Clergy Renewal as congregational renewal

Posted Mar 01, 2013 | Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal Programs


By Robert Saler

One of the concerns that congregations occasionally express about the Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal Programs is that the prospect of a renewal leave for a pastor seems uncomfortably close to providing a three-month “vacation” to that pastor. Renewal leaves are opportunities for intentional and concentrated activities aimed at renewing the pastor’s passion for ministry; however, it is not always clear to potential applicants how exactly these leaves differ from “vacations” per se.

The key to understanding that the renewal leave is not a vacation but rather an instrument for strengthening shared ministry is understanding that the Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal grants are applied for, and received by, congregations (not individual pastors). This has several implications:

1). It is congregations who make clear on their applications to the programs that they are fully supportive of their pastor engaging in a renewal leave, and that they envision many benefits accruing to their ministry from having a pastor who returns from leave with a rekindled passion for ministry in that congregation.

2). Congregations, not the individual pastor, receive and administer the funds supporting the renewal leave.

3). It is congregations who, in ways appropriate to their own contexts, alter their leadership patterns during the pastor’s leave in order to ensure that the important work of ministry continues.

4). Finally, congregations work with the pastor following the leave to envision how to maximize the results of the renewal experience in ways that will benefit future ministry.

Over the years that the Lilly Endowment has been offering and administering the Clergy Renewal Programs, they have heard numerous stories of how congregations have been refreshed and rejuvenated by the experience of sending, supporting, and receiving back a pastor who has had time to pursue opportunities for travel, study, reflection, and recreation. Anecdotes and narratives from pastors and congregations have made it clear that the programs have contributed to longevity in ministry, avoidance of unhealthy work patterns on the part of clergy, and broadening of the congregation’ s spiritual life. Pastors who receive grants from the programs commit to staying with their congregations for at least a year following the leave, which helps ensure that the congregation receiving the grant will benefit from the pastor’s insights and refreshed energy.

In sum, the fact that the renewal grants are applied for and received by congregations indicates more than a procedure for the programs; it indicates a philosophy. Far from being a “vacation” for pastors, renewal leaves are shared undertakings between pastors and congregations for the purpose of strengthening their pursuit of God’s work in their own contexts. This collaboration between pastor and congregation begins from the very start of the application process, continues during the leave itself, and yields continuing dividends long after the leave itself is completed.

Robert Saler is Research Fellow and Director of the Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal Programs at Christian Theological Seminary. He is an ordained minister of Word and sacrament in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).

The Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal Programs at Christian Theological Seminary (CTS) seek to strengthen Christian congregations by providing opportunities for pastors to step away briefly from the persistent obligations of daily parish life and to engage in a period of renewal and reflection. To request permission to repost this content, please contact



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