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CRCNA Receives $1 Million Lilly Endowment Grant

November 9, 2020
Lilly Endowment

The Christian Reformed Church in North America has received  a five-year, $1 million grant from Lilly Endowment Inc. to establish a new course for lay leadership development and provide new opportunities for churches to gather and learn from each other. 

The program is funded through Lilly Endowment’s Thriving Congregations Initiative. The aim of the national initiative is to strengthen Christian congregations so they can help people deepen their relationships with God, build strong relationships with each other and contribute to the flourishing of local communities and the world.

The CRCNA’s project, entitled Thrive, includes two parts - Thriving Essentials and Thriving Practices - through which congregations will have the chance to renew their sense of identity, deepen awareness of their neighborhood contexts, and explore specific dimensions of their local outreach and hospitality.

“Churches have been asking for resources to train their elders, deacons, and volunteer ministry leaders, and to equip us all as we adapt to rapidly-changing ministry contexts,” said Tim Postuma, co-director of the CRCNA’s Ministry Support Services and coordinator of the project. 

“Although there are many workshops out there on specific topics,” he explained, “we hope the first part of the project - Thriving Essentials - can serve as core training to help get all the ministry leaders and staff within a congregation on the same page, and cultivate a leadership mindset.”

Thriving Essentials will be a six-part course covering topics such as community and ministry context, Reformed essentials, faith practices, characteristics of thriving congregations, and church leadership. 

Each of the sessions will be available in a variety of formats including online webinars, video recordings, in-person workshops, and downloadable materials that churches can use to host their own training event. 

The course will be available for individual use, said Postuma, “but of course it will be most effective if all the staff, council, and volunteer leaders within a congregation have experienced it together.” It is slated to launch in fall 2021.

The second part of the project - Thriving Practices - will bring churches together as communities of learning (cohorts) for a two-year-period to focus on particular hospitality practices. 

Some of these might include:

  • engaging one’s immediate neighborhood
  • growing as an intergenerational church
  • becoming more multi-ethnic/multi-racial
  • rethinking conflict
  • engaging restorative practices.

“And we expect that as the project unfolds other areas of emphasis will arise that will be added,” said Syd Hielema, who helped develop the proposal. “We have discovered that when hospitality is understood as making oneself available to ‘the other’ as both host and guest, it builds capacity for reciprocal blessings to be shared in many areas of church ministry.”

In its request for proposals, Lilly Endowment noted that congregations learn best when they are part of a larger community of learning and asked for proposals that establish cohorts of churches engaged in similar endeavors.

“There’s tremendous value in bringing churches together to learn from each other as they walk a similar path,” says Hielema. “Each congregation will participate in the cohorts through a leadership team consisting of both pastoral and lay leaders.”

Whereas the Thriving Essentials course will be widely available to any and all Christian Reformed congregations, the Thriving Practices cohorts will need to be more limited, said Postuma. 

“Each cohort requires a facilitator to guide the learning process. But the research shows cohorts work, so we’re hoping to create as many as the budget allows.”

Through both parts of the Thrive project, the stated goal is that each participating congregation will have opportunity to become more attuned to its local context; refresh its understanding of the riches of the Reformed theology as it refines its unique purpose; and to cultivate faith practices that will free it to both be a blessing in, and be blessed by, its context.

“We are eager to strengthen our churches through this project, and grateful to Lilly Endowment for making it possible,” said Postuma.

Today, Christian congregations face a wide array of challenges and opportunities, including those created and accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. These range from using new technologies for worship and keeping members connected, to understanding and responding to demographic shifts and welcoming new neighbors in their communities.

“In the midst of a rapidly changing world, Christian congregations are grappling with how they can best carry forward their ministries,” said Christopher Coble, Lilly Endowment’s vice president for religion. “These grants will help congregations assess their ministries and draw on practices in their theological traditions to address new challenges and better nurture the spiritual vitality of the people they serve.”

The 92 organizations receiving Thriving Congregations Initiative grants from Lilly Endowment include colleges and universities, theological schools, denominational agencies, individual congregations and other faith-based organizations.  They represent and serve churches in a broad spectrum of Christian traditions.

The CRCNA’s Thrive project will draw upon the expertise in several CRCNA ministries: Resonate Global Mission, Faith Formation Ministries, Office of Race Relations, Centre for Public Dialogue, Office of Social Justice, Diversity Ministry, Pastor Church Resources, Disability Concerns, Safe Church Ministry, and The Colossian Forum (a non-denominational ministry with deep ties to the CRC). In addition, the project will dovetail closely and help to enhance the CRCNA-wide ministry plan, Our Journey 2025.

“The CRCNA has come to place a high value on collaboration, and these ministries will work together to support the initiatives,” said Colin Watson, Executive Director of the CRCNA. 

“We are not creating new ministries or permanent staff positions. Rather, this grant will allow us to accelerate the trajectory we’ve already been on to serve our congregations and their leaders. We’re grateful to Lilly Endowment for not only their funding, but also the significant research and insight they offer into how we can help congregations thrive.”


Lilly Endowment Inc. is an Indianapolis-based private philanthropic foundation created in 1937 by J.K. Lilly, Sr. and his sons Eli and J.K. Jr. through gifts of stock in their pharmaceutical business, Eli Lilly and Company. Although the gifts of stock remain and financial bedrock of the Endowment, it is a separate entity from the company, with a distinct governing board, staff and location. In keeping with the founders’ wishes, the Endowment supports the causes of community development, education and religion and maintains a special commitment to its hometown, Indianapolis, and home state, Indiana.