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Worship Renewal Grants Worth Applying For

Writing a good proposal for a worship renewal grant helps congregation members talk together about why you do what you do in worship and how your worship practices form your faith and life

This article, written in 2009, refers to the Worship Renewal Grants Program run by the Worship Institute from 2000-2012. This program was updated in 2013 to the Vital Worship Grants Program.

Formed in 1792 in upstate New York, the small rural congregation now known as Mayfield Central Presbyterian Church has a heritage of worshiping decently and in order. Its pastor, Bonnie M. Orth, is a lifelong Presbyterian. Recently she's noticed expanded notions of "decently and in order."

Scarf-waving children and teens exude joy during the call to worship. People feel free to pray in different postures: hands folded, cupped, or lifted high.eyes closed, open, or looking up. "The baptism font is always open and filled. When we pass the peace, I notice people working their way up to the font," Orth says. Some dip in a finger. Others touch wetted fingers to foreheads to remember they are baptized.

"People aren't afraid anymore to talk about worship or say, 'What about this?'" she notes. They've even dreamed of offering worship from a pontoon boat on Great Sacandaga Lake to reach Sunday boaters during the Adirondacks' brief summer.

Meanwhile Mayfield Pres children help lead worship at nearby nursing homes. The congregation has a new men's group. Its choir is "the envy of the county" with six male baritones and tenors. "We can hardly keep our feet anchored to the ground as the spirit of God raises us in new directions," Orth recently reported to the presbytery.

Most of these changes have come about since the congregation dared to apply for a worship renewal grant, administered by Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and generously supported by Indianapolis-based Lilly Endowment Inc.

No need to fear

Orth learned about the one-year grants when she was invited to be on an Albany Presbytery team that appliedin 2006 for funds to help eight churches explore multisensory media for worship. Proposals are due in early January. Applicants hear back in May. Recipient project directors attend the June worship renewal grants colloquium, finish their work by May 31 of the next year, and return to colloquium to share results.

"It wasn't till I got to the colloquium that I realized I needed to apply for a grant for my own congregation. Like a lot of people, I had a fear of writing a grant, because I had never done it," Orth says. As she learned, ate, and worshiped with others who were starting or completing projects, she began to sense the potential for worship renewal.

Betty Grit, worship renewal grants program manager, explains that congregation and process are key concepts for understanding the program's purpose. "We focus practices of corporate public worship for a particular community, congregation, or congregations—rather than merely on individual spirituality," she says. The grants focus on what John Witvliet, Worship Institute director, calls the second circle or "middle meaning" of worship.

Applicants may hope to commission art, buy musical instruments, beef up technology, or design a video or pageant. However, Grit advises, "Whatever your idea is, consider your project as starting a process, not producing a product." Good grant ideas are realistic, visionary, and adaptable to other congregations. They bring people together for theological learning and reflection to form or strengthen worship habits that continue throughout—and beyond—the project timeline.

"Don't be afraid to try for a grant. Calvin goes out of its way to lay out all the steps," Orth says. Her team was one of 56 grant recipients in 2008. In 2009, its tenth year, the Worship Institute awarded nearly $500,000 to 43 churches, schools, and organizations from 15 denominations in 20 states and two Canadian provinces.

Deep hospitality

If you see in the Bible an overarching story of God's hospitality, then you start to notice recurring rhythms in worship renewal grants, Worship Institute events, the Christian calendar, and Sunday liturgies. Come join the life God creates.learn from the Word to turn toward instead of fall away from God.share a meal of forgiveness and new life with the Redeemer who is both Host and host, Giver and gift.go out, led by the Spirit, to embody God's renewing grace to others.

"The hospitality they model at each worship renewal grants colloquium is unbelievable. It helped us realize the importance of hospitality in our grant," Orth says. She also appreciated knowing the Worship Institute staff prays each week for grant applicants and recipients.

"As I talked to people at poster sessions and meals, I noticed how many people said, 'We tried this, but that happened instead,'" she says. That spirit of permission, accepting congregations where they are and trusting the Holy Spirit to work through their grants, assured Orth that her church could enter the proposal process.

Her wind-blows-where-it-will insight proved useful after Mayfield Central Presbyterian and First Presbyterian Church of Broadalbin realized during the third month of their joint project that the grant "wouldn't work the same way in each church. It was good we both felt free, from meeting and talking with Betty Grit and the staff, to see that difference as successfully adapting to each congregation's context, not failure to do exactly as planned," Orth says.

Asking basic worship questions

Given the hundreds of worship renewal grants that have already been awarded, you might wonder how your ministry could come up with anything new. But novelty isn't what's most important.

"I'm becoming more convinced that we always need to stress the basics: theology of worship, what we really do in worship, how it transforms us, how it affects our relationship with God and each other. It is the basics and how people have 'caught' them that really make a difference in any long vision," says Joyce Ann Zimmerman, who was project director for a 2003 grant and is now a member of the worship renewal grants advisory board.

Betty Grit agrees. "We see lots of proposals related to intergenerational worship, the Psalms, baptism, and communion. These kinds of projects have proven to be really effective in worship renewal across cultures and generations. No two projects look alike because each context is different.

"We've seen growing interest in global worship. We put a high value on proposals for congregations involving people often forgotten in worship, such as those with Alzheimer's or in prison or youth in psychiatric residential settings. We'd like to see preaching renewal projects that incorporate congregations in making sermon development more participatory," she says.

Preparing Your Proposal: Six Easy Steps

Each year Calvin Institute of Christian Worship receives 100 to 300 proposals for its worship renewal grants program, which is generously supported by Indianapolis-based Lilly Endowment Inc.

"In these hard economic times, many churches find it hard to dream about meaningful worship change. I encourage them to apply for a grant, because so many congregations and organizations have reported that simply going through the process has sparked renewal," says Betty Grit, worship renewal grants program manager.

"Worship renewal takes place best in healthy congregations—healthy, not perfect," she adds.

Bonnie M. Orth, pastor of Mayfield Central Presbyterian Church in upstate New York, was part of a 2006 Albany Presbytery project to help eight churches explore multisensory media in worship and a 2008 two-church project that paired liturgical dance and vertical habits. She used plentiful online resources to follow the Worship Institute's six steps for preparing a worship renewal grants proposal.

Gather and discuss

The first two steps in writing a proposal are:

  • Gather a group of key leaders—pastors, other church staff, educators, church musicians, artists, architects, or scholars—interested in worship renewal and give each one the Grants Guidebook and proposal process. Orth looked for people "willing to think outside the box and try something new."
  • Discuss ten core convictions about worship and what worship renewal means.

This beginning will help your group start thinking about projects of $5,000 to $15,000 that could lead to worship services marked by creativity, theological integrity, and relevance. How might you bring many generations together to study, plan and create worship renewal? How would you share your results so other churches, schools, or worship communities could follow your model? Make the case for why you need outside financial resources to carry out your team's idea.

Note the emphasis on team.

"One person cannot make renewal happen. Many groups find that once they start a worship conversation, everyone wants to participate. Although the project director is often a lay person, it's essential that the pastor supports the process of worship renewal. That's why the application requires a letter of support from the pastor and names and contact information for five grant team members," Grit says.

Orth decided to partner with First Presbyterian Church of Broadalbin, six miles away, because the congregations had been a single church in the early 1800s, still had similar cultures, and she was friends with their pastor, Linda Martin.

Grit suggests you answer the why question before discussing when, what, and how. Discuss till you can fill in these blanks: Because we see _______, we hope to implement a project that _______, in order to promote ______.

"Ask what you hope to report at the end of your grant. So often people get excited about bringing in great speakers but don't connect that activity to a theme or purpose. A grant is not just about doing three cool workshops. As in worship planning, it's easy in grant proposal writing to get caught up in activities and mechanics," she cautions.

Use this visual to remind your team to start with asking why you want worship renewal (graphic by Betsy Steele Halstead, based on Robert Webber, Worship Old and New, ch. 13: "Content, Structure, and Style").

Assign and consider

The middle steps of proposal writing involve discovery and brainstorming:

  • Assign team members to review online resources for grants applicants. These include previous grant projects, reports from grant project leaders, and real-life stories about worship renewal in congregations.
  • Consider possible projects that could foster worship renewal in your congregations, reflecting on the questions and suggestions given in the Grants Guidebook.

"At my first worship renewal grants colloquium, I learned about the vertical habits. I suspected people in my congregation wondered why we do things in worship but didn't dare ask because they felt they should know. I realized these relational phrases could help our congregations experience that God wants to be in dynamic relationship with us.

"Team members researched vertical habits and taught them to each other. We brainstormed about what each habit would look like in worship. We checked out vertical habits resources online and looked at lots of grant posters," Orth says.

Team members discussed their church's needs and gifts. Young families were joining both congregations. "When children sing in church, they struggle to stay still. Anytime children are excited and involved, parents and grandparents follow," Orth observes. Her congregation included a dance professor from nearby Skidmore College.

The project team decided to use liturgical dance as an intergenerational teaching tool within the vertical habits framework. This would help people understand why they do what they do in worship and how that forms them as disciples of Christ. Pairing vertical habits with liturgical dance, signing the doxology and Lord's Prayer, multiple prayer postures, and other body movements would open people to experience the gospel in new ways and sense the Holy Spirit's power.

Create and share

The final two steps put the project together:

  • Use the sample budget to create a budget for your project. Make sure your budget meets grant guidelines, such as no more than 10 percent for travel or equipment costs.
  • Write answers to the first four proposal questions. Share these and the budget with other church members. Revise according to their feedback. Orth emailed back and forth with Grit to refine the proposal. Other churches request phone consultations to make sure they're on the right track.

Orth's team settled on teaching one vertical habit per month. They took turns writing church newsletter articles about the habits. Orth and Martin taught and preached on each habit. They chose a movement or motion to use with each vertical habit, culminating with an entire worship service using all the movements. A sacred dance workshop, Bible studies, prayer groups, and informal discussions sparked theological reflection.

The proposal writers paid close attention to grant guidelines. "The grant guidelines are not arbitrary. They're based on experience. The purpose of the grants never changes but we sometimes clarify what's expected. For example, we moved the question about month-by-month plans further down in the proposal form so people wouldn't focus on activities before figuring out why they wanted worship renewal.

"Each member of the worship renewal grants advisory board reads each grant proposal, no matter how many we receive—and we've gotten 300 in a single year. Each member reports on an assigned section of proposals but all have read all of the proposals. Besides needing to see potential for real renewal, we also try to balance geography, denomination, population, and project type," Grit says.

Congregations often take a year to foster the significant local conversations necessary to develop a project and proposal. Each year Grit gets appreciative letters from churches that applied but weren't awarded a grant. "Simply applying opens up ongoing worship conversations that help congregations go deeper to consider how words, music, and arts help people pray, lament, confess, or give thanks. These discussions help people lead better, use resources more wisely, and see how to reach out to the broader community," she says.