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Story Magazine

Spring/Summer 2018

Lilly Grant Funds ‘Learning Journey’

by By Kelly O'Hara Dyer, Contributing writer

Dwight Zscheile

A recent grant of nearly $1 million to Luther Seminary from Lilly Endowment’s Thriving Ministry Initiative will help a group of synod leaders, pastors, and congregations across the country begin a unique learning journey.

The grant, announced in January, provides funds for a new program developed at the seminary called Leadership for Faithful Innovation. Over the next four years, the program will create and support cohort-based learning communities of pastors, synodical/judicatory leaders, and lay members to discover and reimagine models of ministry that cultivate Christian faith in the 21st century.

The program is directed by Luther Seminary faculty members Dwight Zscheile, vice president of innovation and associate professor of Congregational Mission and Leadership, and Rolf Jacobson, professor of Old Testament and the Alvin N. Rogness Chair of Scripture, Theology, and Ministry. Additional grant team members include Dawn Alitz, director of Lifelong Learning, and Michael Binder, adjunct professor.

“This project is really the next step in a series of initiatives that Luther Seminary has done over the past decade— some of which Lilly has underwritten,” says Zscheile. “For instance, we had the Vibrant Congregations grant [from Lilly] for several years, which involved bringing together learning communities of congregations who were interested in going deeper in particular areas of ministry in order to develop or enhance the vibrancy they had. We learned a lot during that process about the power of creating a space for leaders to come together to discover more deeply what’s going on among their people and their context, and to experiment in order to innovate and adapt.”

The program began when Lilly issued an invitation-only request to various institutions to apply for the grant. The private philanthropic foundation has long supported the causes of religion, education, and community development and works to deepen and enrich the religious lives of American Christians. Luther Seminary is one of 24 organizations participating in the initiative in the first round.

Luther Seminary responded to Lilly’s invitation last year by inviting representatives from a number of synods together to “test out the idea of designing an alternative way to create learning communities to do faithful innovation,” Zscheile says. Participants in that initial planning included synod bishops, pastors, and lay leaders.

“Lilly is very interested in helping pastors thrive in ministry,” Zscheile notes. “We said to them, ‘We think the root reason a lot of pastors aren’t thriving today is a deeper effectiveness crisis.’ Pastors may be really well-trained, gifted, hardworking, and faithful, but the patterns of ministry they have inherited are not connecting with people like they once did. We think the way to address that is to create a space where pastors, synod leaders, and congregation teams can take a multi-year journey into understanding what’s going on more deeply, while reconnecting to God and their own spiritual faith traditions and practices. It’s also about learning how to innovate faithfully, and about reframing expectations pastors and congregation members have of each other.”

As part of those reframed expectations, Zscheile believes the training may help participants shift from a performative model of ministry toward a formative one.


“The performative model of ministry is a model in which church leaders or church professionals are expected to perform Christian faith for people,” Zscheile says. “In other words, they read the Bible, pray, and do the ministry. The challenge with that is that it doesn’t necessarily help the whole people of God be formed in Christian faith. A formative paradigm of ministry focuses on the formation of the whole people of God in Christian faith in the power of the Spirit. In that, congregational life is refocused not so much on professionals doing ministry, but around helping everyone learn the Christian story, engage in Christian practices, and be equipped for Christian witness in the world.”

Presently, the synods of Western North Dakota, Southwestern Minnesota, South Carolina, New Jersey, Southeastern Pennsylvania, and Northern Texas/Louisiana are participating in the program. The synod leader learning community includes bishops and a pastor or staff member. Those groups will meet regularly and receive coaching and connection with the grant team at Luther Seminary over the next four years.

In turn, each of those teams will identify approximately six pastors from each synod who will form a learning community in each participating synod. Starting this fall, the pastor cohorts will participate in three trainings per year within the synod and also in a series of activities in their context with their congregations, with coaching from Luther Seminary.

The last two years of the program will focus on lay teams in each congregation. According to Zscheile, lay members will receive training to encourage them to “do a series of practices, behaviors, conversations, explorations, and experiments” designed to help congregation members learn how they personally can affect and support faith formation. They will be coached locally.

“The four parts of our new vision at Luther Seminary are Witness, Educate, Accompany, and Discover, and this is a really great way for us to flesh out those last two,” Zscheile says.

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