Grants? Genius!

Today is the day the MacArthur Foundation announces its 2010 "genius grant" recipients. In honor of these folks, here's an "encore" article I wrote for our presbytery newsletter a few years back (edited only slightly): ------------

Originally published in the NCP Monthly in October 2007:

This week the MacArthur Foundation named 24 new MacArthur Fellows as recipients of their so-called “genius grants.” These fellowships were awarded to a medieval historian, an education strategist, an opera singer, a poet, a water quality engineer, a spider-silk biologist, and a blues musician, 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.”

Why is the church not 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. Every year we hemorrhage more and more members. We've tried the conventional remedies. Is it not time for some unconventional ones? 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. Our own presbytery 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.

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? Cindy Rigby of Austin Seminary spoke to us at the most recent presbytery meeting about the Christian imagination and its relationship to hope. A Presbyterian Genius Grant would be a powerful affirmation of the need to imagine ministry differently for the 21st century. One of our seminaries had a tagline years ago: “We are equipping pastors for a church we cannot yet envision.”

But how do we find the time and space to envision such a church? As one MacArthur recipient put it in the Chicago Tribune, “[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 who have creative gifts for ministry but who feel like the everyday tasks of preaching, pastoral care, and administration (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 poets, blues musicians, and yes, water quality engineers in our pews were empowered to imagine Christian ministry and mission through a program that prizes experimentation and risk?

What’s the biggest obstacle? Money, of course. Budgets are tight. More and more churches and governing bodies are hunkering down in protecting mode. Good stewardship is always important, but has hunkering down stemmed the tide of membership decline? Maybe it’s time for something bold.

I for one think it’s genius.


That was 2007. Here's a question for 2010: to whom would you award a genius grant? I'll share some thoughts in the next day or so.