A new podcast series produced by Christian Theological Seminary (CTS) explores how a confluence of powerful economic, demographic and social trends are transforming the theological education field.

Among the trends identified: COVID-19 exacerbated longstanding financial pressures and depressed enrollment, which had been declining or flat since 2005, according to an Inside Higher Ed article on the new series. Institutions are enrolling more students from communities of color, prompting leaders to adopt more inclusive educational models. And many debt-saddled graduates enter a job market only to find a shrinking number of full-time employment opportunities.

Graduates who land jobs end up serving congregants who are less inclined to attend in-person activities, more likely to participate in virtual services, and may require assistance engaging with social service agencies. These social and cultural shifts demand an adaptable kind of pastoral leader who can serve congregations in evolving contexts and settings.

Enter the Lilly Endowment, arguably philanthropy’s most influential funder navigating the intersection of religion and public life. The Indianapolis-based funder recently announced the launch of Pathways for Tomorrow, an $87.5 million initiative to fund projects that strengthen the theological education field’s ability to prepare pastoral leaders for Christian churches into the future.

“The leadership skills required for future pastors to lead congregations effectively will differ from those needed in the past,” Christopher L. Coble, Lilly Endowment’s vice president for religion told me. “Theological schools recognize these trends and are adapting their educational programs to prepare their students to lead congregations in contexts that manifest these new trends.”

Let’s take a look at some of the trends reshaping the theological education field and how the endowment’s initiative will equip schools to address them.

The COVID effect

As with seemingly every nonprofit sector, COVID-19 amplified pre-pandemic pressures facing theological institutions, like “preparing ministerial candidates to serve as pastoral leaders in congregations and for providing working pastors with opportunities for ongoing professional development,” said Lilly Endowment Communications Director Judy Cebula.

More broadly, the pandemic has forced U.S. churches to do more with less. Last September, the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy and the Lake Institute on Faith & Giving found that 41% of religious congregations in the U.S. saw a decline in donations in the spring of 2020.

Smaller congregations have been hit especially hard. “For several years, church leaders have noted a widening gap between large, well-resourced congregations and a growing number of smaller churches that struggle to employ full-time pastoral leaders,” Cebula said. “The pandemic has made this gap more visible.”

Add it all up, and “schools are at a period right now where they really have to innovate,” Association of Theological School (ATS) President Frank Yamada told Inside Higher Ed’s Elizabeth Redden earlier this year. “A lot of people are blaming COVID for a lot of things, threats to enrollment or to finances, but the reality of it is that these kinds of declines have been happening for quite some time.”

Shifting congregant behavior

Theological educators are grappling with a vexing set of non-financial concerns, as well. Cebula told me that church leaders have noted “significant social and cultural trends affecting congregations and report that many patterns of congregational life are shifting.”

A growing number of congregants are attending church once or twice per month, rather than weekly. Other congregations report decreased participation in Sunday schools, youth groups and Bible studies. COVID-19 has accelerated this trend. Pastors “needed to quickly become adept at the use of digital technologies to lead worship and extend care to members,” Cebula said.

Theological schools must also respond to the needs of increasingly diverse congregations. Hispanic and other newer immigrant congregations, for example, are growing rapidly. “Many of these congregations, as well as long-established Black churches, serve as anchor institutions in their communities and engage in wide-ranging ministries to support their members, as well as those who live in their vicinity,” Cebula said.

“Pastors in these churches serve as spiritual leaders in their congregations and also as leaders who help members navigate civic and government spaces to find the resources that they need.”

Operational challenges

Cebula also articulated barriers to access that prevent educators from building a pipeline of pastors attuned to changing social trends and “increasingly diverse and pluralistic contexts.”

For example, while Hispanic congregations are expanding, pastors in Hispanic churches have limited access to theological schools. Similarly, some institutions are seeing a bump in students hailing from communities of color. This demographic—much like those attending secular institutions—requires “additional financial aid to be able to complete their degrees or obtain the desired certificates,” Cebula said. In some cases, these students will need programs that are designed differently than traditional theological education to prepare them for the diverse congregations they’ll be serving.

Moreover, older students with families may find it difficult to bear the financial costs of relocating, especially when they can expect modest salaries after graduating. As CTS President David M. Mellott told Inside Higher Ed, “Everybody is challenged when you think about the fact we’re going to ask somebody to do a degree that could take them anywhere from three to six years to complete, come out with some student debt, maybe a lot of student debt, and then go into a ministerial assignment that is part-time.”

These challenges speak to Pathways for Tomorrow’s overarching goal of making theological educational opportunities more affordable, accessible and relevant. To do so, the endowment “seeks to provide schools with the encouragement and support needed to accelerate their efforts to strengthen their educational and financial capacities for the long term,” Cebula said.

A three-phase strategy

The Pathways for Tomorrow Initiative draws on a three-phase grantmaking strategy that the endowment employed for its Charting the Future initiative, which seeks to help Indiana colleges and universities identify and prioritize their key challenges and then develop strategies to address them.

In Phase 1, the endowment will make available $50,000 planning grants to encourage school leaders to establish priorities and prepare implementation grants. Institutions can apply for planning grants through March 15, 2021. Through Phase 2, which is competitive, schools may apply for up to $1 million to implement plans. Schools have until August 2, 2021, to submit proposals for funding. The endowment expects to award up to 50 implementation grants in late 2021.

In Phase 3, the endowment will fund collaborative projects that can be exported to other schools. Interested schools must submit concept papers outlining their plans by November 1, 2021. In December, the endowment will invite selected schools to prepare and submit full proposals for grants of up to $5 million. The endowment anticipates announcing Phase 3 grants in July 2022. Grants are open to institutions accredited through the ATS in the United States and Canada. Click here to view the request for proposals.

Pathways for Tomorrow is the Lilly Endowment’s latest effort to enhance the vitality of Christian congregations. Last October, the endowment’s Thriving Congregations Initiative awarded 92 grants totaling $93 million to help U.S. congregations strengthen their ministries. In 2018, the endowment’s Thriving in Ministry Initiative gave $70 million to 78 organizations to support programs that help pastors build relationships with clergy.

The endowment also funds the Global Religion Journalism Initiative, a collaborative effort involving the Associated Press, Religion News Service, and The Conversation U.S. to improve and expand journalism about religion in the U.S. and around the world.