Illustrations by Luke Best
Since Lilly Endowment Inc.’s Pathways for Tomorrow Initiative was unveiled in early 2021, 110 ATS-accredited schools have received Phase 2 and 3 grants, and the Endowment has awarded more than $200 million to help schools create new pathways for ministers to enter Christian ministry.
The initiative is giving schools the space and resources to consider how they’re training ministers and to experiment with new programs and models. In a gathering in November 2023 in Indianapolis, 370 people from across the United States and Canada came together to discuss their progress and brainstorm ideas for moving forward. The event kicked off with an advisory committee meeting and included two-and-a-half days of presentations, discussions, and interactive work, providing a snapshot of where the initiative is as it enters its third year.
The Rev. Dr. Jo Ann Deasy, who is leading the coordination effort for the Association of Theological Schools, said the meeting “embodied the best of theological education.”
“The gathering brought together a diverse community of schools worshipping and learning together, seeking to rebuild theological education in order to prepare pastors better and lay leaders for congregations in the United States and Canada,” she said. “They discussed the challenges of change, the hope of partnerships, the desire to expand access, and the reality of the economic challenges they face.
“They discussed the challenges of change, the hope of partnerships, the desire to expand access, and the reality of the economic challenges they face.”
“What a privilege to walk with these teams as they seek to faithfully steward the resources they’ve been given for this good work.”
The schools that received grants reflect the wide diversity of institutions by size, location, and denomination. And the types of projects express the range of thought and interest in schools. Projects include working to train lay leaders in churches, reach diverse audiences, and find cutting-edge ways to prepare students for ministry. The conference gave grantees a chance to consider their own progress and see others’ work.
The theme of the conference, “Theological Education Under Construction,” demonstrated the point of where grantees are in the initiative. The Endowment began funding schools in 2021, and depending on the length of the grant, the initiative will run through 2027. That means that most schools are still in the early stages of their work.
The construction theme was supported by activities that included schools using blocks and toys to build representations of their work and projects. Some of those were elaborate displays that illustrated the work. The theme was based on 1 Corinthians 3:9: “For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building.”
In a report on the grant, Deasy noted that more than 60 schools had made new hires and had spent $1.4 million on consultants. Schools launched 38 new programs in 2022, and more than $500,000 was spent on curriculum development and design. Schools spent more than $400,000 on marketing.
The report also noted that some program launches “were extremely successful with enrolling large numbers of new students or reaching new audiences. However, others struggled and had to assess” the reason for the struggle. Some schools have had to pivot in their projects as they’ve reconsidered their projects and what students want.
Deasy said one of the positives so far is that schools have spent time and resources to understand what their constituencies want and now “know more about them than they have ever known.”
She also noted that there is a “tension” about the future of theological education as schools wrestle with how to best train students while also creating sustainable and affordable programs. Parts of the conference focused on how people and schools were looking at the future and their work.
“I’m proud of people for hanging together as a community as we’re all considering different paths to the future,” Deasy said.
One of the key areas of the grant has come in schools finding and developing partners who can help them develop the future. In 2022, more than half of grantees said they had formed new partnership. Some of those included denominations, other schools, and hospitals. They also came in the form of consultants and advisors. Schools noted that those partnerships have come as they have found new ways to attract students, prepare them, and do ministry. As well, partners have come into focus for grantees as they look to create new education models.
“The gathering was incredibly generative space, providing much-needed time for teams to learn.”
Several schools have seen partnerships flourish, particularly as they work to put students in ministry contexts.
The In Trust Center for Theological Schools is co-coordinating the grant with ATS and has been doing so by sharing news about the grantees and the initiative, creating learning spaces, and resourcing schools.
In the opening session of the conference, In Trust Center President Amy Kardash shared that her hope was that grantees would find “stickiness” – that there would be ideas, connections, and moments that would challenge or reinforce what they were doing.
She noted that the conference showed that “we are not called to be silos” and called attendees to consider, “Who needs to be at our table?” Kardash added that “accreditation and the reaccreditation process can be a basis for or accelerator for change.”
Kardash said there were several parts of the conference that provided ideas that should stick. For example, she mentioned how schools were considering prior learning assessments, learning in place, and considering partnerships and the future. She shared that the In Trust Center would continue to consider how to identify and create intersections between projects with similar themes and raise awareness about how some projects are focusing on opportunities that will benefit the field broadly and not just their school.
“The gathering was an incredibly generative space providing much-needed time for teams to think together, to learn more about one another, to learn about progress and themes via workshops and panels, and to build the learning community,” Kardash said. “I was inspired by the progress and commitment of the teams and deeply grateful for Jo Ann's leadership and for our partners at ATS.”