Our Story


It all started 10 years ago, with Gatherings of Hope: How Religious Congregations Contribute to the Quality of Life in Kent County, the report on the 2007 Kent County Congregations Study. In fact, that report is why our foundation is called Gatherings of Hope (GoH).

Rev. Khary Bridgewater, Senior Program Officer at GoH, said some of the research “jumped off the page” at them, particularly the value of the services and support provided by churches in Grand Rapids: between $95 and $118,000,000. (p.v)

“Churches really matter. They matter to our civic life.”

The report pointed out that churches were delivering this high impact to the community despite some challenges, particularly among Black and Hispanic pastors:

  • Bi-vocational: 69 percent of Hispanic leaders and 57 percent of Black leaders work another job in addition to their church work. And five and three percent (respectively) of them are bivocational and they pastor multiple churches.

  • Educational level: While two-thirds of White leaders have a graduate degree, one-quarter of Hispanic leaders and less than one-third of Black leaders do.

These are challenges because, as the report found, “The more education religious leaders have, the more able they are to meet the social needs of their communities through social service programs.” (p.17) At the same time, the majority of Black and Hispanic pastors reported that they were hungry for education— both theological training and other types of personal and professional development. (p.18)

These findings fueled local seminaries and Gatherings of Hope to start programs targeted to minority pastors. Grand Rapids Theological Seminary offered some masters-level programs that could be completed by people working full-time in ministry. Because they stepped up, GoH partnered with them to offer a yearlong course that can be a stand-alone or a bridge to seminary: Leading Community Ministries. When the foundation’s Edwin Hernandez met Dr. Mariano Avila of Calvin Seminary, a seminary course offered entirely in Spanish was born: the Hispanic Ministry Certificate.

Now the theological education angle was being addressed and the Family Leadership Initiative was addressing the need for programs for families and kids to be hosted by congregations.

But there was still another set of needs

As Rev. Bridgewater pointed out,

“Pastors were coming to educational experiences but many of them didn’t have the tools to thrive in a graduate program. The schools have been great, but we needed a level lower than seminary that included topics minority pastors were asking for, like conflict management, mental health skills, non-profit management, leadership development, and community outreach.”

Gatherings of Hope got to know many pastors through our educational and family programs, and realized how deep their need was for support and resources. Rev. Bridgewater said the foundation shifted from thinking they needed to create a learning community to wanting to foster a professional development and support network:

“Pastors deal with such high-intensity issues. Where do they go to process how they feel? Where do they go to get the information they’re being asked to provide? In their congregations, they deal with murder, molestation, custody disputes, incarceration, and in many of our high-need communities, the pastor is the authoritative voice. Where is a confidential place for a pastor to get information? How do other pastors solve these problems? How do pastors process their own emotions?”


For Rev. Bridgewater, that is the foundation for the Center:

“Everywhere they go, the senior pastor is always ‘on.’ They have no anonymity, because they are always a pastor. This can make them feel lonely and isolated, and we all know the high rates of burnout and turnover. There needs to be a safe place where someone is thinking about them, where they can take off the ‘pastor hat’ and just be themselves.”


While the Center offers professional and personal development courses and resources, it also provides spaces to foster a variety of healthy habits:


  • Focus. A space to work without interruptions.

  • Collaborate. A space to work together, to give each other the benefit of their wisdom, to hang out and just talk.

  • Rest. A space for recharging and refreshing.

  • Explore. A space for learning.

The Center is serious about those healthy habits, including the one least popular with churches: the pastor’s ability to say no. Rev. Bridgewater doesn’t mince words:

“The church has asked unreasonable things of its pastors. Why do some pastors have 36 meetings in a week? A healthy pastor will be able to teach the church to accept healthy boundaries and expectations, but an unhealthy pastor will succumb. It requires a community of like-minded people for pastors to have the energy to push back.”

He knows the stakes are heavy: “We can share things with each other that will help us survive.”

The stakes are also high. The conclusion of the congregational study is clear:

“Without the spiritual and material assistance that congregations offer—and will continue to provide in the years ahead—many vulnerable people might not survive. By finding ways to enhance the leadership and organizational capacity of its congregations…Kent County can advance the future health and well-being of its residents.” (p.v)

The Urban Church Leadership Center doesn’t replace and isn’t taking over any of our congregational and seminary programs, but it rounds out GOH’s offerings. We hope that focusing on our pastors will build up their capacity to lead strong families, thriving congregations, and connected communities.