Pathways to Vitality: Three Congregations Complete Pilot Program

Jesus, who told the parable of the talents, was not shy about discussing money, but church people often are.  The diocese is working to change that through Pathways to Vitality, a financial literacy initiative funded by Lilly Endowment Inc. Three parishes—All Saints, Indianapolis, Good Samaritan, Brownsburg and St. Timothy’s, Indianapolis—recently celebrated the completion of the Pathways’ pilot year project with a Eucharist and reception.

The Pathways program is designed for clergy and lay leaders to facilitate well-informed and honest conversations about money. But financial literacy and transparency aren’t ends in themselves, says Melissa Hickman, the program’s director.

“The goals of the pilot initiative were to enhance congregations’ sustainability by helping them to identify their unique ministries, build vital teams and create projects using practical financial and administrative skills,” she says.

The three congregations participated in a yearlong process that included a strategic planning retreat and six workshops that focused on topics including team building, leadership, communications and hospitality, and evangelism. The Rev. James Lemler, longtime pastor, former seminary dean and author of “Transforming Congregations,” served as chaplain, and presenters included Nathan Kirkpatrick of Duke Divinity School and the Rev. Dr. Carol Pinkham Oak of Virginia Theological Seminary.

“All of our workshops have had some element of financial literacy,” Hickman says. “Real basic things like how to read your profit and loss statement and guidelines for clergy compensation. Just those tactical pieces that lead to a better understanding of a congregation’s picture.

“But in the pilot program, we were always very careful to state that sustainability isn’t just about money,” she says. “That’s an important part of it, but that’s not all there is to sustainability. So all of our workshops try to weave those pieces together.

“You can be among the wealthiest congregations around and not have viable ministries. What we try to do is use the financial information and build upon that to ask, ‘What else does vitality look like? What else does sustainability look like?’”

Lemler says the program is rooted in an understanding that teaching financial and organizational skills is a spiritual practice.  “We realized that technical skills are essential and they relate to issues of agency, healthy practices, inner work of leaders as well as the overall health of congregations,” he says. “We grounded each learning experience with spiritual reflection to link adaptive inner work with technical skills.”

Vitality Projects

All Saints’ vitality project strengthened its Christian formation program to help individuals connect and grow in spiritual depth. Using the Spiritual Life Inventory from Renewal Works, the All Saints’ team sought to define its congregation’s spiritual beliefs and practices, and its alignment with Episcopal ideas of spiritual health.

“We learned there are two camps at All Saints,” said Lee Little, a vitality team member.  “One group tends toward less spiritual depth and the other towards more spiritual depth. The opportunity for All Saints is to create Christian formation programming that targets the middle.”

 As the first diocesan-sponsored church plant in 20 years, Good Samaritan recognized its sustainability is contingent upon developing and supporting healthy lay leadership. The vitality team developed the congregation’s first organizational chart; identified the values, expectations and processes that will guide the work of its ministry teams, and developed job descriptions for each ministry team.

“We are at least 12 months ahead of schedule as a church plant,” says the Rev. Dr. Gray Lesesne, Good Samaritan’s church planter. “Because of the Pilot Parish program and the work of our vitality team, we are building a lay leadership structure to create sustainability and to share the opportunities and challenges of our new ministry throughout our growing congregation.”

St. Timothy’s has experienced solid growth during the last seven years. Led by its vitality team, the congregation paused during the last year to develop strategies for getting to know each other, for exploring the congregation’s identity and for connecting with others beyond the walls of their church.

From a survey, the congregation learned that members craved more fellowship opportunities and also wanted a new brand identity, website and parish photo directory.

“We learned the value of risk taking, communications and pre-planning,” says Aimee Rose Formo, a vitality team member. “If we trust each other and invest the time, something good will come of our efforts.”

The Rev. Erin E. Hougland, the priest assigned to the Pathways project, has rotated in residence among the three parishes helping the vitality teams to design and implement their projects. “Stewardship initiatives, discipleship programming and lay leadership, those are the three ways I focus on working with the congregation,” says Hougland, who has just begun her residence at St. Timothy’s.

One of her particular interest is how congregations respond to new members, she says. “How are we creating specific programs that onboard new members?” she says. “And at the end of that, what opportunities are they given to go deeper?”

A research-based initiative

The Pathways to Vitality initiative is based, in part, on Lilly Endowment Inc.’s research-supported conviction that “vital congregations begin and end with healthy clergy,” Hickman says. “Their research has found that the two barriers to strong clergy leadership are financial struggles and a sense of isolation. Those are also the two main reasons for ministers leaving the ministry.”

The third goal of the diocese’s Pathways initiative, one not dwelt on in the pilot program workshops, is the development of a Ministerial Excellence Fund to provide financial support to clergy, seminarians and their families.

Two years ago, the diocese conducted a survey revealing that the average diocesan clergy person had between $36,000 and $37,000 in seminary debt. “There were some as high as $70,000 and one as low as $1,500,” Hickman says.

“A really important lesson, but a hard one to convey, is that there really is a relationship between clergy financial wellbeing and vital congregations.”

The Lilly Endowment has donated $250,000 to establish the fund and challenged the diocese to match that figure by the end of the year.

Lessons learned

Hickman says the diocese believe the experience of the three congregations in the pilot program will “help the diocese create more transformative programming that supports sustainability, vitality and innovation in our congregations.”

Some lessons have already become apparent. “It was kind of an aha moment when all three of our pilot parish rectors said the program has really been empowering for their lay leaders, that lay leaders have really stepped up and taken some burden off of them allowing them to do other important things in the congregations,” she says. “It has begun to expand the concept of servant ministry.”

The Lilly Endowment has invited the diocese to apply for a renewal of the grant, and the diocese expects to have news on its application by the end of the year. Compensation for a “Pathways Clergy” member is included in the budget that will be voted on at the diocesan convention on November 16-17. If the diocese receives the grant, three new parishes would go through the pilot program

“I also think there is some risks involved in this work,” Hickman says. “And what we’ve learned is that we have to make it safe work. What we tried to do is create a sense of, ‘Hey, we are in this together. This is a cohort and we are learning from each other’s differences.”

Pathways to Vitality will offer two workshops at diocesan convention. At 10:45 a. m. on Friday, November 16, Hickman and Lemler will discuss how skill-based financial literacy can be grounded in the Bible, prayer and conversation to help transform congregations.  

At 9 a. m. on Saturday, November 17, Hickman and Hougland will moderate a panel of pilot program participants discussing the lessons they learned.  

For more information on the program, email Melissa Hickman.

© 2021 Episcopal Diocese of Indianapolis