First Presbyterian Church of Greenville, has received a grant of $45,966 to enable its minister, Dr. William Robert Sharman III, to participate in the 2020 National Clergy Renewal Program. First Presbyterian is one of 140 congregations across the United States selected to participate in this competitive grant program, which is funded by Lilly Endowment Inc. and administered by Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis. Established by the Endowment in 2000, the program’s grants allow Christian congregations to support their pastors with the gift of extended time away from their ministerial duties and responsibilities.
Ministers whose congregations are awarded the grants use their time away from the demands of daily ministry to engage in reflection and renewal. The approach respects the “Sabbath time” concept, offering ministers a carefully considered respite that may include travel, study, rest, prayer and immersive arts and cultural experiences.
Through the National Clergy Renewal Program, congregations apply for grants of up to $50,000 to support renewal programs for their pastors. Collaborative in nature and implementation, the program allows congregations to partner with their ministers in developing experiences that address their unique renewal needs and aspirations. Recognizing that ministers’ families are subject to the stress and demands placed on pastoral leaders, the program encourages pastors to involve their families in renewal activities. Congregational needs during the minister’s renewal experience also are considered.
Up to $15,000 of the grant may be used to support interim pastoral leadership during the pastor’s retreat, as well as renewal activities within the congregation. Since the National Clergy Renewal Program’s inception, more than 3,000 congregations have participated in the program, including the 140 congregations receiving grants in 2020.
First Presbyterian plans to examine life in the twenty-first century, from the perspective of living more slowly, more simply, more deeply in the Spirit, and more silently so as to hear and follow the voice of the one who calls us and leads us. The key terms guiding the time are: Slow. Simple. Spiritual. Silent.
The program proposed is characterized by a renewed dedication to the need for these four guiding principles in the lives of individuals, families, and the church. Four key books: A Long Obedience in the Same Direction by Eugene H. Peterson, Backyard Pilgrim and the accompanying film, Godspeed by Matt and Julie Canlis, Mudhouse Sabbath: An Invitation to a Life of Spiritual Discipline by Lauren F. Winner, and Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer will be utilized by both Sharman and the congregation, to give grounding to the journey. The process will not be hurried but will celebrate the first goal of “slowing down” while incorporating the other goals of examining a simpler life, a deepened spiritual life, and the value of silence. Because the whole process will be shared, neither the congregation nor the pastor knows other than generally what the practical results will be. Those will best be collaborative.
Sharman will be away from mid-May through mid-August, utilizing study of the books along with engaging with peoples on the remote islands of Scotland and Greece. Stays will include the Scottish Island of Iona where Christianity was introduced to Britain, and the Greek Island of Patmos where the Apostle John received the visions comprising the biblical book of Revelation from Jesus Christ. His family will join him abroad for a significant portion of the time away. The congregation will be invited to read excerpts of the four books during that time.
Commenting on the rationale for these particular study themes, Sharman says, “Some of the things that have been forced on human beings during the pandemic of the first half of 2020, while scary and sometimes shattering, have also revealed, in a deeper and more distinct way, the harrowing speed, clutter, secularity, and noise of life. Interestingly, being forced to shelter at home without so many of the activities that seem so normal to life, has given us a slower, simpler, quieter lifestyle. These affect all, laity and clergy alike.”
“Pastors play an important role in nourishing the spiritual lives of individuals and in guiding the work of the Christian congregations they serve,” said Christopher L. Coble, Lilly Endowment’s vice president for religion. “Through these grants, we seek to honor pastors for their extraordinary service and enable them to engage in a brief period of rest and renewal. We have learned that such experiences invigorate the leadership of pastors and bring new vitality to their congregations as well.”
The Rev. Dr. Robert Saler, research fellow and director of the Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal Programs, noted that the National Clergy Renewal Program integrates key attributes of healthy congregations, including a mutual respect for the renewal needs of both ministers and the congregations they serve.
“The program provides an opportunity for congregations to express appreciation for their ministers’ service and leadership,” Saler said. “At a time when leaders are often praised for their pace of innovation and productivity, the National Clergy Renewal Program pays homage to the timeless wisdom embedded in the practice of reflection and renewal.”
Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis directs the Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal Program for Indiana Congregations and a second program for congregations across the United States through its Center for Pastoral Excellence.