Lilly Endowment Grant to Provide a Bridge for Early Career Preachers

Richmond, VA (December 8, 2022)—Pastors in their first years of ministry face steep challenges. The week-to-week work of preaching requires significant time. Congregants and communities are shifting in their members’ ages and cultural demographics. The rise of digital technologies raises questions about how ministers can best meet the needs of their church in worship. Addressing social issues from the pulpit is difficult. Studies show that within the first five years, ministers drop out at a high rate. How do we continue forming leaders and transforming the church?

With a $1 million grant from the Lilly Endowment, Inc., Union Presbyterian Seminary will fill the unique gap between formal theological education and the early years of preaching ministry. As part of the Lilly Endowment’s Compelling Preaching Initiative, a new program will offer a path to nurture and support 120 early career pastors over five years. The Bridge for Early Career Preachers will help nurture and support 120 new ministers during the next five years to develop their voices for faithful, imaginative, intelligent, energetic, and loving proclamation.

The Bridge is being funded through Lilly Endowment’s Compelling Preaching Initiative. Union Presbyterian Seminary is one of 32 organizations receiving funding in an invitational round of grants for the initiative, which is designed to help Christian pastors strengthen their abilities to proclaim the gospel in more engaging and effective ways.

By providing multiple levels of support to navigate the changing congregational dynamics faced by new religious leaders, the Seminary’s 210 years of service will be strengthened by the Bridge program. According to Richard W. Voelz, Associate Professor of Preaching and Worship at Union Presbyterian Seminary, “The Compelling Preaching Initiative will help us provide focused support for leaders who are in their early years of preaching ministry.”

What makes preaching resonate? The Bridge will help early career preachers by focusing on four key areas. First, a compelling message, which involves diverse listeners. Early career ministers desire to know their congregation and community so they can preach a relevant message. Compelling momentum, which addresses how people are moved to action on significant social issues, is far different in congregations than in classrooms. Thirdly, compelling media includes fostering digital engagement before, during, or after sermons. Finally, compelling mentoring relates to professional coaching and peer groups to build supportive relationships.

The Bridge will include a new 24-person cohort annually over five years. Programs include quarterly half-day workshops for busy pastors juggling multiple responsibilities. Small group peer coaching, along with professional consultations on building robust engagement via digital technology, will further develop personal relationships for those in their critical first years of congregational ministry. Cohort members will gather for an annual conference. Regular webinars will engage a wider public audience beyond those who participate in cohorts. Through the Bridge, participants will find new resources and a community that seeks to sustain them beyond their first years in ministry.

The Bridge for Early Career Preachers is generously funded by a grant from the Lilly Endowment, Inc., made through its Compelling Preaching Initiative, to Union Presbyterian Seminary.

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