“Growing well” was the theme of a program proposed by the Rev. William H. Chidester, and it became possible through a $41,175 grant awarded to his church, Sylvania United Church of Christ, by the Lilly Endowment, Inc.
“A major part of the theme for my grant was growing well, which we applied to both the church and my health,” said Mr. Chidester, 54, who underwent a liver transplant in 1989.
“We designed the program to do things that would strengthen parts of my professional and personal life, and in terms of the church, to empower the laity of the congregation,” he said.
The Indianapolis-based Lilly Endowment, Inc., awarded $4.5 million in grants to 117 U.S. congregations as part of its fifth annual National Clergy Renewal Program.
Mr. Chidester said a letter of notification, mailed in October, sat unopened for weeks in the Erie Street church s office.
“It was kind of funny,” he said. “It was addressed to the church moderator, so the secretary put it in his mail slot and the letter wasn t opened until a Sunday morning in early December. It was very exciting to get the news.”
The nationwide grants, ranging from $11,000 to $45,000, are awarded to congregations, not individual pastors. The program aims to give pastors a break from their demanding jobs and, as a consequence, let the ministers personal renewal breathe new life into congregations.
“Many people do not realize how intense a pastor s life can be,” said Craig Dykstra, the endowment s vice president for religion. “He or she fills many roles - preacher and worship leader, confidant, friend, counselor, spiritual guide, personnel director, community leader, fund-raiser - that can become overwhelming.
“These sabbaticals are intended to be planned, focused times away that will help them renew their spirits and energy so they can return to the church reinvigorated mentally and physically.”
Mr. Chidester, a Yale Divinity School graduate who was ordained in 1974, has been pastor of Sylvania UCC for about 18 years. The church has an average Sunday morning attendance of about 200 and, in addition to Mr. Chidester, has a part-time assistant pastor.
The son of a United Church of Christ minister, Mr. Chidester said entering the ministry “was the last thing I was going to do.”
But after enrolling at Yale, he said, “I began to feel that I could minister in ways that reflected what I believed and what I thought a ministry should be about.
“And when God calls, you listen. Sometimes he lets us take some time, but eventually he gets us.”
Mr. Chidester said the Lilly Endowment grant will enable him to take his first sabbatical in nearly 30 years of ministry.
He plans to use some of the funds to pay for spiritual growth conferences and seminars for himself and for members of his congregation. The church has already hired a consultant to determine the congregation s strengths and weaknesses, he said.
He also plans to take time off and spend it with his wife and two grown children, including participating in a family tennis camp, taking a trip to Europe, and possibly visiting Turkey - a nation with a rich religious heritage but politically troubled of late.
“This grant really makes happen something that congregations just have trouble setting aside the funds for. It s really a wonderful opportunity,” Mr. Chidester said.
He said he was persuaded to apply by a member of his congregation after The Blade published an article last year about two northwest Ohio ministers, the Rev. Dan Fothergill and the Rev. Lenore Kure, who won clergy-renewal grants.
The Lilly Endowment this year awarded grants to congregations representing 16 denominations in 33 states and the District of Columbia, in churches ranging from 51 to 5,800 members.
Information on the National Clergy Renewal Program is available from the Lilly Endowment, Inc., 317-916-7302, or online at wwww.clergyrenewal.org.
- DAVID YONKE