Synod of the Northeast ‘Innovation Fund’ fuels creativity
by Gregg Brekke | Presbyterian News Service
LOUISVILLE – Imagine what type of ministry you would start if you had no fear of failure or financial limitations. That’s exactly what the Synod of the Northeast is asking people to consider as it receives another round of Innovation Grant applications.
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) regional body is gathering annual proposals for ministry grants from new ministries others wanting to expand in exciting ways. Program administrator and synod leader the Rev. Dr. Harold Delhagen says the program is simultaneously “overwhelming” and “beautiful.”
“The thing that doesn’t get funded in our churches is the opportunity for people to take a chance and try something new,” he says. “In the risk averse environment we’re in everyone is so anxious about financial longevity, we said we want to be the place where people can try stuff and not fear failing.”
Delhagen understands not every innovative program is going to succeed, and he’s ok with that. “We’re that non-anxious place where member presbyteries and congregations can come—we’ll support them and walk alongside them—and let them try something,” he says.
In 2016 the program has issued nearly $600,000 in grants. The 2015 number was almost $700,000, and the future budget is growing. The synod’s Innovation Fund has a balance of over $12 million. But Delhagen says the synod isn’t restricting itself to spending only interest and earnings to fund new projects. The synod assembly recently voted to move its rolling average draw on the account from five to 10 percent.
“Without getting preachy on this, Jesus warned about building bigger barns, ‘What are you saving it for?’” he says. “This is just the beginning of breaking loose money for the kingdom. What good is it if there’s four of us left [in the church] and we have eight million, or even two million [dollars]?”
Although there have been some very large gifts given—including $165,225 to Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church as an act of racial reconciliation and $300,000 to Presbyterian Disaster Assistance—the average grant is $20,000 for each of two years. With 10 new grants issued each year, the baseline budget is $400,000. Additional funding goes to disaster relief, campus ministries and other special needs, which raises the annual total to its current level.
Former synod executive Clint McCoy established the Faithful Servant Fund in the mid-2000s, which has now been renamed the Innovation Fund. “We just took a significant piece of our money that was invested, liquidated it, and made it available,” says Delhagen
While the focus of the grants is entrepreneurial, the goal is pragmatic—the church, according to Delhagen, needs to find new ways to do ministry if it is going to meet the needs of future generations.
“In another 30 to 50 years we’re not going to be thinking about churches with buildings. That’ll be a rare thing,” he says. “I just received a request from a group that wants to buy a building and it made me groan. There are so many buildings out there to be used. We need to get out of the real estate business and focus on ministry.”
One ministry taking Delhagen’s advice to heart is the Not so Churchy new worshiping community in New York City, which meets in rented space in a synagogue. The Rev. Mieke Vandersall, who founded Not so Churchy in 2011, says many in the fellowship have been hurt by the church and particular Bible passages. They meet once a month for a worship service created with talents from within the group, focusing on interpreting and reclaiming these biblical stories. They also gather one or two more times each month for community service, spiritual practices and outings.
“The Innovation Grant allowed us to get started,” she says. “It gave us a foundation to pay musicians, buy instruments, and to be able to dream a little bit without being so scared of failing. For new church plants it’s so hard and scary because you have no infrastructure. You have to have an influx of cash in order to be able to listen to the Spirit… [The grant] has helped us get to the point we’re at today.”
Delhagen thinks the Synod of the Northeast’s Innovation Grant model can work elsewhere too, but it’s going to take courage on behalf of those who control and oversee the church’s investments. Anxiety and fear, he says, is what’s “killing the church,” not a loss of membership or declining contributions. He and the members of the Synod of the Northeast believe their grants are a remedy to that anxiety and fear. He says the drive to be good stewards has been equated with financial preservation instead of generosity.
“I’m stunned at how wealthy the Presbyterian Church is,” he says. “Everywhere I go there a pots of millions of dollars. I’ve gone to two presbyteries that have told me they are broke and they each have about three million dollars in the bank… There’s a real problem when there’s so much need out there—positive needs, aspirations—and there’s so much money not being used. That’s a huge disconnect and it’s driven by a sense of scarcity rather than the promise of abundance.”
Doing ministry with this sense of abundance makes Delhagen “incredibly hopeful about the future of the church, especially the Presbyterian Church.” He likens the energy and creativity seen from grant recipients to pouring water on dry plants. The joy, he says, is infectious.
“Some times I sit back and laugh,” he says of seeing new ministries thrive, and struggling ones get the help they need. “All we had to do was shake [the money] loose. It’s really fun and feels really good.”
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