Chicago Commons Project

Pastoral Imagination in the Public Square.

The Chicago Commons Project engages early-career Chicago-area clergy in an intensive program of leadership development, cultivating resilience, stamina and wisdom for the challenging work of religious leadership. The project identifies talented young ministers at a pivotal stage in their careers, gathering them into ecumenically, theologically and racially diverse peer cohorts who participate in a two-year program of intensive theological and civic reflection, featuring significant conversations with influential civic leaders and engagement with some of our city’s generators of artistic and cultural expression. In collaboration with the Lilly Endowment, Inc.’s efforts to vitalize American congregations, their clergy and their communities, the Chicago Commons Project is a natural extension of the University of Chicago Divinity School’s long-standing commitment to educate and equip thoughtful, creative and courageous religious leaders whose work enriches the common good.

Congregations and communities need leaders whose lively minds, faithful visions and courageous relationships can help re-imagine and re-invigorate our shared “commons,” creating collaborative strategies, communities, spaces and habits from which renewed public life can take root, grow and thrive.  Simply put, healthy congregations are those that are engaged in meaningful and authentic ways in their communities; healthy communities are those whose resources include the sustained care and attentive service of people of faith; and healthy pastoral leaders are those whose leadership at once generate and are re-generated by this mutual, reciprocal exchange between congregations and their wider communities.

The overarching goal of the Chicago Commons Project is not to “train” leaders, organizers, or policy experts; we do not aim to build consensus around any one interpretation of these complex public issues, or to “solve” contemporary social problems. Rather, the program aspires  to create the conditions for the flourishing of the ministerial imagination, expanding the collective vision of what it means to be religious communities and religious leaders in our contemporary context, and inscribing practices whereby talented and committed young pastors can cultivate the confidence, colleagues, and habits of theological and civic reflection that will increase their wisdom, enhance their stamina, and inspire them to create their own communities of conversation and action.

The first cohort will meet in the fall of 2015 and will meet 7 more times over the next 2 years.

  • Each meeting will begin on a Sunday evening and end on Tuesday morning
  • Revolving around a set of issues, each session will include an experience at a Chicago arts venue and meetings with community and business leaders.
  • Participation in the Project includes a stipend as well as all transportation costs to and from the sessions and all food and lodging.

Chicago Commons Participants will

  • Develop deep and nourishing relationships with clergy leaders in their age cohort       
  • Cultivate a confidence in themselves, their traditions and in the contribution they make to public life
  • Foster collegial relationships and practices across professions
  • Gain greater knowledge and insight about issues which pose significant challenges in Chicagoland and beyond;
  • Expand their awareness of the ways that religious communities and their leaders areccalled to serve their communities

The Chicago Commons Project is looking for capable and imaginative young pastoral leaders with 5-10 years of ministry experience with an intention to make pastoral leadership their vocation. In addition, applicants should:

  • Live in the Chicago metropolitan area (Chicago and its suburbs).
  • Have an MDiv or equivalent degree.
  • Have a desire to participate in a cohort of other early-career leaders from diverse backgrounds and of various theological traditions.

We are extending invitations to apply by way of nomination. If you are interested, please ask a trusted associate to submit a nomination by way of this website. For more information on how to nominate, please see the Nominations tab.

We will be looking for our next cohort in the winter of 2017.

If you would like to nominate an early-career pastoral leader to participate in the Chicago Commons Project, please fill out this form. We will then contact each nominee with a short application.

We will be seeking nominations again in winter of 2017.

When I started in parish ministry 45 years ago I learned very quickly that I had a lot to learn.  Thanks to seminary training, I could find my way around The Book of Job, but I could not find my way around a church budget.  I could lead a class on the Reformation, but I could not lead a church council meeting.  So, for a few years I concentrated on mastering the necessities of leading a congregation: designing worship and preaching, conducting Confirmation and Sunday School classes, accepting the role as pastoral counselor, and managing the internal struggles within the membership.  
But after I became comfortable with the basic responsibilities of "running the church," I wondered, "Now what?  What will sustain me over the next several years?  Where will be the challenge to me and the growth in me?"  Rather quickly, I became fascinated by how to connect the parochial life of the church with the public life of the community.  Where do they overlap, and what can we learn in those places?  This was an exciting challenge in every setting where I served -- the dairy farming village, the blue collar neighborhood, the university campus, the upscale suburb, and the city center.
It is that bridging of congregational life with the communal setting that the "Chicago Commons Project" attempts to do.  For me, being a pastor was like having one foot on the pier and the other foot in the boat and always straining to hold the two together.  It is work, to be sure, but you develop strength in ways that you never could have imagined!  
- Chicago Commons Project Director, Rev. Phil Blackwell

The Rev. Phil Blackwell retired in 2014 after 45 years of ministry in northern Illinois.  As a United Methodist pastor he served congregations in a dairy farming community, a blue collar/middle class industrial city, a North Shore suburb, and on Daley Plaza in the heart of Chicago.  For six years he was a campus minister in Hyde Park, both teaching and taking classes at the Divinity School at the University of Chicago, and for three years he served his denominational conference as the program director.  He began his ministry as an intern serving two Methodist chapels in Wolverhampton, England.
Phil graduated from the University of Wisconsin - Madison, Yale Divinity School, and the Divinity School at the University of Chicago.  He now lives with his wife, Sally, in a lake cottage on Whitewater Lake in the Kettle Moraine area of southeastern Wisconsin.
Advisory Committee


 Zina Jacque
 Pastor, The Community Church of Barrington
 Biographical statement





 Terry Mazany
 President and CEO, Chicago Community Trust
 Biographical statement





 Alan Ragland
 Pastor, Third Baptist Church of  Chicago







Jim Steen
Director of Ministries, Episcopal Diocese of Chicago

Following 40 Years of work as a parish priest, The Rev. Jim Steen joined the Bishop’s Staff in the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago in 2010.  Since 2011 he has served as Director of Ministries for the Diocese.  In that position, besides overseeing clergy deployment and mentoring, Fr. Steen and his staff are responsible for congregational and leadership development in the Diocese’s 130 congregations.  Prior to joining the diocesan staff, he served parishes in several major cities, including Seattle, New York, Washington, DC, and Chicago.  He is passionate about developing strong leaders and vital, growing congregations.  During the mid 1990s, he also served as Executive Director of Prism Parishes, an organization he founded to help congregations thrive by honoring diversity among their members.

For more information

For more information about the Chicago Commons Project, please contact Seth Patterson at chicagocommonsproject@gmail.com.

Divinity School receives grant for the Chicago Commons Project