Lilly Endowment Inc., founded in 1937 by the family behind the pharmaceutical firm Eli Lilly and Company, is injecting millions of American dollars into theological education across North America.
In Canada dozens of theological schools are benefiting in the three-phase philanthropic initiative known as Pathways for Tomorrow, aimed at helping them respond to the most urgent challenges they face in preparing church leaders of tomorrow.
Phase 1 included 34 Canadian theological schools receiving planning grants of up to US $50,000 each. Twelve schools went on to receive implementation grants of up to US $1 million, and one school – NAIITS, formerly the North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies – was awarded US $5 million and the lead role in a multischool partnership project (involving NAIITS, Acadia, Ambrose and Tyndale) to increase theological educational capacity.
In total, Canadian seminaries received grants adding up to "just more than US $18 million," out of more than US $209 million distributed to schools across North America, said Judith Cebula, communications director at Lilly Endowment in an email. "In addition, many Canadian schools are participating in and benefiting from grants received by other schools."
Ruth McGillivray, executive vice-president at Northwest Seminary in Langley, B.C., says her school, which received just over US $823,000 through the Pathways initiative, has been breaking new ground with competency-based theological education (CBTE) for a decade. She describes CBTE as "in-context discipleship," likening it to "an apprenticeship approach to training pastors. You learn on the job and you are mentored by someone accomplished in the role you are learning."
With 250 students more than half are enrolled in CBTE programs. McGillivray says their grant proposal was centred on the desire to strengthen and expand both the school’s competency-based theological education programs and their continuing education programs "to prepare and support a diverse new generation of pastoral and lay church leaders."
She describes the Lilly funds as seed money, explaining the bulk of the funds will go to salaries to enable Northwest to do such things as recruiting, training and writing curricula more effectively. The school also has French, Spanish and Korean language programs, and will use part of their grant to expand competency-based Korean language theological education here in Canada and overseas.
Canadian seminaries received grants of just more than US $18 million, out of more than US $209 million distributed to schools across North America.
"Given what’s happening in our culture, the need for theological education is greater than ever," McGillivray says. "Christians need to be equipped to think biblically and theologically in how to respond to the issues we face daily." Northwest is developing a "financially sustainable and scalable model," she says, with a goal of making "education more affordable and accessible to the people who need it."
Toronto’s Wycliffe College received US $999,075 from Lilly to establish the Canadian Institute for Empirical Church Research in partnership with the data-aggregating platform WayBase. Describing the initiative as "game changing for the Canadian church," Wycliffe program director Stephen Hewko said in a media release that the institute will conduct meaningful research studies on Canadian churches in timely and cost-effective ways.
In Caronport, Sask., the Paul E. Magnus Centre for Leadership and Management Studies (at Briercrest Seminary) will use a similar-sized grant to fund the Canadian Thriving Multivocational Ministers Project, intended to help men and women thrive who serve churches in pastoral ministry part-time while holding down other jobs.
Project overseer Jay Mowchenko says that by working in partnership with the New Leaf Network, they used their phase 1 grant of US $50,000 to build a multivocational online course, pay for the writing of their recent book Tent Makers: Multivocational Ministry in Western Society (Wipf and Stock, 2022) and host an online conference called The Sacred Side Hustle.
[Through Pathways for Tomorrow grants] schools will take deliberate steps to address the challenges they have identified in ways that make the most sense to them.
"In Canada we’re used to running lean, so a lot of stuff got done," he says. They applied for the phase 2 grant "never dreaming that it would be approved, but we thought we had something of value to support, so this has been a fantastic gift for us." They intend to build a community of multivocational leaders in "a sort of cyclical ecosystem" through which ministers are identified, invited, equipped, supported and empowered.
Asked about the five-year impact he hopes the project will have, Mowchenko says that while bivocational or multivocational ministers were once viewed as secondclass citizens, today they are gaining more respect. Citing healthier, more resilient leaders and congregations among those who minister multivocationally, Mowchenko says, "We are convinced that as the Canadian church embraces a more spacious vocational vision for church leadership, [the church] is going to thrive.
"We are hoping that this is the seed that spreads and helps to resource a renaissance of multivocational ministry across the country."
Among other things, the Lilly grant will provide NAIITS and its partner schools with the resources to investigate successful approaches to theological education that is "decolonial, contextual and in-digenized."
Use words like those, says NAIITS director Terry Le-Blanc, and some people think you’re going to trade the gospel of Jesus Christ for some other gospel. But "That’s not true." Ultimately, he says, it’s all about creating a Canadian learning community for decolonization and innovation in theological education, and producing Indigenous graduates better prepared to more effectively minister to Indigenous communities.
LeBlanc says he feels honoured, but also "a bit floored," to know that NAIITS is the only Canadian school to receive a phase 3, US $5 million grant. Describing NAIITS as being "a well-trained, highly dedicated janitorial team, cleaning up the messes created when Indigenous people come into contact with Christian institutions of higher theological education," he says that he believes they’ve "done a very good job over the years."
But the fact is they’ve "accomplished a great deal with very little." The Lilly funds are project specific, but will help to ensure NAIITS’ long-term sustainability.
It was in December 2021 that Lilly began distributing the grant monies. Lilly Endowment’s vice-president for religion Christopher Coble said at the time that theological schools today "find themselves in a period of rapid and profound change." Through Pathways, he said, "Schools will take deliberate steps to address the challenges they have identified in ways that make the most sense to them."
Patricia Paddey of Mississauga, Ont., is a senior writer at Faith Today. Tree illustration adapted from Shutterstock.com.