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Whitworth Receives $1 Million Grant from Lilly Endowment Inc. to Create New Christian Churches

October 29, 2018
Whitworth University has received a grant of $1 million to help establish a new program called Third Way Ministry: How Church Planters Thrive in Ministry in a Post-Christendom/Post-Christian Context. 

It is part of Lilly Endowment Inc.’s Thriving in Ministry initiative, which supports a variety of religious organizations across the nation as they create or strengthen programs that help pastors build relationships with experienced clergy who can serve as mentors and guide them through key leadership challenges in congregational ministry. 

Lilly Endowment has made nearly $70 million in grants available through the Thriving in Ministry initiative. Whitworth’s Thrive grant focuses on training church planters.

A team of four pastors experienced in church planting and Whitworth’s Office of Church Engagement (OCE) will recruit future church planters, embed them in congregations committed to church planting, train them and then deploy them.

The leadership hopes to see incredible growth in the program: 20 supporting churches and church planters the first year, 30 more the second year, 40 the third year, and 60 the final year. It will begin in Spokane County and then expand throughout the Inland Northwest. Whitworth will participate in many ways, primarily by providing much of the training and overseeing the operation.

“We look forward to working with pastors who have vast experience in church planting,” says Terry McGonigal, director of the Office of Church Engagement. “New expressions of disciple-making communities will emerge in the next few years as a result of this grant.”

The churches that are interested or already committed represent a wide diversity of churches in Spokane cutting across traditional denominational boundaries.

Studies demonstrate that new churches are by far the most effective in reaching unchurched people, of whom there are many in the Inland Northwest. In most cases, church planting movements tend to associate with megachurches or national organizations, which often means that in any given city, church planting teams will launch a new church without consulting with other groups doing the same thing, often in the same area. Church planting is full of risk, and requires attention to recruiting, training and supporting church planters, who will face challenges that are both distinct and unique in the larger calling of pastoral ministry. This mentored, cohort model will provide that support.

In addition, in most cases church planting movements have little or no connection to academic institutions, whether university or seminary. This initiative is building a strong partnership between entrepreneurial churches and an academic institution, with both providing training.

“I am excited about and committed to this project because entrepreneurial churches and an academic institution have a great deal to learn from and contribute to each other in fulfilling the Great Command and the Great Commission,” says Jerry Sittser, professor of theology and senior fellow in the OCE. “Both church and academy become stronger when they work together.”

Whitworth is one of 78 organizations in 29 states that are taking part in the initiative. The organizations reflect diverse Christian traditions: mainline and evangelical Protestant, Roman Catholic and Orthodox.

Thriving in Ministry is part of Lilly Endowment’s grant-making to strengthen pastoral leadership in Christian congregations in the United States. This has been a grant-making priority at Lilly Endowment for nearly 25 years.

“Leading a congregation today is multifaceted and exceptionally demanding,” says Christopher L. Coble, Lilly Endowment’s vice president for religion. “When pastors have opportunities to build meaningful relationships with experienced colleagues, they are able to negotiate the challenges of ministry and their leadership thrives. These promising programs will help pastors develop these kinds of relationships, especially when they are in the midst of significant professional transitions.”

The OCE has received four major grants from Lilly Endowment totaling $4 million since 2013.

Located in Spokane, Wash., Whitworth is a private liberal arts university affiliated with the Presbyterian church. The university, which has an enrollment of more than 3,000 students, offers more than 100 undergraduate and graduate degree programs.

Lilly Endowment Inc. is an Indianapolis-based private philanthropic foundation created in 1937 by three members of the Lilly family – J.K. Lilly Sr. and sons Eli and J.K. Jr. – through gifts of stock in their pharmaceutical business, Eli Lilly & Company. While those gifts remain the financial bedrock of the Endowment, the Endowment is a separate entity from the company, with a distinct governing board, staff and location. In keeping with the founders’ wishes, the Endowment supports the causes of community development, education and religion. The Endowment maintains a special commitment to its hometown, Indianapolis, and its home state, Indiana. Its grant-making in religion focuses on supporting efforts to strengthen the leadership and vitality of Christian congregations throughout the country and to increase the public’s understanding of the role of religion in public life.


Terry McGonigal, director of church engagement, (509) 777-4547 or

Trisha Coder, media relations manager, (509) 777-4703 or