Boston University School of Theology Launches Five-Year Study of Urban Ministries

Contact: Richard Taffe, 617-353-4626 |

BOSTON, MA —Boston University’s School of Theology is launching an ambitious five-year program to study the challenges that urban churches face in trying to sustain pastoral excellence. Funded with a grant of nearly $2 million from the Lilly Endowment, Inc., the program will invite 96 Christian pastors from across America to define roadblocks to excellence in city ministries and develop ways around those obstacles. The resulting case studies – amplified and enriched by comparative research from the School of Theology – will be published as a guide for other urban pastors. The program will conclude with an international conference on urban ministry, hosted by the University.

“In the urban context, pastoral excellence is the ability to respond creatively, openly, and flexibly to a wide range of religious, social, economic, political, and cultural imperatives while maintaining a confident and constant spiritual center,” said Professor Robert C. Neville, dean of the School of Theology. “We are bringing to bear the full resources of a school of theology embedded in a major research university to help these pastors develop and then disseminate an imaginative, structured program of study, theological reflection, and spiritual discipline to address the challenges of the urban ministry.”

The first four years the program will be broken into six-month segments, each involving a dozen pastors grouped into four-member teams. Each team will identify an issue in urban pastoral ministry and, in collaboration with the School of Theology faculty, develop a six-month program of reading, study, and spiritual discipline to address that issue. At the start of each segment, the pastors will visit the University for orientation sessions to define their programs. At the end of each, the teams will meet again for a debriefing session. In between they will return home for reading, writing, and meditation. The grant also will fund four-to-eight week “pastoral enrichment” leaves from congregational duties.

All 96 pastors will return to Boston University at the end of the fifth year for the international conference of denominational officials, students, and members of the broader urban pastorate. Afterwards, the collection of case studies developed by the 24 groups will be widely disseminated as a guide and point of departure for others seeking to sustain pastoral excellence in their urban ministries.

“We want this experience to be as useful as possible for urban pastors and church administrators seeking to navigate a course through the contemporary city, for students envisioning their own futures in an urban pastorate, and for ongoing research into the character and foundations of urban pastoral excellence,” said Professor Neville.
The project is a direct extension of ongoing work in practical theology at the Boston University School of Theology. Co-directed by Professor Bryan Stone and Professor Claire Wolfteich, it is a joint venture of the school’s Center for Congregational Research and Development and the Center for Spiritual Formation and Church Life, which apply wide-ranging, critical research in theology and ecclesiology to shaping and strengthening congregations and their pastoral leadership.

One of the largest private foundations in the nation, the Indianapolis-based Lilly Endowment has awarded nearly $5 million in grants supporting the school’s work in practical theology – which informs theological research with actual experience and applies research to the advancement of church life. For the national “Sustaining Pastoral Excellence” program, the Endowment awarded $57.9 million in grants – from $250,000 to $2 million – to 47 of the more than 700 religiously affiliated institutions submitting proposals.

The Lilly Endowment was founded in 1937 by three members of the Lilly family through gifts of stock in their pharmaceutical business, Eli Lilly and Company. A separate entity from the company, the Endowment is devoted to the causes of advancing religion, education and community development. The country’s largest single funder in the field of religion, the Endowment supports a wide variety of efforts to enhance the quality of ministry in American congregations and parishes and seeks ways to encourage healthy and vibrant congregations. The Endowment also funds projects designed to promote informed dialogue about religion in American life, generate new knowledge, communicate fresh insights, and renew and sustain vital institutions of American Christianity.

The School of Theology, Boston University’s founding school established in 1839, is America’s oldest United Methodist seminary and one of only 10 university-based theological seminaries in the nation. With an enrollment of more than 29,000 in its 17 schools and colleges, Boston University is the fourth-largest independent university in the country. The University offers an exceptional grounding in the liberal arts, a broad range of programs in the arts, sciences, engineering, and professional areas, and state-of-the-art facilities for teaching and research.