Area receives $500K Lilly sustainability grant to continue efforts

December 05, 2019
Diane Owen, program director of the Dakotas-Minnesota Area Lilly Grant Initiative. Photo by David Stucke

By: Christa Meland

Lilly Endowment, Inc. recently awarded a $500,000 sustainability grant to the Dakotas-Minnesota Area, which will enable the continuation of a variety of key programs and grants focused on financial health and well-being.

The grant follows a $1 million Lilly grant that the Area received in 2016. Both grants focus on helping pastors develop stronger financial literacy skills, reduce or eliminate educational debt, and become equipped to foster a theology of generosity within their congregations. They were given as part of Lilly Endowment’s initiative to address economic challenges facing pastoral leaders.

“We care so much about the well-being of our pastors and the vitality of our churches—and we know that clergy financial health is critical to both their personal well-being and the well-being of the congregations they are leading,” said Diane Owen, program director of the Area Lilly Grant Initiative. “The sustainability grant allows us to sustain invaluable programming for the next three years (2020-2022).”

One of the key efforts that the sustainability grant will support is the Nonprofit Church Leadership Program, a 12-month, graduate-level certificate program for clergy that’s offered through a partnership with Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell, South Dakota. It provides participants with the business acumen required to meet the demands of a growing church, along with training in how to handle aspects of fundraising, organizational leadership, and human resources. It has made a significant difference in the lives and ministry of participants, and the second group of clergy participants began this program in July.

The first Nonprofit Church Leadership Program graduates, who completed the program in July.

“I found the Nonprofit Church Leadership Program to be exactly the right training and forum that I needed for this season of ministry at Champlin UMC,” said Rev. Max Richter, who completed the program in July. “The combination of topics in stewardship, leadership development, human resource management, and visioning all integrated into our development work—for both the congregation and myself as a pastoral leader—beyond what I could have ever imagined when I said yes to this invitation.”

A $5,000 student debt-reduction grant is another Area effort that the sustainability funds will support. That grant is awarded to pastors who have been in ministry 10 years or less and complete personal financial education.
Rev. Rachael Warner, who serves UMC of Anoka and has received two $5,000 debt-reduction grants, said the impact of those funds has been indescribable. “I estimate that the grant has taken at least five years off of the life of my student loans,” she said. “That feels incredible and helps me begin to map out a plan for my family’s future that eliminates debt and frees us to more and more generosity. Nothing feels more amazing than freeing up our finances so that we can truly invest in the world changing work of organizations in our community, including our local church.”

Lilly sustainability funds will likely also enable financial ministry grants to continue to be available to all local churches. Those grants currently provide up to $500 in financial assistance for congregations to host a financial education class for members of the church and/or community.

Cornerstone UMC in Lake Crystal received such a grant. It covered about half of the cost of offering a “Financial Peace University” class to its members, and participant feedback was overwhelmingly positive.

“We are learning to use our resources wisely and to put giving as a priority,” said Gina Setter, who led the class. “We are learning about gratitude and giving in relation to the Bible and how it is an important part of our Christian faith.”

Other current offerings that the sustainability grant will support for another three years include free financial education materials for clergy, and funds for clergy and spouses to attend two national educational events around compensation, financial planning, and generosity. The new Lilly grant will also be used in other ways to broaden and deepen training and education around financial health and stewardship.

The $500,000 sustainability grant will require matching funds to be raised by the Dakotas-Minnesota Area. The Dakotas and Minnesota United Methodist Foundations are working to raising those funds (donations can be made by contacting Sheri Meister at or 612-230-3337).

“I am so excited to be able to continue to lead this critically important work around financial well-being,” said Owen. “I am privileged to provide our pastors with educational opportunities, grants and scholarships, and other resources that can help them both personally and professionally. I want our pastors to feel confident and competent in leading their churches to financial health and generosity.”

Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

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