WILSON, N.C. — January 4, 2021 — When a focus on service and a commitment to community partnerships intersect, the ensuing creativity and innovation provide opportunities for forging new relationships. And so, it is with great anticipation that Barton College announces plans to create a Center for Vocation and Rural Ministry to serve Eastern North Carolina through the “Thriving in Ministry Initiative 2020” and generous support of Lilly Endowment, Inc., which awarded the College an unprecedented grant for this work in the amount of $959,816.00 over five years.
“Barton College is thrilled to be invited into the ‘Thriving in Ministry Initiative 2020’ and to receive this generous grant from Lilly Endowment, Inc.,” shared Dr. Douglas N. Searcy, president of Barton College. “This award represents the largest single grant received in the more than 100-year history of the institution. The Center for Vocation and Rural Ministry, developed and supported through this grant, will expand the work of our Center for Religious Studies at Barton and enable us to impact Eastern North Carolina in ways that will add a new forum to our missional voice as a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) affiliated institution committed to the advancement of vocation and social justice.”
Dr. Gary Daynes, provost and vice president for academic affairs and primary editor of the grants, was the catalyst for Barton College seeking funding from Lilly Endowment, Inc. for this project, and has guided the Planning and Implementation Team’s work to its success this past fall. That team included Daynes; the Reverend Blythe Taylor, assistant provost for integrative learning, director of the Oral Communication Center, and the principal grant writer; the Reverend Dr. Rodney A. Werline, director of the Center for Religious Studies and the Marie and Lyman Barnhill Professor of Religious Studies and secondary editor for the grant project; and the Reverend David Finnegan-Hosey, chaplain of the college and a contributor to the grant proposal process.
Lilly Endowment contacted the College in January 2020 with an invitation to apply for a planning grant to develop its project under the umbrella of Lilly Endowment’s “Thriving in Ministry Initiative 2020.” Barton’s application was approved, and more than $43,000 was awarded for an initial grant to do research and planning to apply for the implementation grant by the beginning of August 2020. The College received approval for the implementation grant in late November 2020.
“Because of its geographic location and historical affiliation with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Barton College had the right relationships to explore the needs of ministers to small, rural, and diverse congregations,” said Daynes. “Those relationships made it possible for us to imagine a grant proposal, which would support ministers and strengthen the congregations they serve in Eastern North Carolina. Those activities, in turn, will benefit Barton’s students, staff, faculty, and alumni, most of whom live or work in this region. The grant, then, improves the work of ministers and deepens the work of the College.”
The “Thriving in Ministry Initiative 2020” is part of Lilly Endowment’s grantmaking to strengthen pastoral leadership in Christian congregations in the United States. This has been a grantmaking priority at Lilly Endowment for nearly 25 years.
“Leading a congregation today is multi-faceted and exceptionally demanding,” said Christopher L. Coble, Lilly Endowment’s vice president for religion. “When pastors have opportunities to build meaningful relationships with experienced colleagues, they are able to negotiate the challenges of ministry and their leadership thrives. These promising programs, including Barton College’s Center for Vocation and Rural Ministry, will help pastors develop these kinds of relationships, especially when they are in the midst of significant professional transitions.”
“As part of our research for the implementation grant application, the planning team interviewed 29 pastors of churches with membership enrollments of less than 100 in Eastern North Carolina, representing seven different denominational traditions, and with diverse experiences and backgrounds,” Taylor explained. “Three themes that surfaced from the interviews were operational and financial stress within the churches; the lack of spiritual connection with ministerial colleagues; and fit, which included concerns of congregation membership aging and dwindling, and the challenges of ministering across generational, racial, and economic gaps in Eastern North Carolina. These themes provide a complex view of the demands placed on pastors. All experience significant struggle in their pastoral contexts. Most pastors appear to accept that struggle as part of their work, and some view it as part of their calling. All, though, long for rich relationships and networks that deepen their sense of calling and service. The ministers with whom we conversed were not despairing. Through these conversations, we learned that these ministers hunger for support that would sustain their own faith and enhance their commitments to the church.”
Barton’s new Center for Vocation and Rural Ministry, to be housed under the umbrella of the College’s well established Center for Religious Studies, will focus on enriching pastors’ spiritual lives, facilitating relational connections, developing their sense of vocation, and examining their fit with congregations in this region – all aspects of ministerial flourishing. The Center’s programming will provide pastors with short-term renewal experiences, spiritual direction, intellectual and social opportunities, and mentorship and relational development with other regional pastors. And, it will do those things informed by the richness and the difficulties of the region’s culture, economy, and racial landscape. The well-being of pastors is integral to their shepherding of congregations; this is particularly important for bi-vocational pastors serving small rural churches and seeking to find a healthy work-life balance. The impact of pastoral health on the success of small congregations is significant and cannot be overlooked.
Barton College has been affiliated with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) since its founding. “That relationship has been and continues to be a priority for the College and has helped to shape Barton’s mission and purpose,” noted Werline. “Over the course of the past century, the College’s Department of Religion and Philosophy and the Office of the Chaplain have supported pastors and congregations across Eastern North Carolina in a variety of ways, including but not limited to partnering with the Christian Church (DOC) Region of N.C. with programming opportunities, providing pulpit supply, hosting endowed lectureships for ministers, offering educational opportunities for church lay leaders through the Lay Academy, and, of course, in preparing students for seminary and future roles in ministry.
“The important work that the Center for Vocation and Rural Ministry plans to accomplish will honor those faculty members who have come before us and served in part-time ministerial roles for many years in these rural churches in Eastern North Carolina,” Werline added.
The Vocation and Rural Ministry program will begin with a summer renewal experience, titled Revive!, with an initial cohort of up to 12 participants. Pastors will be invited to the Barton campus for one week including two weekends, and be provided with housing, food service, and a variety of opportunities to renew their spirits inclusive of worship opportunities, dialogical exchanges with fellow pastors, and facilitated conversations with scholars that they would otherwise not have the privilege of meeting. Participants will receive a spiritual director who remains with them through the course of the following year. The small nature of the cohort will provide an opportunity for community building among the pastors. Topics relevant to the pastors will be engaged through dialogical pedagogy thus paying homage to values around adult learning theory. And, pastors will have access to the services of the Oral Communication Center. They will be able to spend time developing their own pastoral agency as part of a “think tank” committed to exploring the future of the church and the issues of racism, economic challenges, and generational divides that they face in this region. Then, as they desire, the pastors will work with student researchers during the year to examine the church’s future direction. Throughout their renewal experience, they will have access to Barton’s Hackney Library resources where they can explore and expand their thinking. Pastors also will have the ability to meet with a health coach and engage in Barton’s established wellness program through exercise, nutrition, and engagement with spiritual practices. All of these opportunities will be elective to the pastors in the program.
Barton plans to hire staff for the Center for Vocation and Rural Ministry in early spring to begin building relationships with rural pastors in Eastern North Carolina and to begin the recruitment of pastors for the Revive! program. The Oral Communication Center of Barton College will partner with the Center for Religious Studies to train students in homiletical delivery. The students will become part of Barton’s team of “Revival Preachers” who will supply the pulpits. The first pastor cohort will be offered in the summer of 2021. Pending the success of the first cohort, a second cohort will be created after the 2021 Christmas season. By summer of 2022, 24 participants will enter the renewal experience allowing for the beginning of a mentoring component.
The new director and a nine-member advisory board will be supported and guided by Werline, who will also supervise the director of the Center for Vocation and Rural Ministry. Finnegan-Hosey will partner with the Center in its mission and ministry, aid in pulpit supply, and serve as a spiritual director. Taylor will aid in pulpit supply and training related to it, serve as a spiritual director, and assist with grant reporting. Also supporting and guiding the new director and board will be two additional ministers, representing the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and another local denomination, and Daynes will aid in pulpit supply and be responsible for grant reporting.
This project grant will allow Barton the opportunity to expand the reach of its services to pastors, and to expand those services to include renewal and worship experiences, spiritual direction, cultural and regional understanding, organic networking and mentoring relationships, and vocational discernment. Once pastors have gone through an initial renewal experience, the staff of the Center for Vocation and Rural Ministry will visit pastors in their settings, support their spiritual development and their physical renewal, and fill their pulpits at no cost to the church. These activities strengthen Barton’s historical commitment to training ministers, deepen its connection to the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), expand its contribution to the communities of its region, and provide opportunities for the spiritual growth of students – a key component of the College’s mission.
The Planning and Implementation Grant Team is indebted to the pastors who took time out of their schedules to share their perspectives on ministry; to the members of the steering committee who helped to shape the proposal – the Reverend Dr. Morgan Daughety, the Reverend Dr. Lamont Foster, Alexis Gibbs, the Reverend Laura Johnson, Lorraine Raper; and to Bishop Valerie Melvin (ex-officio); and to the Reverend Dr. David Odom and Alaina Kleinbeck of the Leadership Education Division at Duke University, whose support and guidance was invaluable.