2023 Annual Report:

Convening to Help Pastors Reinvigorate Their Ministries


For Catholic priests and deacons serving rural parishes, there is a rhythm of life connected to the land that is beautiful. But it also can be isolating, according to James Ennis, executive director of Catholic Rural Life, a national nonprofit organization based in St. Paul, Minn., supporting Catholic life in rural America.

A pastor might serve three, four or even five rural parishes, in communities spread out across many miles. Just reaching these far-flung flocks often involves lots of driving—usually alone. The challenges of being spread so thin are real. “You can get lonely, which can lead to burnout,” Ennis (shown right) says.

Ministry in an urban setting can be lonely, too, even if a pastor is surrounded by people. Leading a church is rewarding, but as pastors spend their days serving others—often in challenging circumstances—they can struggle to find safe spaces to share their own cares and concerns, according to Miriam Acevedo, vice president of City Seminary of New York, and an associate pastor at Iglesia Pentecostal Camino a Damasco Church in Manhattan.

City Seminary and Catholic Rural Life have more in common than their names suggest, including a commitment to supporting the well-being of pastors. They are two of 129 organizations supported through Lilly Endowment’s Thriving in Ministry Initiative, which seeks to help pastors thrive in congregational leadership so they, in turn, are better equipped to enhance the vitality of the congregations they serve.

In August 2023, Ennis and Acevedo joined colleagues working in Thriving in Ministry programs across the country for a three-day gathering in Indianapolis. They came to celebrate the variety of organizations and their theological traditions; to understand common challenges; and to encourage one another.

“It means so much for me to come together with others to learn how everyone is working in their own ways to love pastors,” Acevedo says of her first Thriving in Ministry event. “In our own programs we help pastors know that they are not alone, that they can learn from each other. And with this gathering in Indianapolis, I know that I am not alone. Like our pastors, we are learning from each other, too.”

For Ennis, the gathering—his third—reminded him of the wisdom in Proverbs 27: “Iron sharpens iron.”

“At each Thriving in Ministry gathering, it has been especially meaningful to learn from men and women whose faith has been transformative in their communities,” he says.

Participants at a Thriving in Ministry Initiative convening

Morning worship at Thriving in Ministry Initiative convening.

Stirring the imagination

The Endowment launched Thriving in Ministry in 2017, making grants to seminaries, colleges and universities, denominational agencies and other nonprofits that are committed to supporting the well-being of pastors and others in congregational ministry. The initiative also includes funding to support Leadership Education at Duke Divinity School, which provides a coordination program for organizations participating in Thriving in Ministry. A major part of that coordination program is offering learning opportunities, including annual gatherings, which have taken place in-person and virtually since 2019.

The overall goal of the events is always the same: foster a community that strengthens its individual members, worships together, and explores common purpose and solutions to challenges, according to Alaina Kleinbeck, associate executive director for coordination programs at Duke’s Leadership Education and director of the Thriving in Ministry Coordination Program.

“These gatherings are huge ‘aha’ moments when the whole church shows up,” Kleinbeck says. “To be in a space where everyone—Orthodox, Reformed, Catholic, Pentecostal—are in conversation is remarkable. It stirs the ecumenical imagination.”

Hospitality as a spiritual practice

Across the Endowment’s many initiatives, convening grantees is a longstanding practice. Duke’s strategy for the Thriving in Ministry gatherings has always been to make a hotel ballroom feel like a more intimate space. That was true at the most recent gathering in August 2023, when 227 participants representing the 129 organizations and 34 states across the country convened for three days at a downtown Indianapolis conference hotel.

Days together began with morning worship. Plenary panel discussions explored the internal lives of pastoral leaders and the external realities affecting their ministries. Breakout sessions encouraged participants to have deeper conversations about the shared challenges they face and possibilities for collaborative solutions. Shared meals and generous break times are designed to encourage participants to process together what they heard in sessions and to foster networking.

“It’s the tradition of Christian hospitality, extended to all. We want each person from every grantee organization to walk in and know that they are a beloved child of God,” Kleinbeck says. “Anything we can do to help throw off the anxiety of travel, their exhaustion, the strangeness of the place, is crucial to practicing that hospitality.”

Rural renovation

At the 2023 Thriving in Ministry gathering, Ennis represented Catholic Rural Life on a stage with three other panelists for a discussion about the contextual challenges facing pastors. The panelists enumerated the issues facing their communities, as well as ways that they could see God at work. Ennis talked about priests feeling discouraged by seeing only “grayheads” at mass and parents who worried about how to pass their faith on to their children. He also talked about what was working: priests using creative methods to meet young people on their terms, hosting “s’more theology” bonfires, cheering on their high school football and basketball teams, and even driving the team bus to away games. But even as he talked about his own experiences, Ennis says he was inspired by the pastoral leaders sitting next to him—representing rural and urban ministries, Catholic and Protestant, male and female—and the humility and faith at the root of their shared work.

“There is real wisdom in bringing people together and sharing models of ministry, but it’s all about glory to God, not ‘here’s what I am doing.’ It always reinvigorates me and how I approach my own work.”

Ennis was at a turning point with Catholic Rural Life when opportunities presented by the Thriving in Ministry Initiative came along. The organization was founded in 1923 at a gathering in St. Louis, Mo., of bishops, priests and laity who shared common concerns about rural Catholic parishes. Almost a century later, the organization needed some “renovation,” Ennis says. Parishes and their priests needed better help, but Catholic Rural Life lacked the budget to expand its outreach.

In 2019, the Endowment made a $1 million Thriving in Ministry grant to help Catholic Rural Life support the ongoing spiritual formation of clergy and to help pastors renew their vision for ministry. There are retreats and follow-up sessions focused on leadership development and best practices for ministry in rural settings. Together, clergy are growing in their understanding of what it means to serve rural communities as they strengthen bonds with one another.

“It has been transformational,” Ennis says. “It’s just been a huge blessing to our rural pastors.”

Beyond funding for the much-needed programming, Thriving in Ministry’s annual gatherings have introduced Ennis to a nationwide community of people devoted to helping pastors and their congregations. At the annual gatherings, Ennis has met leaders of other Thriving in Ministry grant programs in other regions and contexts. Conversations have created companions on a journey, one that has Ennis looking forward with hope for a better future for pastors and their parishes.

“Having these deep friendships with people I trust and can give me wise counsel is just so powerful,” he says.

City sanctuary

In the heart of Harlem, City Seminary of New York is demonstrating the spiritual practice of hospitality to the ministers it serves. In 2017, the seminary received a $1 million Thriving in Ministry grant. Pastors from a wide range of Christian traditions gather in small “praxis” cohort groups at the seminary, engaging in deep conversation during retreats designed for inquiry and reflection. They create and enjoy art together. Ignacio, a friendly dog, is in residence.

At City Seminary, pastors can lean into a welcoming, creative space that nurtures friendship and self-care. As a result, city pastors—who might not otherwise have even met—are able to make connections, providing one another with a much-needed extended community of support and encouragement, according to Acevedo.

Cohort groups might use their meetings together to talk through a challenging question—not necessarily to find an answer, Acevedo says, but to find fresh perspectives. Recently, a group of women pastors met in a cohort group focused on self-care, making a retreat for respite and reflection, sharing their experiences of church leadership, and taking in an exhibit on Puerto Rican history at a local museum.

“There is diversity in faith and culture, yet these pastors can be in relationship with each other at City Seminary in ways they cannot find anywhere else,” she says.

For Thriving in Ministry program leaders, there is a similar need to be in relationship. The gatherings hosted by the initiative’s coordination program are filling that need. Whether it is in morning worship and prayer or during break time discussions in between plenary sessions and workshops, Acevedo says the time together is building much-needed community. The informal breakfasts and lunches with new Thriving in Ministry colleagues in Indianapolis are particularly meaningful. Psalm 34 came to her mind: “Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in him.”

“When a meal is shared, we are reminded that we are called to nourish one another,” Acevedo says. “The convening was a time to see and hear the good things that God is doing to strengthen the church. To get a taste of thriving ministries.”