Through New Grant, Candler Will Help Congregations Thrive

January 14, 2021

Candler School of Theology at Emory University has received a grant of $991,221 from Lilly Endowment Inc. to establish an initiative to support congregations in implementing new approaches to theological exploration, community engagement, and collaborative leadership.

The project will be situated within The Candler Foundry, Candler’s public theological education arm that launched in 2020. Both are led by Assistant Professor in the Practice of Old Testament Ryan Bonfiglio.

“A foundry is a workshop meant for building and bringing new things into existence,” Bonfiglio says. “This is exactly what we hope to do with this initiative—forge new pathways for congregants to deepen their faith, engage their communities, and respond to pressing issues in public life.”

The grant is part of Lilly Endowment’s Thriving Congregations Initiative, a program providing $93 million in grants to 92 organizations who will work directly with congregations to help them gain clarity about their values and missions, explore and better understand the communities in which they serve, and draw upon their theological traditions as they adapt ministries to meet changing needs.

“In the midst of a rapidly changing world, Christian congregations are grappling with how they can best carry forward their ministries,” says Christopher Coble, Lilly Endowment’s vice president for religion. “These grants will help congregations assess their ministries and draw on practices in their theological traditions to address new challenges and better nurture the spiritual vitality of the people they serve.”

Candler’s Thriving Congregations grant will enable the school to further develop partnerships with churches in and beyond Atlanta in order to foster congregational vitality and address the cultural trends that challenge it.

“Enhancing congregational vitality is deeply embedded in Candler’s missional DNA,” says Candler Dean Jan Love. “Through multiple projects across several years, Candler has established effective ways of partnering with diverse congregations in the work of understanding their changing social contexts and responding to the needs of the communities they serve. We are grateful for this support from LillyEndowment that will enable us to continue this work in new ways.”

Candler’s ongoing work with diverse congregations gives this project a head start on identifying trends and contextual realities that impact churches. “What we’re learning from the pastors in our networks is that many young adults are leaving church not because they are spiritually uninterested, but because they are not finding outlets to explore their questions about faith with authenticity and candor,” Bonfiglio says.

Additionally, he notes, church leaders see the need for better equipping laity to bear witness to the gospel with an eye to the issues of the day. And in the midst of shrinking budgets, declining numbers of clergy candidates, and a global pandemic that has changed nearly everything about church, the role of lay people as active partners in leadership has never been more important.

“In light of these trends, congregations are seeking fresh, innovative outlets for theological exploration, community engagement, and collaborative leadership that can deepen individuals’ relationships with God, enhance their connections with each other, and contribute to the flourishing of their communities and the world.”

The Thriving Congregations grant will support and expand Courses in the Community and TheoEd Talks, two existing programmatic offerings from The Candler Foundry. Those will culminate in Leadership Collaboratives, a new undertaking that aims to convene networks of congregational leaders to exchange ideas about ministry innovations and challenges.

Not only will the grant allow expanded offerings, it will offer it to a broader population. “This initiative will enable us to partner with a much wider array of congregations from urban, suburban, and rural areas and from across denominational lines and demographic profiles,” Bonfiglio says. “Each component will help congregations better understand shifting social and cultural trends, clarify their values, priorities, and mission in light of those understandings, and adapt ministry practices in response to the needs of the communities they serve.”

A primary goal of the initiative is to create synergy between congregations with different racial, ethnic, and socio-economic makeups. Bonfiglio cites Candler’s connections to churches throughout metro Atlanta and North Georgia that represent a diverse array of congregations.

Says Bonfiglio: “Wherever we build partnerships, one strategy will be to bring together clusters of small congregations in geographic proximity to one another. Through digital technology, we’ll also be able to bring together clusters of congregations from different geographical contexts—such as rural and urban areas—to further foster diverse communities of learning and practice.”

Learn more about the three components of the Thriving Congregations initiative at Candler:

  • Courses in the Community: Congregation-based classes that bring together lay people, clergy, and theology students to explore the shifting landscape of the church and society and to respond to those trends through adaptive ministry practices. Along with church-based courses, Bonfiglio also envisions working with congregational partners to offer some in public locations such as coffee shops, bookstores, and community centers. Digital learning modules would accompany courses so that effective learning take place throughout the COVID-19 crisis and beyond.
  • TheoEd Talks: A faith-based speaker series that creates opportunities for congregations to engage their communities in ways designed to attract those who have left the church or have no religious affiliation. Bonfiglio calls it a “third space” outside of theology schools and churches where audiences can explore questions around faith and public life. The new initiative will expand TheoEd Talks outside Atlanta through partnerships with churches in other cities.
  • Leadership Collaboratives: Gatherings in which networks of clergy and lay leaders who have participated in Courses in the Community or TheoEd Talks are brought together to exchange ideas about ministry innovations and challenges. The grant will enable The Candler Foundry to convene three Leadership Collaboratives over five years, equipping these leaders with strategies and skillsets necessary for understanding and responding to current trends through workshops led by Candler faculty and other congregational leaders.

Preview photo: Allison Shirreffs