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Louisville Seminary receives $1 million Lilly Endowment grant to study rural ministry in African American contexts

The Nehemiah Project will engage 13 primarily rural historic Black churches in three states

by Louisville Seminary | Special to Presbyterian News Service

the Rev. Dr. Angela Cowser

LOUISVILLE — Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary has received a five-year, $1 million grant from Lilly Endowment Inc. to help establish the Nehemiah Project: Strengthening Historic African American Congregations.

The program is funded through Lilly Endowment’s Thriving Congregations Initiative, a national effort to strengthen Christian congregations so they can help people deepen their relationships with God, build strong relationships with each other and contribute to the flourishing of local communities and the world.

Lilly Endowment is making nearly $93 million in grants through the initiative. The grants will support organizations as they work directly with congregations and help them gain clarity about their values and missions, explore and understand better the communities in which they serve, and draw upon their theological traditions as they adapt ministries to meet changing needs. Louisville Seminary is one of 92 organizations being funded through the initiative.

The Nehemiah Project will engage 13 primarily rural, historic Black churches (HBCs) in Kentucky, Indiana, and Ohio, plus one non-Black congregational learning partner. Each participating congregation will receive guidance and support to devise specific strategies for defining their spiritual values, connecting with their surrounding communities, and responding to congregational challenges in effective ways. Features of the Nehemiah Project will include developing influential congregational leaders, online learning modules, and assessment tools for congregations to use. Representative denominations will include United Methodist Church (UMC), African Methodist Episcopal, Christian Methodist Episcopal, AME Zion, and Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

The Rev. Dr. Angela Cowser, Louisville Seminary’s associate dean of Black Church Studies and Doctor of Ministry Programs, said that the timing of the Lilly Endowment funding could not be better.

“Ministry in rural spaces is understudied and under-resourced,” said Cowser. “This grant will make these project goals a reality and provide a model for rural HBCs in this region and across the country. We want to build relationships with rural clergy, learn from them, and provide resources that will enrich their ministries and communities.”

Louisville Seminary first raised the question about thriving congregations in Black rural settings at its February 2019 Black Church Studies Consultation. Throughout the following summer, seminary professors and alumni in partnership with congregational leaders from Bardstown, Hopkinsville, and Eminence, Kentucky, conducted field research examining the issues that congregations address to effectively provide spiritual, social, and personal guidance to the rural communities they serve. The results of their findings were presented at the February 2020 Black Church Studies Consultation and served as the basis for development of the Nehemiah Project.

“In the midst of a rapidly changing world, Christian congregations are grappling with how they can best carry forward their ministries,” said Christopher Coble, Lilly Endowment’s Vice President for Religion. “These grants will help congregations assess their ministries and draw on practices in their theological traditions to address new challenges and better nurture the spiritual vitality of the people they serve.”

With funding secured, next steps for the Louisville Seminary Nehemiah Project include project orientation for participating congregations’ leaders, organization of church development leadership teams, and development of program study guides and other training modules. Project efforts will be the focus of the seminary’s next Black Church Studies Consultation, which will take place in February 2021.

The Rev. Dr. Alton B. Pollard, III. (Photo courtesy of Louisville Seminary)

According to Louisville Seminary’s President, Rev. Dr. Alton B. Pollard, III, the work of the Nehemiah Project benefits the communities that Louisville Seminary serves as well as the seminary students who are preparing for ministry.

“Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary is pleased to support the Nehemiah Project, a groundbreaking and much-needed resource,” said Pollard. “The Commonwealth of Kentucky and neighboring regions are richly served by rural Black congregations and communities. Thanks to the leadership of Rev. Dr. Angela Cowser and the researchers and practitioners she has gathered, this project will be of immense benefit to rural Black contexts and to the faithful far and wide.”

About Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary

Founded in 1853, Louisville Seminary offers an inclusive and diverse learning community, welcoming students from wide ecumenical backgrounds while maintaining its long, historic commitment to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A). Louisville Seminary is committed to building bridges across the world’s religious, racial and cultural divides. It is distinguished by its nationally recognized marriage and family therapy and field education programs, the scholarship and church service among its faculty and a commitment to training women and men to participate in the continuing ministry of Jesus Christ. For more information, call (800) 264-1839 or log onto

About Lilly Endowment Inc.

Lilly Endowment Inc. is an Indianapolis-based private philanthropic foundation created in 1937 by J.K. Lilly Sr. and sons Eli and J.K. Jr. through gifts of stock in their pharmaceutical business, Eli Lilly & Company. Although the gifts of stock remain a 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 exists to support the causes of religion, education and community development. The Endowment funds significant programs throughout the United States, especially in the field of religion. However, it maintains a special commitment to its hometown, Indianapolis and home state, Indiana. The principal aim of the Endowment’s grantmaking in religion 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 their pastoral and lay leadership. Visit

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