Thriving Congregations is a national initiative funded by Lilly Endowment Inc. to support institutions that want to help congregations to:
- Explore and understand their rapidly changing social and cultural contexts;
- Gain greater clarity about their mission and values; and
- Draw on Christian practices from their theological and ecclesial traditions to adapt their ministries to the demands of their changing contexts.
The ultimate purpose is to strengthen congregations so they can help people deepen their relationships with God, enhance their connections with each other and contribute to the flourishing of their local communities and the world. This aim is grounded in the conviction that local congregations have been and will continue to be the primary form of Christian community.
About the Initiative
In 2020, following a national competition that drew hundreds of applications, Lilly Endowment awarded an additional 92 grants. Each of the 114 grantees has up to $1 million to spend over three to five years to serve congregations and explore this question: What does it look like for congregations to thrive?
There is no "right" answer to this question, as this initiative will bear out over time. And yet many pastors, religious leaders and consultants agree that thriving congregations tend to share three general characteristics. In its request for proposals to build this initiative, Lilly Endowment Inc. writes that thriving congregations:
1. Recognize their changing social and cultural contexts
Thriving congregations exhibit a nuanced understanding of the characteristics, interests, history and challenges of their communities and neighborhoods. These congregations attend closely to demographic and social changes in their communities, and they understand the particular qualities that make their communities both what they are and what they are becoming. As active participants in the community, the members of the congregation build face-to-face relationships with people in their neighborhoods and understand well the ways they live, play, work and gather. Through these close connections with their communities, thriving congregations are able to listen to the needs and interests of people in their local and regional contexts and develop ministries that are highly relational and relevant for those they seek to reach. These ministries are created by individuals and groups in the congregation and help the members of the congregation respond to specific changes in their congregation’s community as well as to changes in the neighborhoods and regions the congregation seeks to serve.
2. Exhibit clarity of values and mission
Thriving congregations have a striking clarity about their values and mission. Drawing on their theological and ecclesial traditions, they have developed a strong sense of identity and are able to articulate “why” they are called to love God and serve those in their congregations, neighborhoods, regions and across the globe. This clarity enables a thriving congregation to identify specific areas of interest and then align its ministries and activities around those priorities. Some of the ministries created by thriving congregations may concentrate on strengthening the inner life of a congregation while others may focus on reaching out and serving others. Moreover, members of thriving congregations are not merely concerned with the roles and functions of sustaining a church and its programs but are focused instead on a vision of abundant life that connects them to God, one another and the world. While members are recipients of the congregation’s ministry, they are more importantly agents of ministry who serve one another and their communities as they share life together.
3. Cultivate Christian practices
Many thriving congregations concentrate their attention on living out their common life and mission through time-honored Christian practices. These practices can take many forms and are rooted in and draw from a wide range of theological and ecclesial traditions. Some common examples of Christian practices include hospitality, testimony, Sabbath rest and singing, among others. Furthermore, thriving congregations attend to these practices in ways that are contextual for their ministry settings and rooted in the particularities of their traditions. Through these intentional Christian practices, congregations cultivate a rich sense of community as they help individuals identify with their congregations and experience belonging through a shared vocabulary and engagement in common rituals and activities. Together, these characteristics help congregations thrive. When congregations have clarity about their values and mission, they are able to identify and focus on their core mission and adapt current and/or develop new, innovative ministries that build on their unique strengths and gifts. Through their attention to Christian practices, they are able to draw on their theological and ecclesial traditions to strengthen connections among and integrate more fully all elements of congregational life and direct them in furtherance of their mission. Through growing a strong sense of who they are, congregations are better equipped to discern how to engage and build relationships in their communities and cultivate partnerships with other organizations including non-profits, civic groups, businesses and others. Such relationships further a congregation’s self-understanding and sense of identity and mission. They also enable the congregation to be more creative, take risks and explore new possibilities for its ministries.
Today, Christian congregations face a wide array of challenges and opportunities, including those created and accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
These range from using new technologies to extend worship services and keep members connected with each other to understanding and responding to demographic shifts and welcoming new neighbors in their communities.
What will this initiative look like in practice?
Grantees will convene groups of congregations in supportive learning communities. Some projects are local or regional, while others aim to serve a national audience. Depending on the project's specific area of focus -- from racial justice to building use to communications -- congregations will work to better understand the communities where they are located, discern their purpose and identity, and examine how they can innovate from their theological and ecclesial traditions. From there, they will design and launch new ministries (or renovate existing ones). All through this process, they will collaborate and share insights with the other congregations in their learning community.
Grantees include colleges and universities, theological schools, denominational agencies, individual congregations and other faith-based organizations.
They represent and serve churches in a broad spectrum of Christian traditions, including Anabaptist, Baptist, Episcopal, evangelical, Lutheran, Methodist, Mennonite, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Reformed, Restoration, Roman Catholic and Orthodox, as well as congregations that describe themselves as nondenominational. Several organizations serve congregations in Black, Hispanic and Asian-American traditions.
For more information about the grantees, please explore the interactive project directory.
About the Coordination Program
Leadership Education at Duke Divinity is supporting this initiative during a 5-year period through a coordination program. Funded by Lilly Endowment, the coordination program provides resources, research, technical support, and a learning community for the initiative’s grantees focused on innovation, collaboration, and adaptive learning.
The coordination program’s activities include hosting an annual gathering, online meetups and webinars; consulting with individual project directors; sharing resources; and communicating regularly.
This work is aligned with the work of Leadership Education, which was established by the Endowment in 2008 as an intermediary organization whose purpose is to strengthen Christian institutions that enable U.S. congregations and pastors to flourish. Leadership Education is also home to the Thriving in Ministry Coordination Program. The two initiatives are strategic companions and share a number of grantees.
The Thriving Congregations Coordination Program is part of an ecology of Lilly Endowment-funded institutions that supports thriving congregations, thriving congregational leaders and thriving communities.
These partners conduct research, offer consultations, develop programming and share resources.
The Calvin Institute of Christian Worship promotes the scholarly study of the theology, history and practice of Christian worship and the renewal of worship in worshipping communities across North America and beyond.
The mission of the Center for Congregations is to strengthen Indiana congregations by helping them find and use the best resources to address their challenges and opportunities. Their Congregational Resource Guide is a free tool for congregational leaders, ordained and lay, to explore resources to address their unique questions and needs.
The Forum for Theological Exploration identifies, connects, inspires and supports young people across denominations and backgrounds as they explore or enter into vocations in ministry and teaching and lead their communities faithfully, innovatively and courageously to participate in God’s work in the world.
Lake Institute on Faith & Giving offers a public forum for exploring the connections between individual philanthropy and faith and fosters a greater understanding of the ways in which faith both inspires and informs giving.
Director, Thriving Congregations Coordination Program
Kelly became the director of the Thriving Congregations Coordination Program in February 2020. Prior to that, she spent 12 years as senior director of communications for Leadership Education at Duke Divinity, overseeing its online learning resource Faith & Leadership. From 2003 to 2008, she served as a senior public relations specialist for Duke University's Office of the President and Office of News & Communications. Between 1995 and 2003, Kelly was a reporter for the St. Petersburg (now Tampa Bay) Times in Florida. She has a bachelor's degree in journalism and political science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a master’s degree in Christian practice from Duke Divinity School. She is a lay leader at St. Philip's Episcopal Church in Durham, N.C., where she is serving as an elected vestry member, as a member of the rector search committee, and in racial justice and reconciliation ministries. Kelly has completed three formation courses to become a catechist in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd program and co-leads a Sunday school classroom for fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders.
Program Coordinator, Thriving Congregations Coordination Program
Hannah Perez joined Leadership Education at Duke Divinity as a Staff Assistant in April 2020 and became a Program Coordinator in June 2022. Hannah provides operational support for all aspects of the coordination program as well as supporting other Leadership Education services. Prior to these roles, Hannah served as a development coordinator at the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at UNC-Chapel Hill and in administrative support roles at the Yale School of the Environment. Hannah graduated from Hope College and Johns Hopkins University.
David L. Odom
Executive director, Leadership Education at Duke Divinity
Dave joined Duke Divinity School in August 2007 to launch Leadership Education at Duke Divinity and now oversees all of its programs and publications, including Faith & Leadership. He regularly teaches and facilitates events and both writes and solicits content for Faith & Leadership. In addition, Dave develops and supervises select initiatives at Duke Divinity School, where he serves as an associate dean. Before coming to Duke, he was the founder and president of the Center for Congregational Health in Winston-Salem, N.C., which supported healthy communities of faith through consultation, leadership development, interim ministry training and vocational discernment. Dave, who was an adjunct professor at Wake Forest Divinity School, has extensive experience in program development and evaluation, staff and adjunct faculty development, and strategic organizational management. He also plays a leadership role in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. He is a graduate of Furman University, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and Princeton Theological Seminary.
Director, Thriving in Ministry Coordination Program
Alaina is the director of the Thriving in Ministry Coordination Program at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity. She has served ministries and organizations in suburban St. Louis, urban Houston, Central America and Norway. She holds degrees from Concordia University Nebraska and Duke Divinity School. From 2013 to 2018, she was director of the Duke Youth Academy for Christian Formation. Before that, she was a director of Christian education working with middle school students. She is committed to developing faithful Christian practices within communities, eliminating barriers to resources for Christian communities and pastors at the margins, and including young people in all aspects of life in the church.