Posted by William Nunnelley on 2002-10-09

Samford University has received a $2 million grant from Lilly Endowment Inc. of Indianapolis, Ind., to take part in a national program called "Sustaining Pastoral Excellence." Samford will use the grant to establish a Resource Center for Pastoral Excellence that will encourage spiritual, physical, social and intellectual renewal among church leaders for the 21st century.

"The project will directly support approximately 300 pastors during the five-year grant period," said Samford religion professor Penny L. Marler, project director. "Its wider impact will extend to these pastors' families, congregations, colleagues and communities."

The renewal process for church leaders will be accomplished through sabbatical leaves, pastor support groups, ministerial apprenticeships and creative interracial partnering, said Dr. Marler.

The work of the center will be structured to enable pastors to sustain their own growth as well as contribute to the development of others, she said. Samford will partner with Samaritan Counseling Center of Birmingham, Directors of Missions in selected Alabama Baptist associations and First Priority of Alabama to establish the center.

The grant is one of 47 made nationally by the Endowment to focus attention and energy on maintaining the high caliber of the nation's pastoral leaders. The grants ranged in size from $252,000 to $2 million.

"The Resource Center for Pastoral Excellence will integrate an academic learning environment with peer teaching and mentoring," said Samford president Thomas E. Corts. "This Center will reach the widest possible ministerial audience and address individual needs according to academic and social backgrounds and contexts.

"As a Christian university whose definitive mission is to nurture persons, Samford embraces the opportunity to bring together pastors from diverse racial and denominational backgrounds; to provide experienced pastoral mentors to new ministerial students; and to create support networks and peer-training programs for those in non-traditional pastoral roles."

Samford provost J. Bradley Creed added, "This generous grant will enable Samford University to build upon its historic foundation of serving churches and supporting pastors and other ministry leaders. Samford is honored to be one of the select institutions Lilly Endowment has chosen as a partner in this venture."

According to Craig Dykstra, Endowment vice president for religion, "The Endowment's current religion grantmaking revolves around two major and interlocking considerations: identifying, nurturing and educating a talented new generation of pastors and, second, recognizing and supporting the excellent ones we have now."

Samford received its grant based on a proposal to establish the Resource Center for Pastoral Excellence. The center will provide six basic programs:

A Sabbath Leave Program will provide pastors in the southeastern region with restorative emotional, spiritual, physical and intellectual experiences in an academic environment. The Center will provide generous stipends for sabbatical leaves on Samford's campus for one week up to a full academic semester.

A Pastoral Partnerships for Excellence program will partner with local, successful mid-career pastors with differing educational and racial backgrounds to write reflective case studies on one another's congregations. The goal is to "facilitate understanding, more than just talk," between pastors and congregations of different races, said Gerald Austin, pastor of Birmingham's New City Church and Center.

Twelve for Twelve will be a holistic, 12-month peer support program for groups of 12 pastors in the Birmingham area. The Samaritan Counseling Center, an accredited pastoral counseling center directed by Shirley Richards, will manage this aspect of the program.

Pastoral Sustenance Networks among ministers in rural, Southern Baptist associations will include peer support groups, continuing education in cooperation with Beeson Divinity School, retreats and mentor relationships between experienced and novice pastors.

An AM/PM program will create apprenticeships between college-aged, licensed ministers and youth pastors and facilitate mentoring environments in participating congregations. First Priority of Alabama, which works with youth ministers and is led by Greg Davis, will facilitate the Birmingham-based program.

Two regional or national INSPIRE Conferences will be held to bring center participants together, provide inspiration and ideas, showcase methods and models of pastoral leadership and stimulate broader conversation about pastoral excellence.

Dykstra noted that many pastors feel a sense of isolation.

"Over time, this results in diminished opportunities to engage in some of the crucial activities that led them to pursue the ministry in the first place--intellectual and spiritual searching and discovery, pursuit of scholarship and writing, fellowship with colleagues, strong relationships with loved ones and with God," he said.

For this reason the Endowment invited nonprofit organizations committed to supporting pastoral work to create program proposals that would answer this need. More than 700 institutions submitted grant proposals, Dykstra noted.

Samford is a leading Christian university offering undergraduate programs grounded in the liberal arts with an array of nationally recognized graduate and professional schools. Founded in 1841, Samford is the 87th-oldest institution of higher learning in the United States. Samford enrolls 5,791 students from 49 states, Puerto Rico and 16 countries in its 10 academic schools: arts, arts and sciences, business, divinity, education, health professions, law, nursing, pharmacy and public health. Samford fields 17 athletic teams that compete in the tradition-rich Southern Conference and ranks 6th nationally for its Graduation Success Rate among all NCAA Division I schools.