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David McAllister-Wilson Announces Lilly Endowment Grant to Extend Lewis Fellows Program

Dec 21 2011

I am pleased to announce that Wesley received a grant of $850,000 from Lilly Endowment Inc. to continue the Lewis Fellows program for an additional five years through the Lewis Center for Church Leadership.  This partnership with the Endowment comes from our mutual recognition that young, high-potential clergy are key leverage points for the future of the church in the United States.
The Lewis Fellows program is a post-graduate, peer-learning program that brings together outstanding young clergy for intensive leadership development in the early years of ministry.  The program originated as part of the Endowment’s Sustaining Pastoral Excellence Initiative.
The program has already shaped a new generation of outstanding young clergy.  Since 2005, 130 young clergy representing more than a dozen different denominations have become Lewis Fellows.  These men and women gained the skills and resources necessary for coping with the challenges incumbent in the early years of ministry.  And they gained an ongoing network of peer mentoring and support.
This is a critical time in the history of the church because of the major shift in leadership that is underway.  In 2011, 52 percent of United Methodist clergy are between 55 and 72 years of age with 64 as the average retirement age.  Young clergy now have the opportunity to move into substantial congregational and denominational leadership.  Just as they needed support entering ministry, they continue to need assistance as they grow into mature leaders capable of bringing new vision to the church. 
The objective in continuing this work is no less than assuring that the church of tomorrow has a cadre of promising, well-equipped, young leaders prepared for the demanding realities confronting this emerging generation of clergy.  They have been called to serve at a juncture in history when the future of mainstream American religion hangs in the balance.  In the coming decades, they will confront monumental institutional, financial, and cultural challenges.  And because the ranks of younger clergy are so small, they will take on major leadership roles far earlier in life than their predecessors.  Simply put, much is expected of this generation of leaders, and much is at stake.  It is essential that the church prepare, equip, and sustain these emerging leaders who will carry the gospel to future generations. 
Because feedback and evaluation are an integral part of the program’s design, the Lewis Center has amassed a significant amount of information on how the program has shaped the participants’ effectiveness.  For example, they have described the program’s impact on their ministry in the following ways: 
“One of the most impactful, ministry-shaping experiences of my career”.
“Empowering.  The most important thing I have done since seminary.”
“A wonderful experience.  Something that will shape my ministry for years to come.”
“An amazing time of learning, fellowship, and spiritual growth.”
“An experience like no other . . . incredible quality!  Transformational!”
With this continued support, our Lewis Center can extend the proven benefits of the Lewis Fellows model to an even larger number of new clergy.  At the same time, it can magnify the impact for those who are already part of the initiative by enlarging the circle of support and strengthening their long-term engagement with one another. 
The expanded components of the program will include: An alumni/ae program to maximize the benefit of their Lewis Fellows experience; Development of new resources for sustaining their growth and well-being; Collaboration with Dr. Matt Bloom from the Mendoza School of Business at the University of Notre Dame around his research on clergy well-being and connecting his work with the Lewis Fellows and larger clergy constituencies related to Wesley.
This grant also comes at a critical time in the history of Wesley.  The Lewis Fellows program exemplifies what we mean when we call ourselves a “church-based seminary.” And, it is an important part of the pattern of the changing nature of theological education which expands beyond the basic Master of Divinity degree. This also strengthens Wesley by broadening our base of students and support.  About half of the Lewis Fellows did not receive their M.Div. from Wesley and a number of them have since enrolled in our D.Min. program.
We are very grateful to Lilly Endowment for the opportunity to continue this ground-breaking program.
David McAllister-Wilson
President, Wesley Theological Seminary
Further information and application guidelines for the 2012-13 Lewis Fellows cohort will be available February 1, 2012, from the Lewis Center for Church Leadership.   
Some of the key learnings emerging from this initiative so far are:
  • Transition into ministry is a critical time in the life of clergy, particularly young clergy.  The transition from seminary to full-time ministry continues to be challenging because seminary education cannot prepare clergy fully for what they will face in ministry.
  • Transition into ministry takes a number of years.  Pastoral ministry requires the mastery of an extensive and varied set of skills, and many of these skills are learned only as one works through varied situations and challenges.  As a result, transitional challenges continue well beyond two or three years.
  • There are predictable issues and concerns.  Young clergy are still trying to define and embody new pastoral and personal identities.  Building credibility is critical, especially for young clergy, who face the challenge of leading change in established cultures.  Typically, they need guidance in understanding and appreciating the history of their settings, in responding to conflict, and in dealing with church finances and stewardship.
Peer learning environments are important.  The Lewis Fellows program has convincingly demonstrated that clergy learn better in a community of pastoral leaders, and that the benefits of peer group learning grow with the time participants spend in the groups.

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