The Lilly Endowment

This week the Lilly Endowment of Indianapolis awarded 78 grants to churches, denominations, organizations and schools around the country. These organizations were among more than 600 who submitted proposals as part of the Endowment’s multi-year program known as “Thriving in Ministry.”


It is the latest fulfilling of a vocation to generosity that dates back to 1937. That’s when members of the Lilly family, owners of the Eli Lilly Pharmaceutical Corporation also of Indianapolis, invested a significant portion of their corporate stock into an independent foundation. They gave it a three-fold mission: education, religion, and community development.


The Endowment first intersected my ministerial career in December of 2000. I had just announced the suspension of my beloved radio show, “The Meetinghouse: Conversations on Religion and American Life.” I was dean of the chapel, then, at Georgetown College and also creator, writer, and host of this program, broadcast on eight stations in five states. But it was too much on top of a full-time job teaching, preaching, recruiting, and raising money for the College.


The very week I announced this suspension of the radio show, the College received a letter inviting us to submit a proposal for their fresh initiative  known as “Programs for the Theological Exploration of Vocation,” or PTEV. It had been launched a year earlier, with the first of a projected three rounds of $2 million grants.


Dr. William Crouch, president of the College, tapped me to oversee the process to write the grant proposal, which he insisted should bear the name and spirit of the recently-suspended radio program. After we received the grant, entitled “The Meetinghouse at Georgetown College: A Place for the Theological Exploration of Vocation,” he put me in charge of its programs, a delightful task for the next eight years.


But 2008, my eleventh year at the College, found me vocationally restless. I realized what I really wanted to do was resurrect the radio program. I wrote the Endowment and requested a meeting, and on June 23, 2008, I drove the 190 miles from Georgetown to Indianapolis. I carried in my hands a big black notebook, full of all the ideas, proposals, and statistics I could gather for a re-imagined, re-launched version of The Meetinghouse. In my head was not simply a radio show but a center for the study of religion and American life.


It was not to be. In the small talk leading up to my long-planned presentation, the talk turned to preaching and what I had learned about young ministers in our white Baptist network in central Kentucky and what ideas I had to inspire and support them. “What can we do to make this happen?” Lilly vice-president Craig Dykstra asked, and caught off guard, I said, “I don’t know.” He responded, “Here is what we are going to do. We are going to give you the money and let you do it. Write a grant proposal by September 1, we will approve it in November, and you can start in January.”


And so it came to pass that six months later, on January 1, 2009, I launched the Academy of Preachers, sponsored by the St Matthews Baptist Church in Louisville (thank you, then-pastor Les Hollon!), with a mission to “identify, network, support, and inspire young people in their call to gospel preaching.”


But their grants to this preaching initiative are only a small piece of the Lilly pie. In fact, its funding of religious projects all over the country is itself only part of the Endowment’s larger mission. Most of their largess is spread throughout the state of Indiana for educational and community development projects: $393 million in 2017, generated from investments totaling almost $11.7 billion. From that same corpus, came another $145 to religious causes spread throughout the country including Indiana. Grantees numbered 1,062 in all three categories.


It is hard to overstate the impact the Endowment has had on American life; and the same came be said for other large fortunes turned to civic purposes (and here I mention the names of Rockefeller, Mellon, Carnegie, and Ford from an earlier era and Gates, Walton, Jobs, Buffett, and Green is our own time). Not all extraordinary wealth finds is way to the general public for the common good, but thank God some does, and chief among these has been the pharmaceutical money earned by the first Eli Lilly (1838-1898) and his descendants.


Every time I read of another round of Endowment grants distributed to worthy organizations and projects I give thanks: for their good fortune, and also for the blessing such generosity has been to me for the last 18 years. Thanks be to God.