The Office of Theology and Worship in the General Assembly Mission Council is accepting applications for two grant programs designed to help pastoral leaders in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) form “communities of theological friendship.” Mini-Grants are available to pastoral leaders across the PC(USA), and past participants in several Office of Theology and Worship programs are eligible for a Cultivating Grant. Associate for Theology and program administrator Barry Ensign-George says the communities of theological friendship funded by the grants will consist of small groups of pastoral leaders who meet together over a sustained period of time, worshiping and engaging in theological conversation when they meet. “So much of ministry today is done in the midst of isolation from one another,” says Ensign-George. “These groups that are forming will address the deep want of many pastoral leaders to be in significant relationship with their peers. They will both talk about the things of God and await God’s presence together.”

Carol Allen is one of the early recipients of a $1,500 Mini-Grant. With colleague Barbara Cathey she attended the Presbytery Pastoral Care Network conference at Big Tent, and they came away with a renewed awareness of the importance of covenant groups. “We began to realize how fantastic it would be to actually sit down and talk to each other for more than five minutes at a Presbytery meeting,” says Allen, who some years before retirement helped author a book called Shared Wisdom that helps pastoral leaders, seminarians and laity use the case study method to reflect theologically on their practice of ministry. She and Barbara invited nine other woman pastors ranging in age from mid-30s to 71 to join their community of theological friendship. “All of them, including the one that wasn’t able to join us, said ‘yes, this is exactly what we’re looking for,’” says Allen. “There’s such a hunger for a timeout, for spiritual support to live out what we believe as we practice ministry.”         

Allen, who retired from Chicago’s Fourth Presbyterian Church in 2005, is now working in spiritual direction. Cathey is the full-time pastor of a multicultural Chicago congregation. Their group will use their Mini-Grant to cover costs for a speaker and some of the lodging expenses for their first retreat in the fall of 2012.

Jim Kitchens, pastor at Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco, is one of the early recipients of a $3,000 Cultivating Grant, eligible to pastoral leaders who have been participants in Theology and Worship programs (Pastor-Theologian Seminars, Excellent from the Start, Company of New Pastors, Reforming Ministry, and Academies of Missional Preaching) in which communities of theological friendship were central. In addition to meeting together in their small groups, all of the Cultivating Grant recipients will meet together for consultation in both the spring and fall of 2012.

“This Cultivating Grant has given four of us longtime friends in ministry – two from the Princeton area and two from the Bay Area – the opportunity to come together to sustain a conversation that we’ve had informally for years,” says Kitchens, who acknowledges that groups like these have carried him through emotionally difficult times in his 30 years of ministry. “Sometimes you come in feeling down or struggling with hardships,” he says. “Those you meet with over a period time for worship and theological conversation lift you up, put you back together, with hope in your heart as you dive back into ministry.”

For some time Kitchens has been aware that part of his call has been to mentor and support younger pastors. This is what his community of theological friendship will focus on. “We realize that mentoring doesn’t mean creating younger clones of ourselves,” he says. “The church of the 21st century is so much different than the church of the ’70s. We want to make available the resources we’ve developed over several decades of ministry to younger pastors. There are a lot of open-source conversations among millennial teaching elders about the future shape of the church. We want to encourage them in their dreams for the church.”

Significant funding for the Communities of Theological Friendship program comes from the Lilly Endowment. Ensign-George says the Endowment has a deep conviction that religious congregations are central to the well being of the larger community and society and that pastoral leaders are critical in enabling congregations to faithfully seek the wholeness of the world around them. Congregations are like links in a chain — each is integral to the whole.

While the Lily Endowment’s generous funding has enabled these grant programs to be established, that funding will come to an end. This means those who affirm the importance of pastoral leaders gathering in communities of theological friendship have a great opportunity.

 A one-time gift of $1,500 gives a small group of pastors the chance to worship and reflect together theologically — for all of our well-being.

Support Communities of Theological Friendship.  To apply for a Mini or Cultivating Grant click here.