GCC establishing Center to sustain efforts to aid rural clergy

Grove City College has secured a $400,000 grant from Lilly Endowment Inc. to expand its work helping rural ministers thrive with the creation of the Center for Rural Ministry.

The Center for Rural Ministry (CRM) will continue to foster the partnership of college, church, and community that was the hallmark of the College’s Project on Rural Ministry (PRM), a four-year initiative to study and help ministers who serve under-resourced parishes in regional agricultural, Appalachian, and rust belt communities thrive.

“The momentum we have built over the past four years, enabling pastors to thrive through numerous initiatives, is worth sustaining and further embedding within the life and witness of Grove City College,” said Dr. Charles Cotherman ’06, who served as PRM program director and will lead the CRM. “This generous grant will begin to make that possible.”

Lilly Endowment made the $408,033 grant through its Thriving in Ministry Initiative, which also supported the development of the PRM. Launched in 2019, the project worked with more than 30 Protestant clergy from diverse denominations in four states within 150 miles of Grove City College to learn about the challenges of their work, explore partnership opportunities, and provide support through student and faculty efforts including service-learning projects, internships, mission trips, and an annual conference.

This year’s conference, “Leading Like Jesus,” is set for Sept. 15 and 16 at Tower Presbyterian Church, 248 S Broad St., Grove City. The event features speakers, teachers, and preachers and offers workshops on counseling, preaching, and youth ministry. The conference is open to the public. For more information or to register, visit ruralministry.org/conference.

In January, the Center will officially pick up the PRM’s work to promote pastoral thriving by partnering with pastors, students, faculty, congregational lay-leaders, and others invested in rural ministry. It will cultivate a hospitable presence – and dedicated space – on campus to harness the unique resources and convening power of a Christian liberal arts college to help pastors meet their unique and shared challenges.

Its programming and outreach will focus on pastors who serve rural and rust belt congregations impacted by decades of steady outmigration, whose membership rolls have dwindled, and face difficult decisions related to viability and their ability to call a full-time minister, according to Cotherman, who also serves as pastor of a church in Oil City, Pa.

“Pastors are caught in the middle, standing as people of hope, but – especially after the pandemic – also facing national trends and local demographics that threaten to push them toward further isolation and deeper vocational anxiety,” he said. “Our work with pastors over the past four years has convinced us that ministerial thriving in our region requires attention to these specific pressures.”

The Center plans to build relationships with and among the clergy and lay leaders it serves, provide institutional resources, host conferences and workshops, share knowledge and experience, and create space for pastors to contribute to and benefit from national advocacy. All programs are designed with an eye to the unique opportunities that partnership with Grove City College offers.

Students and faculty are key elements of the effort, from leadership to “boots on the ground” for service-learning projects and pastoral support. In recent years, students have been part of PRM mission trips to churches participating in the Project, doing everything from painting to gardening to leading Sunday school lessons. Other students have helped churches update websites and launch social media campaigns.

While the CRM will be focused on serving rural and rust belt ministries, the insights gained through the work can benefit pastors far beyond the region. The PRM has garnered national media coverage for its work and its blog provides a forum in which pastors and others offer advice, support, information, and reflection on the triumphs and tribulations of the call to rural ministry.

“We envision that our ability to advocate for pastoral thriving in rural and under-resourced communities will significantly expand with the creation of the CRM,” Cotherman said.

The Center will be sustained by dedicated funding from the College, program revenues, fundraising efforts by the College, and a network of outside partners. Creation of the CRM fulfills an objective of the College’s strategic plan, which calls for fortifying engagement and support of rural church leaders as part of a larger pursuit of opportunities to serve the common good.

Lilly Endowment Inc. is a private 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. While those gifts remain the 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.

A principal aim of the Endowment’s religion grantmaking is to deepen and enrich the lives of Christians in the United States, primarily by seeking out and supporting efforts that enhance the vitality of congregations and strengthen the pastoral and lay leadership of Christian communities. The Endowment also seeks to improve public understanding of diverse religious traditions by supporting fair and accurate portrayals of the role religion plays in the United States and across the globe.

To learn more about Rural Ministry at Grove City College, visit ruralministry.org.

GCC establishing Center to sustain efforts to aid rural clergy

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