Grants? Genius!

by MaryAnn McKibben Dana

This past week the MacArthur Foundation named 23 new MacArthur Fellows as recipients of their so-called “genius grants.” These fellowships were awarded to a mandolin player, an arts entrepreneur, a neurobiologist, a pediatric neurosurgeon, and a “stringed-instrument bow maker,” among others.

The award is $500,000 over the next five years and comes with no strings attached. According to the MacArthur website, fellows are chosen based on three criteria: “exceptional creativity, promise for important future advances based on a track record of significant accomplishment, and potential for the fellowship to facilitate subsequent creative work.” The award is not a reward for past accomplishments, but an “investment in a person’s originality, insight, and potential… for the benefit of human society.”

Could the church be doing this? Could NEXT be doing this?

Surely we have people of exceptional creativity in our churches… people who, with a bit of seed money and no strings attached, could be free to experiment, dream, and explore. Who knows what kind of creative ideas for ministry could be hatched as a result of a Presbyterian Genius Grant?

Of course we have grant-making entities in our churches that fund deeply important work. My own presbytery (National Capital) funds new church developments and other projects. The assumption, however, is that people are expected to produce something pre-determined and measurable—all the grant applications I’ve been a part of ask the program to provide clear goals, objectives, and a timeline.

But the reign of God is not pre-determined and measurable.

What if we added to the mix a series of grants that were grounded not in a theology of predictable results, but in a theology of God’s abundant and unpredictable grace? One of our seminaries had a tagline years ago: “We are equipping pastors for a church we cannot yet envision.” A Presbyterian Genius Grant would be a powerful affirmation of the need to imagine ministry differently for the 21st century.

But how do we find the time and space to envision such a church? As a previous year’s MacArthur recipient put it, “[The award] means the freedom to explore. It’s a long time since I’ve been allowed to be purely an explorer in my life. I’ve had to do other things in order to be an artist. I have a family, and I have to put food on the table. I have had to take lots of jobs just to eke out a living.” Can I get an Amen from those pastors (or ruling elders, for that matter) who have creative gifts to offer but who feel like the everyday tasks of ministry (while important) don’t provide much space for dreaming?

The closest thing we have to a genius grant is a sabbatical grant, but it’s not quite the same thing. Sabbaticals are short-term, and they center around rest and renewal, not necessarily striking out in new directions with intentional creative work. And they are only granted to pastors. A Presbyterian Genius Grant could go to laypeople in even greater numbers than pastors, and probably should… What if the photographers, astronomers, and “social services innovators” in our pews were empowered to imagine Christian ministry and mission through a program that prizes experimentation and risk? (Teaching elder and blogger Jan Edmiston has some suggestions of folks to tap.)

There are plenty of road blocks to a genius grant. Money is the obvious one. Budgets are tight, and half a million dollars is steep. But what about $5,000? $10,000? The Ecclesia Project is helping spark entire worshiping communities with grants of $5,000. Jud Hendrix shared about Ecclesia at the 2012 NEXT Gathering and it was a stimulating and hopeful presentation, saturated with faithful religious imagination.

Good stewardship is always important, and a trusty Presbyterian virtue. But has hunkering down stemmed the tide of membership decline? Maybe it’s time for something bold.

I for one think it’s genius.

MamdMaryAnn McKibben Dana is on the strategy team of NEXT. She is teacher elder at Idylwood Presbyterian Church and the author of Sabbath in the Suburbs. She blogs at The Blue Room.

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