Lilly Endowment Inc. Awards Perkins $1M for New Congregational Vitality Program

Southern Methodist University (SMU) has received a $999,975 grant to support Perkins School of Theology’s Testimony as Community Engagement program.

DALLAS (SMU) – Southern Methodist University (SMU) has received a $999,975 grant to support Perkins School of Theology’s Testimony as Community Engagement program. The grant is being made through Lilly Endowment’s nationwide Thriving Congregations Initiative.


The program, which will be embedded in the newly renamed Perkins Center for Congregational Vitality, will work to increase the practice of testimony as community engagement both inside and outside the church. The Reverend Dr. Priscilla Pope-Levison and Bart Patton of Perkins School of Theology will serve as co-principal investigators on the project. This is the second Lilly Endowment grant awarded to SMU to fund the work of Pope-Levison and Patton; the first was a $1 million grant awarded in 2018 to strengthen congregational ministries with youth.


SMU is one of 92 organizations being funded through Lilly Endowment’s Thriving Congregations Initiative. The aim of the initiative is to strengthen Christian congregations so they can help people deepen their relationships with God, build strong relationships with each other and contribute to the flourishing of local communities and the world. The grants will support organizations as they work directly with congregations and help them gain clarity about their values and missions; explore and understand better the communities in which they serve; and draw upon their theological traditions as they adapt ministries to meet changing needs.


The project at SMU will enable the Perkins School to extend the breadth and depth of its mission by capturing the current catalyst of testimony in this COVID-19 moment – people telling stories about God’s presence in their lives – and embedding it into the practice of 30 congregations within a 250-mile radius of Dallas.


“Thriving congregations provide safe places to discern when, where and how people have encountered God. Equally essential, they offer safe havens to learn how to form that experience into a testimony. The practice of testimony as community engagement, within and beyond the church walls, will become an indispensable part of the DNA of each cohort congregation,” said Patton.


Over the five-year course of the grant, the program will help congregations master how to utilize testimony as community engagement; rename the current Perkins Center for Evangelism to Perkins Center for Congregational Vitality (PCCV), encouraging it to become an international and ecumenical hub for training congregations in best practices for testimony; lead each cohort congregation in four concentric circles of learning communities; develop a prescribed course of study through the PCCV and launch an internationally recognized Certificate for Congregational Vitality; and establish a grant website as the vehicle for sharing resources related to testimonies of community engagement, such as podcasts, webinars, downloadable resources and written materials.


“Testimony is a fundamental building block of the church as a welcoming body, where even newcomers can overhear authentic faith stories,” said Pope-Levison. “Community and connection flow out from a thriving congregation’s practice of testimony into the world around it.”


This grant will engage a core value of Perkins’ mission statement: “To prepare women and men for faithful leadership in Christian ministry.” The ability to articulate how one experiences God is foundational to training Christian leaders, especially for an institution in the Wesleyan tradition, making the Testimony as Community Engagement program an ideal way for congregations to inspire those of faith.


The Reverend Dr. Priscilla Pope-Levison, co-principal investigator, associate dean for External Programs and professor of ministerial studies, is an award-winning author, pastor, professor and higher education administrator. In her upcoming book Models of Evangelism (Baker Academic, 2020) she gathers together several decades of experience as an educator, speaker, scholar and author into a compelling resource for congregational and classroom study and implementation. In 2014, after a successful career in undergraduate and graduate teaching, she came to Perkins School of Theology to launch the newly created Office of External Programs, which plans and hosts a yearlong cycle of public events whose participants number in the thousands, as well as certificates in practical ministries for Perkins students, church staff and laypeople.


Bart Patton, co-principal investigator and director of youth and young adult ministry education at Perkins School of Theology, is a proven congregational leader, youth minister, worship leader, teacher and pastor, with more than two decades of ministry experience in three states and seven different ecumenical congregational environments, including large and small churches in rural, urban and suburban contexts. He travels the country as a congregational resource, consultant and communicator for a wide range of churches and related organizations. Patton is committed to providing high-level teaching resources for Pan-Methodist youth ministers and congregations and serves as a lead team curriculum developer and author for Cokesbury/Abingdon (Fathom Bible Studies, Bible Lessons for Youth). His passion for congregational and youth work helped to spark the revitalization of the Perkins School of Youth Ministry (PSYM) and to inaugurate the PSYM Foundations “On the Go” National Training Program.


Lilly Endowment Inc. is an Indianapolis-based private philanthropic foundation created in 1937 by J.K. Lilly, Sr. and sons Eli and J.K., Jr. through gifts of stock in their pharmaceutical business, Eli Lilly and Company. Although the gifts of stock remain a financial bedrock of the endowment, it is a separate entity from the company, with a distinct governing board, staff and location. In keeping with the founders’ wishes, the endowment exists to support the causes of religion, education and community development. The endowment funds significant programs throughout the United States, especially in the field of religion. However, it maintains a special commitment to its hometown, Indianapolis, and home state, Indiana. The principal aim of the endowment’s grantmaking in religion is to deepen and enrich the lives of Christians in the United States, primarily by seeking out and supporting efforts that enhance the vitality of congregations and strengthen their pastoral and lay leadership.