Community Presbyterian Church of Ben Avon, PA, has received a grant of $49,699 to enable its minister, the Rev. Dr. Donna Giver-Johnston, to participate in the 2019 National Clergy Renewal Program. Community Presbyterian Church is one of 150 congregations across the United States selected to participate in this competitive grant program, which is funded by Lilly Endowment Inc. and administered by Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis. Established by the Endowment in 2000, the program’s grants allow Christian congregations to support their pastors with the gift of extended time away from their ministerial duties and responsibilities.
Ministers whose congregations are awarded the grants use their time away from the demands of daily ministry to engage in reflection and renewal. The approach respects the “Sabbath time” concept, offering ministers a carefully considered respite that may include travel, study, rest, prayer and immersive arts and cultural experiences.
The overall theme of Donna’s sabbatical is “story.” Stories help us understand where we came from and discover where we’re going. She will visit unexplored places in her home city of Pittsburgh and travel abroad to find stories of faith pilgrims as well as family ancestors. Stories help us find meaning in our lives and truly know others. She will spend time remembering her family story by making digital photo albums and listening to aging parents, parents-in-law and sisters tell their stories and record them for children and future grandchildren. Through stories we come to know and experience the grace of God. Through reading, writing and retreating, she will engage body, mind and spirit. This sabbatical will provide her with the space to listen deeply to her story, the stories of family and the stories of faith, and to knit them all together. With the time to move at a different pace, she hopes to cultivate spiritual practices that she can continue and share after she returns to ministry.
The congregation will also focus on story. They plan to re-tell and record their own individual stories, as well as together remember the church’s story. Since Pastor Donna’s installation in 2013, the church has been working hard to heal from past losses and discern God’s leading. They will benefit from a well-earned rest from meetings and initiatives. They will find peace and fresh perspective in spiritual activities that regular church life doesn’t always allow for: hearing new worship leaders and liturgies, enjoying God’s glorious earth, exploring the blessings of silence and stillness, taking in music, meals and activities together with no agenda other than fellowship and fun.
God created Sabbath as a gift. This sabbatical will bless and benefit both pastor and pastorate in vital ways. Rest from labors will be essential in giving Pastor Donna and the congregation of Community Presbyterian Church the renewed energy and enthusiasm needed to write the next chapter of their church’s story.
“Pastors play an important role in nourishing the spiritual lives of individuals and in guiding the work of the Christian congregations they serve,” said Christopher L. Coble, Lilly Endowment’s vice president for religion. “Through these grants, we seek to honor pastors for their extraordinary service and enable them to engage in a brief period of rest and renewal. We have learned that such experiences invigorate the leadership of pastors and bring new vitality to their congregations as well.”
Through the National Clergy Renewal Program, congregations apply for grants of up to $50,000 to support renewal programs for their pastors. Collaborative in nature and implementation, the program allows congregations to partner with their ministers in developing experiences that address their unique renewal needs and aspirations. Recognizing that ministers’ families are subject to the stress and demands placed on pastoral leaders, the program encourages pastors to involve their families in renewal activities. Congregational needs during the minister’s renewal experience also are considered. Up to $15,000 of the grant may be used to support interim pastoral leadership during the pastor’s retreat, as well as renewal activities within the congregation. Since the National Clergy Renewal Program’s inception, more than 2,800 congregations have participated in the program, including the 150 congregations receiving grants in 2019.
The Rev. Dr. Robert Saler, research fellow and director of the Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal Programs, noted that the National Clergy Renewal Program integrates key attributes of healthy congregations, including a mutual respect for the renewal needs of both ministers and the congregations they serve.
“The program provides an opportunity for congregations to express appreciation for their ministers’ service and leadership,” Saler said. “At a time when leaders are often praised for their pace of innovation and productivity, the National Clergy Renewal Program pays homage to the timeless wisdom embedded in the practice of reflection and renewal.”
Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis directs the Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal Program for Indiana Congregations and a second program for congregations across the United States through its Center for Pastoral Excellence.