Union Presbyterian Seminary awarded $1 million grant to help faith leaders address the nation’s cultural divide

Lilly Endowment Inc. grant will help churches respond theologically to racism, the pandemic, climate change and other issues

by Union Presbyterian Seminary | Special to Presbyterian News Service


RICHMOND, Virginia — Union Presbyterian Seminary will use a nearly $1 million grant to help churches respond theologically and not reactively to racism, the pandemic, climate change, and other issues of public concern affecting congregations and their communities.
“When members of congregations are interested in issues of public concern, they are often influenced more by political and cultural factors, rather than by the way these issues relate to their faith traditions,” President and Professor of New Testament Brian K. Blount said. “Therefore, churches need to delve more deeply into the ways in which our theologies inform our public engagement, and then, from that deep dive, go forth to be the church in the world.”

Over the past year, several events have escalated the urgency of engaging in public theology. The most prominent of these is the COVID-19 pandemic, which highlighted societal inequities, as evidenced by the fact, for example, that communities of color in the United States were hit harder by COVID-19 than white communities. There is also a global element to this: poorer nations struggle to obtain vaccines while richer nations have had access to more than they have used.

In the midst of the pandemic, the church has been challenged once again on the issue of race in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd and the national and international outcry that followed. Yet again, the church faces the task of racial reckoning.  To remain a credible witness to the presence of Christ in the world, the church must better address racial animus both within its own communities of worship, and as people of faith engaging the wider contexts of society.

Dr. Rachel S. Baard

“We seek to develop and offer resources for individuals and congregations that provide models of ways for Christians to fully participate in working for a world that is fair and just for all,” said project leader Rachel S. Baard, Assistant Professor of Theology and Ethics and Director of the Master of Arts in Public Theology program (MAPT) at Union. “The ultimate goal is to prepare faith leaders better prepared to serve the current and future needs of the church and community.”

The project, which will stretch over a five-year period, will strengthen and expand the work of the seminary’s three main centers (the Center for Social Justice & Reconciliation, the Katie Geneva Cannon Center for Womanist Leadership, and The Syngman Rhee Global Mission Center for Christian Education) and Master of Arts in Public Theology program, develop new initiatives focused on public theology, and unite these diverse efforts into a collective framework that will support congregational transformation and the preparation of congregational leaders for the coming decades.

The project is being funded by a $998,124 grant Lilly Endowment Inc. made through its Pathways for Tomorrow Initiative. It is a three-phase initiative designed to help theological schools across the United States and Canada as they prioritize and respond to the most pressing challenges they face as they prepare pastoral leaders for Christian congregations both now and into the future.

Union Presbyterian Seminary is one of 84 theological schools that are benefiting from a total of more than $82 million in grants through the second phase of the Pathways initiative.

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