Lilly Endowment Grant Establishes Interdisciplinary Project for Churches to Embrace Young People with Disabilities and Other Challenges

Grant will support program to help congregations meet the needs of young people with disabilities

December 11, 2023
Photo of Interdisciplinary faculty leading the interdisciplinary project focuses on helping congregations embrace young people with disabilities, mental health challenges and chronic illnesses.

Gaynor Yancey, Ph.D., Diana R. Garland School of Social Work, Angela Reed, Ph.D., Truett Seminary, and Erik Carter, Ph.D., School of Education, will lead the interdisciplinary project focused on helping congregations embrace young people with disabilities, mental health challenges and chronic illnesses.

Contact: Shelby Cefaratti-Bertin, Baylor University Media & Public Relations, 254-327-8012
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WACO, Texas (Dec. 11, 2023)Baylor University has been awarded a  $1.25 million grant from Lilly Endowment Inc. to establish a project led by Baylor’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary in collaboration with the Baylor Center for Developmental Disabilities in the School of Education and the Center for Church and Community Impact (C3I) in the Diana R. Garland School of Social Work.

The interdisciplinary project focuses on helping congregations embrace young people with disabilities, mental health challenges and chronic illnesses.

Funded through Lilly Endowment’s Thriving Congregations Initiative, the project aims to encourage the flourishing of congregations by helping them deepen their relationships with God, enhance their connections with each other and contribute to the vitality of their communities and the world.

As Truett Seminary continues to equip God-called men and women for gospel ministry in and alongside the Church, the grant will facilitate the Seminary in assisting congregations as they evaluate and adapt their ministries to meet the evolving needs of people impacted by disabilities in an ever-changing world. 

“This project is all about congregational belonging for youth and young adults experiencing disability, mental health crises and/or chronic illnesses,” said principal investigator Angela Reed, Ph.D., Truett Seminary’s associate dean for academic affairs, associate professor of practical theology and director of spiritual formation. “The sheer number of individuals and families strained and frequently isolated by these challenges is staggering.

“Most congregations and their leaders are theologically and practically committed to responding with compassionate support, but they often find themselves ill-equipped to do so,” Reed said. “Our team senses a call to respond by coming alongside churches, youth ministers and other leaders as they seek to create welcoming spaces that point to the loving, healing presence of God for this vital, but often hidden segment of our communities.”

Baylor’s Truett Seminary is one of 105 organizations that has received grants through a competitive round of the Thriving Congregations Initiative. Reflecting a wide variety of Christian traditions, the organizations represent mainline Protestant, evangelical, Catholic, Orthodox, peace church and Pentecostal faith communities.

“Congregations play an essential role in deepening the faith of individuals and contributing to the vitality of communities,” said Christopher L. Coble, Lilly Endowment’s vice president for religion. “We hope that these programs will nurture the vibrancy and spark the creativity of congregations, helping them imagine new ways to share God’s love in their communities and across the globe.”

As a testament to the rich, reciprocal interdisciplinary collaboration among Baylor University’s faculty, three academic units are represented on this grant:

  • Truett Seminary with Reed serving as the principal investigator;
  • Baylor School of Education with Erik Carter, Ph.D., The Luther Sweet Endowed Chair in Disabilities and executive director of the BCDD, as co-investigator; and
  • Diana R. Garland School of Social Work with Gaynor Yancey, Ph.D., professor of social work and director of the Center for Church and Community Impact (C3i) who also holds a faculty appointment at Truett as The Lake Family Endowed Chair in Congregational and Community Health, as co-investigator.

Partnering with these schools are four prominent organizations:

  • the Center for Integrative Counseling and Psychology;
  • Disability Ministry Network;
  • Hope and Healing Center and Institute; and
  • the Institute on Theology and Disability.

These organizations will contribute invaluable expertise and resources in the realms of disability, mental health and church practices, collectively forming a robust foundation for this groundbreaking initiative.

“We are convinced that every church is called to welcome and embrace young people with disabilities and mental health challenges,” Carter said. “We are excited to come alongside congregations in exploring the postures and practices that lead toward deep belonging for these indispensable—but often overlooked—members of the body.”

The purpose of the proposed five-year project is to equip churches to pursue and embrace young people with disabilities (aged 13-25) and their families in new ways that lead to spiritual growth, holistic well-being, belonging and mutual thriving through accessible Christian practices, Yancey said.“We are adopting a structured learning process for church cohorts that incorporates both research-based and relationally-driven approaches. All three of us are excited to do this together with our shared focus on deep, relational belonging that congregations do so well,” Yancey said.


Baylor University is a private Christian University and a nationally ranked Research 1 institution. The University provides a vibrant campus community for more than 20,000 students by blending interdisciplinary research with an international reputation for educational excellence and a faculty commitment to teaching and scholarship. Chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas through the efforts of Baptist pioneers, Baylor is the oldest continually operating University in Texas. Located in Waco, Baylor welcomes students from all 50 states and more than 100 countries to study a broad range of degrees among its 12 nationally recognized academic divisions.


Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary is an orthodox, evangelical, multi-denominational school in the historic Baptist tradition that equips God-called people for gospel ministry in and alongside Christ’s Church by the power of the Holy Spirit. Accredited by the Association of Theological Schools, Truett Seminary provides theological education leading to the Master of Divinity, Master of Arts in Christian Ministry, Master of Arts in Contextual Witness and Innovation, Master of Arts in Theology, Ecology and Food Justice, Master of Arts in Theology and Sports Studies (online), Master of Theological Studies, Doctor of Ministry and Ph.D. in Preaching. Truett Seminary also offers joint degrees through Baylor University school/college partnerships in social work, business, law, music and education. In addition to the flagship Baugh-Reynolds Campus in Waco, the Seminary also has additional instructional sites in Houston and San Antonio. Visit the Truett Seminary website to learn more.


For more than 100 years, the School of Education has advanced Baylor’s mission across the globe while preparing students for a range of careers focused on education, leadership and human development. With more than 60 full-time faculty members, the school’s growing research portfolio complements its long-standing commitment to excellence in teaching and student mentoring. Baylor’s undergraduate program in teacher education has earned national distinction for innovative partnerships with local schools that provide future teachers deep clinical preparation. Likewise, the School of Education’s graduate programs have attained national recognition for their exemplary preparation of research scholars, educational leaders, innovators and clinicians. Visit the School of Education website to learn more.


The Baylor Center for Developmental Disabilities invests in research, training, outreach and clinical services that promote the flourishing of people with disabilities, their families and communities. The Center hosts a growing number of programs, clinics, projects and events focused on supporting individuals with intellectual disabilities, autism and an array of other disabilities. Likewise, we are committed to helping schools, congregations and communities welcome and support the full participation of people with disabilities and their families.


The Center for Church and Community Impact (C3I) equips congregations to create environments of relational belonging that extend to their surrounding community. Their aim is to help congregations thrive so they can become sources of strength and support for individuals, families, and communities. They take best practices and principles from social work research and apply them in the context of congregational ministry. Their holistic and evidence-based approach ensures ministry programs meet people where they are and pave the way for true transformation. What began more 25 years ago as the Center for Family and Community Ministries continues today through C3I. Their name may have changed, but their mission is the same, to be a positive force for community engagement and cultural change through the work of local congregations.


Baylor University’s Diana R. Garland School of Social Work is home to one of the leading graduate social work programs in the nation with a research agenda that explores humanity, engages spirituality and promotes equity. Upholding its mission of preparing social workers in a Christian context for worldwide service and leadership, the School offers a baccalaureate degree (BSW); a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree available in Waco or online; three joint-degree options, MSW/MBA, MSW/MDiv and MSW/MTS, through a partnership with Baylor’s Hankamer School of Business and George W. Truett Theological Seminary; and an online Ph.D. program. Visit the School of Social Work website to learn more.


Lilly Endowment Inc. is a private foundation created in 1937 by J.K. Lilly Sr. and his sons Eli and J.K. Jr. through gifts of stock in their pharmaceutical business, Eli Lilly and Company. While those gifts remain the financial bedrock of the Endowment, it is a separate entity from the company, with a distinct governing board, staff and location. In keeping with the founders’ wishes, the Endowment supports the causes of community development, education and religion and maintains a special commitment to its hometown, Indianapolis, and home state, Indiana. A principal aim of the Endowment’s religion grantmaking is to deepen and enrich the lives of Christians in the United States, primarily by seeking out and supporting efforts that enhance the vitality of congregations and strengthen the pastoral and lay leadership of Christian communities. The Endowment also seeks to improve public understanding of diverse religious traditions by supporting fair and accurate portrayals of the role religion plays in the United States and across the globe.