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Joyce Ann Zimmerman on 14 Years of Evaluating Vital Worship Grants

During her 14 years on Calvin Institute of Christian Worship’s Grants Advisory Board, Joyce Ann Zimmerman evaluated 1,345 grant proposals. She describes essentials of a good grant project.

Body: Sister Joyce Ann Zimmerman, CPPS, is the founding director of the Institute for Liturgical Ministry in Dayton, Ohio. Despite being semi-retired, she still writes, leads conferences and workshops, and is an adjunct professor at the Athenaeum of Ohio and the University of Dayton. In this edited conversation, she talks about why education is such an important part of good grant proposals for worshiping communities.

What kinds of questions work best on applications to help applicants think about why they do what they do in worship?

The best questions are very concrete and invite simple answers. For example, “How would you describe Christian worship?” Your theology of worship shapes and structures what you do in worship. It should help you describe how worship transforms us and how it affects our relationship with God and each other.

However, my experience on the board is that many grant applicants have limited theological education. I think many churches across the spectrum are woefully lacking in a solid understanding of what worship is. I tried to address that gap in my book Worship with Gladness: Understanding Worship from the Heart.

Have you noticed any trends in who applies for which types of grants?

In my years on the board, it seemed we got more and more proposals from independent churches and small churches in the evangelical tradition. We gradually got fewer proposals from Catholic, Orthodox, or other liturgical traditions. It’s helpful that the CICW grants website provides sample proposal ideas; however, I wonder whether that discourages people who have a great grant idea but don’t see it reflected in the sample ideas.

What makes the difference between successful and unsuccessful proposals?

Focus, focus, focus. Despite the variety in ideas and worshiping communities, the successful proposals succinctly said in two sentences what their grant was about. When proposals are written to the point, clearly, and concretely, they are easier to evaluate—and, I think, easier to achieve the most success.

By contrast, many proposals that didn’t get funded tended to use lots of buzzwords like community and collaboration. But they didn’t explain how the grant would move a congregation to worship more actively, consciously, and fully. If grant writers or grant directors don’t have a clear sense of how they’ll move people to deeper intellectual and spiritual insights, then nothing will happen.

What were your favorite grants?

I tended to favor grants with a strong educational component. In Catholic circles, as well as in Orthodox and some other traditionally liturgical churches, we don’t have to invent a worship service every week. When you have a fixed-text liturgy, being creative isn’t the issue. Instead, we need to educate people even more on what happens within themselves during the liturgy.

When I teach lay people in classes and weekend retreats, students are overwhelmed—in a good sense—by what the average parishioner doesn’t know. As my students better understand the richness of Roman Catholic worship, they are eager to help others see what they are seeing. For many potential Catholic grantees, the best way to renew worship is to bring in speakers who can teach how to creatively draw people more deeply into the liturgy.

What key elements do grants need so that learning and renewal happen?

I would like to see each grant team held to reporting on specific learning activities for the team itself. After all, you can’t effectively teach what you don’t really understand. The application asks for books that relate to the grant proposal. We presume that the grant team will learn by doing the grant, but it would be even better to have a clear educative tool for grant teams, such as requiring the grant team to study and report on two books together. This would also help address the fact that so many grant writers are theologically unsophisticated. We don’t want to discourage them from applying, but we know how much they’ll benefit by learning more about the theology of worship during their grant year.

Why do you care so much about education as it relates to worship renewal grants?

Any activity we do is more meaningful the better understood it is. This is so very true for worship. When we understand the various elements of a worship service, how they fit together to give God praise and thanks, then worship comes alive in new ways. An educational sensitivity with respect to worship can also help us see our weak areas and move toward a stronger, more fruitful worship experience.

Does this kind of knowledge appeal mainly to people with college degrees?

Not at all. Many of my students in our archdiocesan non-degreed certificate program in lay ministry aren’t college educated. Their main characteristic is generosity. They have a sense of ownership in and love for their parish. Their sense of service means they’ll continue to volunteer for many years. They know that many people are hungry to get more from the eucharistic liturgy, and with more knowledge they are better equipped to feed this hunger.

Who must be on board for a grant project to go well?

Certainly the pastor must be on board. Beyond that, ideally, anyone involved in the weekly planning and execution of worship should be on the grant team. As churches of all kinds become more financially strapped, it can be challenging to find the staff and volunteers to propose and carry out a grant project. Yet the grants board knows it’s important not to define “go well” as all about the numbers. I hope that fact gives smaller congregations more hope to apply.

Though you have retired from the CICW Grants Advisory Board, what changes do you hope the board will make?

The website for Vital Worship Grants available to worshiping communities includes sample discussion questions and sample proposal ideas for potential grantees. I think potential grantees could write more succinctly and focus their ideas more if the website also included entire sample grant proposals. These sample proposals should come from worshiping communities ranging from liturgical “high church” traditions to independent house church groups.

What did you most enjoy about your 14 years on the Vital Worship Grants Advisory Board?

I loved being on the board together with different kinds of people. Attending the annual grants colloquium was hard for those of us who are introverts. But what drove me were the insights I gained, often in unexpected ways. I gained deeper appreciation for the commitment that non-Roman Catholics can have for their traditions.

Worship can take many forms, and experience with different kinds of worship can open up gratitude for our own worship tradition. At the same time, if you don’t change, you don’t survive. Too often we focus on practices, when we should be discussing the inviolable gospel values that don’t change.


Read Joyce Ann Zimmerman’s Worship with Gladness: Understanding Worship from the Heart. John Witvliet says this book works so well across denominational lines because “it is saturated with references to and language drawn from the Bible.” Read her classic essay “Participation in Worship: More than Doing.”