A list of vetted professionals in the areas of clergy taxes, financial planning, donor cultivation, and congregational budgeting will be available to consult with congregations.

Six annual “breakthrough generosity” workshops: These will be focused on reorienting congregations to an abundance mindset, with follow-up individual consultations offered to participating churches.

In developing a holistic program, the Dakotas-Minnesota Area will follow the “earn-save-give” model, which is based on Methodism Founder John Wesley’s instruction to “earn all you can, save all you can, and give all you can.” The goal is to build financially healthy congregations across the area and to develop new clergy into generous, capable leaders. The new program that the grant will make possible represents a major step in each conference’s Journey Toward Vitality, a roadmap that presents a vision to increase vitality in our churches and outlines the strategic pathways that will get us there. One of those pathways is developing missional leaders who possess zest, grit, and heart.

The Lilly Endowment grant stipulates that all debt-reduction grants given to clergy out of the Ministerial Excellence Fund must be matched by the Dakotas-Minnesota Area. Thus the conferences aim to jointly raise $500,000 for the fund, plus an additional $1 million—all from individual donors—so that the fund and program can continue beyond the Lilly grant funding. The Dakotas and Minnesota United Methodist Foundations were key partners in securing the grant and will play a significant role in securing the matching funds.

The need and the benefits

A manager who will oversee the rollout of the program will be hired in the coming months, and the goal is to begin financial literacy training for new clergy in summer 2017.

“There is a direct correlation between the financial health of clergy, their own commitment to and practice of financial generosity, and their comfort and ability to lead a congregation in generating resources for the mission,” said Rev. Cindy Gregorson, director of ministries for the Minnesota Conference. “This Lilly Endowment grant is designed to help clergy develop best practices in their own financial well-being, to grow in generosity, and to learn skills in how to lead congregations in expanding their generosity and living into the dreams God has placed before them.”

Rev. Rebecca Trefz, director of ministries for the Dakotas Conference, said programs that the grant will make possible represent “a true collaborative effort across the Dakotas-Minnesota Area to help clergy thrive in financial stewardship.” 

“The Lilly Endowment grant provides resources and a launching point for clergy and churches to practice tithing and become confident in financial management,” she said. “We want to disciple the whole person. Clergy should feel confident and equipped to lead financial stewardship. Finances should not be a burden.”

Before applying for the grant, the Dakotas-Minnesota Area contracted with a research firm to acquire information from clergy, clergy spouses, and laity regarding debt and financial literacy. Among the findings revealed through an online survey and in-person focus groups: Young clergy (between the ages of 25 and 44) identified educational debt as the most stressful and burdensome type of debt—and nearly half have educational debt that exceeds $25,000.

“Having the ability to start their appointed ministry without being overwhelmed by debt leads to more creative, imaginative, and joyful ministry,” said Gregorson. “And for those gifted and called persons who cannot imagine how to make a living as a clergy person given the education required for ordination, debt-reduction grants will open doors for those who have not previously seen this vocational path as possible.”

Clergy surveyed also indicated a significant need for increased training. Nearly 60 percent of young clergy said they are less-than-satisfied with their knowledge regarding personal finances, and only 30 percent believe they have the training necessary to effectively manage congregational finances.

Grant will do ‘a ridiculous amount of good’

Rev. Luke Nelson, who serves Homestead Church in Rochester, Minnesota and graduated from seminary in 2009, said the training and debt-reduction grants that the Lilly Endowment grant allows will make a significant difference for clergy and congregations. “I think it’s one of the ways that says ‘Minnesota loves its pastors and we don’t want you to be stuck financially,’” said Nelson.

Seminary debt is a huge problem for new pastors, and there’s no seminary class that adequately prepares you to manage church finances, he noted. Nelson and his wife, also a pastor, went through Financial Peace University together while he was in his first appointment and after they’d been married for a year. The knowledge and skills they gained were invaluable—and Nelson said the $2,000 grant that clergy will receive after completing the program will be put to good use because the program will have given them the tools to know how to spend it wisely. “This will do a ridiculous amount of good for marriages, personal finances, and the ability for clergy to be generous with their churches,” he said.

Ben McKirdy Wilsey—who serves Highmore, Harold, and Blunt UMCs in South Dakota—echoed Nelson. He recently graduated from Iliff School of Theology in Denver, which received a grant of its own through Lilly Endowment’s economic challenges initiative. It’s because of that grant that McKirdy Wilsey was able to take classes on financial management for churches and nonprofit organizations as part of his degree. He found them very helpful and believes other clergy would as well. 

“I think more is needed to help clergy and churches,” he said. “We need to overcome the scarcity mentality. Resources to help clergy and churches to think and talk about that would be great.”

Lilly Endowment Inc. is an Indianapolis-based private philanthropic foundation that exists to support the causes of religion, education, and community development. Its religion grant-making is designed to deepen and enrich the religious lives of American Christians.


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