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Dakotas United Methodists awarded $925k for clergy development from Lilly Endowment’s Thriving in Ministry Initiative

By: Doreen Gosmire*

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Young clergy discuss the challenges and opportunities of their profession. Photo by Dave Stucke, Dakotas Conference.

The Dakotas Foundation of The United Methodist Church has received a grant of $925,000 to help establish the Higher Ground program. It is part of Lilly Endowment Inc.’s Thriving in Ministry, an initiative that supports a variety of religious organizations across the nation as they create or strengthen programs that help pastors build relationships with experienced clergy who can serve as mentors and guide them through key leadership challenges in congregational ministry. 

The Endowment is making nearly $70 million in grants through the Thriving in Ministry initiative.

The Higher Ground program will include two interconnected components. The first is personalized coaching that will focus on more than just technical leadership and ministry skills but address the whole person. The second component includes structured times for retreat, reflection, and refocus at different junctures in a pastor's career that will help clergy rediscover the joy of their calling, build resilience, and courage to lead the church into the future.

“The program clearly aligns with the mission of The United Methodist Church: to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” said Bishop Bruce R. Ough, resident bishop for the Dakotas-Minnesota Area. “Discipleship is the core ethos of this program. Discipleship is clergy walking alongside another, standing shoulder to shoulder to learn from another; clergy who are in a humble, coachable spirit, open to being shaped, encouraged and challenged.”

The Dakotas Annual Conference is unique due to the number rural churches and large geographic area. A higher than average number of clergy report professional isolation and personal struggles to adapt to the rural congregation due to small size, sometimes limited volunteer support, resources, and preset social groups.

The Higher Ground program will expand upon current efforts in clergy development and strategic leadership. Rev. Rebecca Trefz, executive director of ministries for the Dakotas Conference, said, “We are guided in this work by our Journey Toward Vitality strategic plan of which a key leverage point is clergy leadership development. We will infuse our clergy leadership with the vision and skills to be disciples and who make disciples through healthy systems and organizations. We seek to impact their communities by embodying a thriving spirit through their physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health. We do this amidst the challenge to overcome geographical limitations.”

The Dakotas Foundation is one of 78 organizations located in 29 states that is taking part in the initiative. The organizations reflect diverse Christian traditions: mainline and evangelical Protestant, Roman Catholic and Orthodox.

The Dakotas United Methodist Foundation will support the sustainability of the Higher Ground program. The Foundation leadership and staff understand the landscape of donor development for the Dakotas Conference and will play a primary role in cultivating donors who feel called to be part of the Higher Ground vision. “Four years ago, we embarked on a capital campaign feasibility study for a successful $3.5 million donor effort —Thrive: Strength for today, Hope for tomorrow. The study revealed to us a passion that donors in the Dakotas have for supporting programs that develop healthy, effective, thriving clergy leaders.” said Sheri Meister, president and chief executive officer of the Dakotas United Methodist Foundation.

Thriving in Ministry is part of Lilly Endowment’s grantmaking to strengthen pastoral leadership in Christian congregations in the United States. This has been a grantmaking priority at Lilly Endowment for nearly 25 years.

“Leading a congregation today is multi-faceted and exceptionally demanding,” said Christopher L. Coble, Lilly Endowment’s vice president for religion. “When pastors have opportunities to build meaningful relationships with experienced colleagues, they are able to negotiate the challenges of ministry and their leadership thrives. These promising programs, including Higher Ground will help pastors develop these kinds of relationships, especially when they are in the midst of significant professional transitions.”

Lilly Endowment Inc. is an Indianapolis-based private philanthropic foundation created in 1937 by three members of the Lilly family - J.K. Lilly Sr. and sons Eli and J.K. Jr. - through gifts of stock in their pharmaceutical business, Eli Lilly & Company. While those gifts remain the financial bedrock of the Endowment, the Endowment is a separate entity from the company, with a distinct governing board, staff and location. In keeping with the founders’ wishes, the Endowment supports the causes of community development, education and religion. The Endowment maintains a special commitment to its hometown, Indianapolis, and its home state Indiana. Its grantmaking in religion focuses on supporting efforts to strengthen the leadership and vitality of Christian congregations throughout the country and to increase the public’s understanding of the role of religion in public life.

*Doreen Gosmire is the director of communications for the Dakotas Conference of The United Methodist Church

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