Congregations Lead Initiative

Congregations Lead Initiative

Congregations Lead Initiative

Thriving Congregations, Thriving Church



The world continues to change and grow more complex. What does this mean for ministry, today and into the future?

The Congregations Lead Initiative is a new, two-year program that gathers a cohort of 48 congregations from across the ELCA to unleash and harness their collective genius and discover new and useful ministry innovations. These congregations are excited about more new, young, diverse people knowing a life in Christ.

The ELCA seeks to activate each of us so that more people might know the way of Jesus and discover community, justice and love.

“I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10)

Participant congregations will:

  • Learn how to innovate for the future through semi-annual learning events (most expenses covered).
  • Conduct multiple ministry experiments.
  • Train with world-renowned innovation and ministry thought leaders.
  • Receive personalized group coaching for support and guidance.
  • Network with a cohort of other congregations doing similar innovation work.
  • Be eligible to receive a spark grant for the purpose of conducting a ministry experiment.


The first cohort of the Congregations Lead Initiative concludes this fall, with member congregations implementing their grant-funded Capstone Experiments. This video features reflections from Program Director Rebecca Payne and several cohort members regarding their community's experience with the Initiative. The Congregations Lead Initiative was also featured in an October 2023 Living Lutheran article by Jennifer Bringle, "Leading the way forward: Congregations Lead Initiative focuses on ministry innovation."


Congregations Lead Cohort

Congregations Lead Initiative participants gathered for the final CLI Learning Event at the Lutheran Center in April 2023.


Snapshot of the Congregations Lead Cohort

The Congregations Lead cohort represents 27 ELCA synods in 20 states and in Puerto Rico. These congregations serve communities in rural, suburban and urban ministry contexts. Each congregation accepted to the initiative has exemplified a creative spirit and a willingness to try new things. Together, congregational teams learn from each other and grow in their ability to experiment with user-centered ministry.


Congregations Lead Initiative Congregation Map


Participating Synods

  • Southwestern Washington
  • Sierra Pacific
  • Grand Canyon
  • Rocky Mountain
  • Western North Dakota
  • South Dakota
  • Southwestern Minnesota
  • Minneapolis Area
  • Southeastern Minnesota
  • Southwestern Texas
  • Northern Illinois
  • Northwest Synod of Wisconsin
  • East-Central Synod of Wisconsin
  • Greater Milwaukee
  • South-Central Synod of Wisconsin
  • North/West Lower Michigan
  • Indiana-Kentucky
  • Northeastern Ohio
  • New England
  • Upstate New York
  • Southwestern Pennsylvania
  • Lower Susquehanna
  • Metropolitan Washington, D.C.
  • South Carolina Synod
  • Southeastern
  • Florida-Bahamas
  • Caribbean


“I felt like we could start to have meaningful conversations about truly innovating our church.”
—Congregations Lead participant
“All of the congregations in the initiative are on the leading edge of innovation, which means that there is no one in front of us leading the way, telling us what it looks like or what to expect. But we are not alone in this. We’re blazing a trail but not blazing alone. . . . This is the time for innovation in the church — it has to happen. It's life-giving to be in this cohort with other innovators.”
—Congregations Lead participant, St. Stephen Lutheran Church in New Kingston, PA


Congregations Lead Initiative Phases


The Congregations Lead Initiative uses the design thinking framework to guide participants in their innovation process. Congregational teams will use interviews and feedback from community members to empathize with joy and pain points, generate ideas, create prototypes of ministry experiments and launch their innovations. This work is done with the support and guidance of their ELCA coach, their synod staff and the Innovation home area at the ELCA churchwide organization.


Capstone Experiments

Congregations Lead Initiative participants gathered in person for the final time in April 2023. During this Learning Event, congregational cohorts each planned and pitched a capstone experiment. Each experiment was drafted with guidance from insights gained during multiple phases of user interviews with non-ELCA members in the local community and the congregation’s own mission statement. Intentionally designed for local contexts and needs, the experiments themselves varied widely -- from mobile outreach ministries, to large-scale, one-time public events, to development of a community center. The congregations’ resulting 32 experiments had two things in common: their intent to share the gospel and their design with and for the congregation’s neighbors. Once experiment plans were finalized, congregations were eligible to apply for grants to help implement their visions. In early summer 2023, Congregations Lead Initiative congregations were awarded $85,000 in grant funding to support these innovative efforts. The congregations who have completed the 18-month cohort process have shown remarkable transformation in the way they connect to and interact with the communities they are called to love and serve.



The Congregations Lead Initiative has partnered with LEAD to develop resources for the prototype phase of the cohort's journey. This workbook, available in English and Spanish, will guide congregations as they conduct their own ministry experiments.



Congregations Lead Initiative FAQs

The Congregations Lead Initiative seeks to unleash and harness the collective genius of congregations to discover new and useful ministry innovations for the sake of this world that God so loves. By the end of this two-year initiative, more new, young and diverse people will know about a life in Christ through the bold, faithful, courageous witness of your congregations — so that all might "have life, and have it abundantly" (John 10:10).

The Congregations Lead Initiative equips participant congregations with the tools needed to ideate, test and implement innovative ministry. By bringing together congregations and leaders from varying contexts and experiences across the ELCA, this initiative will foster a learning environment that embraces failure and nurtures new and useful ideas that may ultimately be shared across the wider Church.

The Congregations Lead Initiative is not a granting program but rather a learning and training program. The main goal of this initiative is to equip and empower the congregations in the cohort with innovation and design thinking tools and resources. As part of joining the cohort, congregations are asked to contribute $500; this will make up a community chest to be used for seed funds to do ministry experimentation toward the end of the two-year program. If a congregation is unable to manage the $500 registration fee, the ELCA provides assistance; financial need will not be a barrier to participating in the program.

“Innovation” means anything new and useful. This could come through developing new tools, refining processes or creating new products or programs. Innovation is not an end in itself but a way of thinking that you can apply to your ministry.

The ELCA has received a grant from Lilly Endowment that makes this work possible. The ELCA is one of 92 organizations taking part in Lilly’s Thriving Congregations Initiative. If you or your congregation would like to make a gift to support the initiative, write us at

  • Semi-annual learning events (anticipating fall and spring)
    • We anticipate future learning events to take place in person over the course of two to three days, and our goal is to make them as accessible as possible. A virtual/in-person hybrid model is part of the discussion.
    • It’s OK if only some members of the team are able to attend these events.
    • These events will be recorded for team members to access later.
  • Group coaching sessions – one hour per month
  • Outside of the learning events and coaching, we expect that congregational teams will be meeting at least once per month in whatever format works for the team.