By: Christa Meland
Lilly Endowment, Inc. recently awarded a $500,000 sustainability grant to the Dakotas-Minnesota Area, which will be used to help clergy be healthy and whole in light of pandemic-related challenges and stressors.
This “Phase 3” grant follows a $1 million Lilly grant that the Area received in 2016 and another $500,000 sustainability grant awarded in 2019, both of which focused on addressing economic challenges facing pastoral leaders. Lilly hadn’t planned to award additional funds beyond the two initial grants but after repeatedly hearing stories from recipients about COVID-related fatigue, burnout, and constant pivoting, Lilly invited them to develop a proposal to address those specific issues.
Diane Owen, who has led the Area Lilly Grant Initiative since 2017, collected feedback through a variety of avenues—an area well-being survey for clergy, individual interviews with clergy, and Cabinet insights, to name a few—in order to determine core needs across the Dakotas and Minnesota and put together the latest proposal to address them.
The key strategies addressed in the proposal, which still must be formalized and designed with input from clergy and other Area stakeholders, are:
• Help clergy take a break: Area clergy indicated difficulty in taking time off—vacation as well as sabbaticals or renewal leaves. The hope is to create a pulpit supply system within each conference so that clergy can easily find qualified leaders to fill in with worship preparation, message delivery, and pastoral care to allow them to take time away. Additionally, a new transitional leave for clergy would allow them to take a breath between appointments without a lapse in salary.
• Provide easier access to resources: Newer clergy in particular aren’t always clear on how to access resources—particularly those related to their health and well-being. The hope is to provide simple and easy access to emergency funds for clergy in the event of a crisis and to provide well-being resources—like mental health, spiritual direction, and coaching—that might not be available through Wespath or other conference or area sources. Another possibility is having a designated person who is a first stop and/or resource connector when a pastor has a personal need that arises and isn’t quite sure where to begin.
• Provide access to mental health care: Many clergy have said the system for accessing mental health care through their benefits seems too complicated and/or their available funds run out too quickly. One possible solution is creating a model for all clergy to enjoy some type of direct relational support—whether therapy, spiritual direction, or reflective supervision.
Owen said another key takeaway from talking with clergy is that pastors in small, rural communities and clergy of color often experience a significantly higher level of stress as compared to their peers. As the grant money is allocated, a key question that will be explored is: What do we need to create to more effectively support those groups?
Rev. Cindy Gregorson, Minnesota director of ministries and clergy assistant to the bishop, is excited about the grant because it will allow the Area to address core challenges and needs that clergy have identified as they have navigated ministry amid a global health crisis.
“Clergy have done amazing work in moving ministry to an online platform and continually adapting to the changing reality,” she said. “They are exhausted, and this pattern of ministry is not sustainable for the long term. We have a generous vacation and sabbatical policy, but a significant barrier is actually being able to be away from the church with competent coverage. We have resources for mental and emotional well-being but accessing them can be challenging. Our Phase 3 grant allows us to address these barriers and provide more robust resources that will allow for clergy to keep providing excellent leadership in this continually changing ministry landscape.”
The Dakotas has already established a team to map out all existing clergy well-being support services, and Owen will soon convene the same type of team in Minnesota. From there, specific design groups will be formed to help formalize new offerings and processes using grant funds. The design groups will partner with a variety of existing teams and departments across the conferences—for example, the Boards of Ordained Ministry, the Boards of Pension and Health Benefits, and each Cabinet and leadership development staff--that already have responsibility for some aspect of clergy well-being so they can work together for more effectiveness.
Owen said that although the grant is focused on the well-being of clergy specifically, the goal is that by helping pastors achieve well-being, they can in turn support their staff and congregations in order to be able to do the same.
The $500,000 grant requires a $250,000 match, which the Area will raise in partnership with its respective Foundations.
The ultimate goal: “We want our clergy to be whole, to pursue a holistic approach to their well-being through resources that are available to them,” said Owen. “We want them to be able to access and tap into those resources without reservation, concern, or because they don’t have time.”
Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
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