At a "New Dollars/New Partners" training day in July, Luther K. Snow, a consultant from the ABCD Institute and author of The Power of Asset Mapping: How Your Congregation Can Act on Its Gifts (Alban Institute, 2004), led representatives from 12 Philadelphia congregations in an exercise designed to highlight their strengths and prioritize their programs.

After this article went to press, Partners learned that the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation awarded a grant of $25,000 to support the New Dollars in Seminaries project. 

Every year, theology students fan out to hospitals and congregations across North America. They're headed to field education assignments, putting into practice what they've been learning in the classroom. Meaningful clinical experience in field ed has become increasingly important as educators have come to realize the high demands on new pastors in the early years of ministry.

One additional model in field education is now under construction. What if a group of 10 students were to be assigned to 10 urban churches -- the smallish, older downtown congregations that dot every North American city.

And what if these students were to work with these 10 congregations not as individuals, but as coaches for a program that would bring all 10 together to learn from one another and from experts who would help them revitalize these congregations and raise funds to support both their programs and their aging buildings. And what if at the end of the year, the students finished their schooling already having helped congregations raise significant money by building on the congregations' own strengths rather than perceived lack of resources.

Part of this scenario has already come to pass. For the last several years, Partners for Sacred Places, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit organization, has been working with groups of congregations in 23 localities -- urban, suburban, and rural -- across the United States, training them to build on their assets, tell their stories more effectively to potential donors and foundations, realistically assess the condition of their facilities (and how those facilities are used), and ultimately energize their congregations and raise money for their buildings and programs.

Called "New Dollars/New Partners for Your Sacred Place," the program was developed with support from Lilly Endowment Inc. Now a program development grant from the Henry Luce Foundation is enabling Partners for Sacred Places to bring seminaries and divinity schools to the table, sharing its knowledge about congregational development with the seminary community and placing seminarians into congregations as coaches.

As the program currently stands, in each location, congregations are brought together by a sponsor -- often a denominational judicatory like a diocese, conference, or synod. The sponsor chooses the participating congregations, provides the venue (usually a church hall), pays a fee, and passes along part of the cost to the congregations, to encourage buy-in. Participants agree that the pastor and three lay leaders will attend four all-day workshops. Partners for Sacred Places provides speakers, handouts, homework assignments, a listserv, and the combined wisdom of nearly 300 other congregations that have gone through the program since 2004.

The training focuses on the congregation's heritage, the church building, how it's currently used, the congregation's human and other assets, and capital campaign planning. Each congregation hires a professional to assess the needs of its building, and team members create a realistic plan for stewardship of the building and strengthening the congregations' programs. The seminarian-coaches will help the congregations achieve reasonable progress along the way.

Can involvement in this program benefit a theological school? A. Robert Jaeger, executive director of Partners for Sacred Places, believes that it can. "New Dollars/New Partners" can create stronger connections between seminaries and congregations, he says, affirming the connections between academia and congregational life. If the program is integrated into the curriculum as an elective or as a lecture series, education becomes a two-way street --field ed students take new knowledge about fundraising, history, domestic missions, community and urban outreach, religious art and architecture, and theology to the congregations they are coaching. Meanwhile, they bring back their real-world parish experiences to the classroom, enriching their fellow students as well.

Interview: A. Robert Jaeger

A. Robert Jaeger is executive director of Partners for Sacred Places, a nonprofit organization founded in 1989 to help religious congregations that have older and historic buildings. Originally focused on saving architectural landmark buildings threatened by neglect or deferred maintenance, the organization later published original research showing that churches, synagogues, and other "sacred places" serve as important community centers and offer services to their communities -- homeless shelters, after-school care, meals for the elderly, concert space, and more -- worth many millions of dollars annually. Partners for Sacred Places argues that since congregations provide significant public benefit, they warrant broad public support. To download a copy of Sacred Places at Risk, the report on this research, visit their web site.

What can seminary students offer to congregations that are engaged in your program?

A. Robert Jaeger, executive director, Partners for Sacred Places: It's a two-way street -- the students learn a lot about how congregations tick, and the congregations gain a lot from the participation, support, and encouragement of the students. And, of course, coaches are not meant to have all the answers. They're simply meant to keep the congregations on target and honest vis-à-vis their goals.

Theological schools already have a lot on their plates. Why would they be interested in your program?

It's not really just about money. Many congregations are smaller than they once were, so congregations have to appeal to the community more effectively. In fact, that's why denominations buy this program. It nudges and encourages and pushes congregations so that they are willingly and energetically getting reconnected and getting reengaged with their communities. I think that's a very powerful concept for any seminary to embrace.

In a day when we're all terribly concerned about the steady decline in the size of many congregations, here is one thing that can help. This is an approach that can help even a small congregation become more self-sufficient and sustain itself for the future. It's not reversing membership decline -- that's not its major purpose, although that can be a side effect. But when a congregation is down to 50 or 80 members, "New Dollars/New Partners" can encourage the kind of leadership and good management and broader funding and better use of space that are key elements in surviving with that kind of small membership base. If you're a seminary turning out pastors going into those kinds of churches -- churches that might otherwise fail in five or 10 or 20 years -- then this is something you need to think about.

In its initial collaboration with theological schools, Partners for Sacred Places will be working with two or more of the following institutions:

  • Brite Divinity School
  • Candler School of Theology, Emory University
  • George W. Truett Theological Seminary, Baylor University

To learn more about the partnership between theological schools and Partners for Sacred Places, contact Elizabeth Terry, director of training, at 215-498-0793 or

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