Roughly a dozen hands went up when members of the Council of Delegates (COD) were asked to raise their hands if their congregation had been touched by the impact of a Sustaining Congregational Excellence (SCE) grant.

Clearly, from the number of hands raised, the program, begun in 2007 and now nearing its end, has been valuable.

Nearly 75 percent of all eligible CRCNA congregations (518 churches) — those having a membership of 150 or less — have participated in the program, which for a number of reasons the COD recently voted to discontinue. This decision will be received by synod in June.

The CRCNA’s review and prioritization of programs, budget pressures, and the existence of the new Ignite program, which provides grants to churches for innovative programs, were cited as reasons for this action.

“Over the years, a number of new developments and ministry opportunities have occurred, such as Ignite, Faith Formation ministry leader cohorts, Reformed Leadership Initiative cohorts, Connections (regional resourcing) regional events and cohorts, new regional gatherings, the Inspire conference, and more,” said Lis Van Harten, who has directed SCE for nine years.

“Therefore, recognizing the advent of many new congregational opportunities for congregations of all sizes, and in order to be good stewards of CRCNA resources, effective June 30, 2018, SCE will be discontinued.”

In 2005, synod recommended that an initiative be created to carry out the work of encouraging smaller congregations and that funding would come from a supplementary ministry share of $10.

In 2006, synod approved the Sustaining Congregational Excellence program. In 2007, SCE began awarding grants, hosting learning events, holding training sessions for pastors, and supporting and encouraging smaller churches in a variety of ways.

A total of $2.1 million has been granted through five different grant opportunities. Thirty-nine learning events were attended by ministry teams from 334 congregations. There were often waiting lists to attend the events because space was limited, said Van Harten.

Among the five types of grants SCE offered, Health and Renewal grants have probably had the greatest impact, Van Harten said. They have helped churches address violence in their neighborhoods; decorate their sanctuaries and worship spaces with art; develop programs for youth; offer block parties, community gardens, and other activities for their communities; develop small groups; and create programs to bolster marriages and families.

Churches were encouraged to engage in a project that fit their ministry and context. The result was rich and diverse ministry across Canada and the United States.

The impact was significant, said Van Harten, offering quotes from some churches:

  • “This grant has been an incredible blessing at our church. I never in my wildest dreams expected so much good to come from it, but it has!”
  • “There is greater life in our congregation now than before.”
  • “We’ve seen a 20-percent increase in our church attendance.”
  • “I believe the SCE grant was simply instrumental in changing the momentum of this congregation, and people wanted to be a part of it.”

Van Harten, who is codirector of Pastor Church Resources, said she has appreciated the chance over the years to get to know congregations and play a role in helping them build healthy ministries.

“I have spent time with many leadership teams at learning events, walked alongside congregations as they engaged in grant-funded projects, encouraged ministry leaders in a variety of ways, and been supported by a terrific advisory team,” she said.

“The work has been a joy. I've seen God at work in so many ways over the years. And while there's an element of sadness and loss as the program comes to an end, it's ending on a high note for me and the denomination as a whole. A line from a grant report says it well. ‘This was a blessing beyond imagination. There are no words to express our appreciation and thankfulness for this opportunity.’”

To read some SCE stories, click here.