Lilly Grants Help Theological Schools Look to the Future

Lilly Endowment Inc. recently announced the Pathways for Tomorrow Initiative through which it is making available $87.5 million in grants to help theological schools accredited by the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) strengthen their ability to prepare pastoral and congregational lay leaders.

The initiative has three phases. In the first phase, which concluded in March, Lilly Endowment offered grants of up to $50,000 to ATS-accredited schools to help them explore issues, challenges, and opportunities facing their schools and assess the effectiveness of their educational and financial operations that support their preparation of congregational leaders in the United States and Canada. Phase two offers a competitive grant application process through which ATS-accredited schools may apply for up to $1 million to implement innovative plans to strengthen their schools for the long term. In phase three, the Endowment will support compelling, large-scale collaborative projects through grants of up to $5 million.

Lilly Endowment has designed the initiative to help leaders of schools address the many disruptions that have affected theological education, including the changing demographics of Christianity in North America and the rising cost of higher education. The pandemic has intensified these disruptions, forcing many schools to move online and innovate quickly to meet the demands of teaching and learning in digital formats. In addition, a heightened awareness about racial inequality has led many schools to reevaluate their educational strategies and financial practices and take steps to make their institutional structures more inclusive, equitable and just.

Dr. Christopher Coble, Lilly Endowment’s vice president for religion, said Lilly Endowment hopes that the initiative provides support for schools to “deepen and accelerate their thinking about their futures in this rapidly changing landscape.”

“The initiative offers an opportunity for schools to think imaginatively about how to respond to their most pressing challenges, take advantage of opportunities in their contexts, and strengthen their abilities to prepare pastoral leaders for congregational ministry,” he said. “We hope that these grants will stimulate conversations and help theological schools design innovative plans to advance their missions into the future.”

The second phase of the initiative focuses on helping schools implement plans to adapt and strengthen educational and financial capacities to prepare pastors and lay leaders for congregational ministry. Proposals from ATS-accredited schools for the second phase will be considered on a competitive basis and are due by Aug. 2. Lilly Endowment expects to award up to 50 grants in this second phase.

The third phase is also competitive and focuses on supporting collaborative projects centered at ATS-accredited schools that will strengthen the efforts of the collaborating organizations to prepare pastors and congregational lay leaders. Lilly Endowment is interested in collaborations that “offer a compelling and sustainable strategy or model of theological education” that, if it succeeds, could be used by other schools. ATS-accredited schools have until Nov. 1 to provide a concept paper for the third phase of the initiative. Selected schools will be invited to provide full proposals by March 2022.

Lilly Endowment encourages theological school leaders to plan projects that consider a broad array of innovative educational and financial strategies, including ways to achieve economies of scale that could make theological education more affordable, to form collaborations with denominations and other church networks that would strengthen the preparation and support of leaders, and to extend theological education opportunities to a broad range of Christian communities.

Efforts could include working within or across denominational lines, collaborating with Bible institutes, developing partnerships with colleges and other ATS members, addressing issues of racial equity, and strengthening relationships with congregations.

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