Members of Princeton Theological Seminary's Log College Project wear red shirts and smile at an unseen group. In the foreground is a young  person of color with tattoos and glasses, standing next to a smiling Black woman looking directly at the camera. A young white woman wearing a white and black spotted backpack in another red shirt with blue dot logo that says "Log College Project" also smiles at the camera, while slightly blurred in the shot.

Grantee Spotlight: Princeton Theological Seminary

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, Erich Kussman, a Lutheran pastor in Trenton, NJ, started rallying neighboring churches together to support the local food pantry.

As schools began to shut down shortly thereafter, Erich realized students and families who relied on school lunches were facing additional struggles without that resource, so he created a bag lunch program for students learning at home. He got to know these families as they came to church for bag lunches and soon learned that many students were having trouble accessing school virtually, often gathering in large groups at whichever house in the neighborhood had the best internet connection.

Erich then began to think about how churches could help improve the internet situation in the community. This work continued to evolve with the pandemic as the community’s needs changed. While Erich started the work, at every iteration his congregation got more and more involved. When it became safe for Erich’s church to reopen, it did so with a renewed sense of purpose and a congregation that had more members than it had pre-pandemic, all eager to continue to make a difference in the community.1

Reverend Erich's story is a powerful example of Christian Social Innovation or Spiritual Entrepreneurship, the process of developing and implementing new solutions to societal challenges that add both spiritual and social value to the world. For Christian leaders like Erich, this means embodying Christ’s relentless love and creativity by seeking opportunities to fill societal gaps, lift up marginalized communities, and pursue justice and equity in partnership with their communities and congregations. 

While history shows us that social innovation has always been deeply ingrained in the church’s DNA, today many churches and pastors are long out of the habit of claiming this work as ministry or identifying it as a core component of their role in congregations and communities. To infuse this understanding and initiative in the faith community, we must first start with its leaders. 

The pastor is often the changemaker or spiritual entrepreneur, but they don't have to be. They have to be the person who inspires and blesses it in their congregations and in their communities and who can give it a theological framework so that it’s part of discipleship formation and not just a good thing that people do. This actually is part of being in the way of Jesus.

Reverend Dr. Kenda Creasy
Mary D. Synnott Professor of Youth, Church, and Culture
Princeton Theological Seminary

In July 2022, Trinity Church Wall Street and Erich's alma mater Princeton Theological Seminary (PTS) formalized a partnership with an initial year-long grant of $290,000 to begin the work of transforming theological education. The ultimate goal of this work is to equip seminaries across North America to theologically form and practically prepare students to lead social innovation and entrepreneurial ministries. In this first year, the goal is to develop an initial process for forming seminarians who think of spiritual entrepreneurship as deeply ingrained in their pastoral role. The model and curriculum developed this year will then be piloted with nine North American seminaries before it becomes widely available for adaptation.   

This first phase will include research that seeks answers to questions like the following:

  • Which seminaries and leaders are already working in this space?
  • Which courses, curricula, or professors are already incorporating these ideas and values?
  • Where can we integrate these processes and practices into the flow of the current student experience?

Answers to these questions will help PTS map the existing landscape, build key partnerships, and begin to design an educational ecology that can later be adapted to other seminary programs.  

To reintegrate innovation into the church is to fulfill what God calls on the church and its leaders to do: love God and love one another in a way that moves us closer to inhabiting a just, equitable, and loving world. God is the ultimate visionary and changemaker, while Christians are called to actively participate in God’s transformation. So it is the task of Christian leaders to inspire, equip, and bless transformative innovation as the holy work of the church. 

This initiative has the potential to shape the next generation of church leadership with a new understanding of their role in their communities and, eventually, move us all closer to inhabiting the world as God intended. 

In Christian tradition, the idea of Agape is turning the way love works upside down. It’s about giving to others rather than taking for yourself. Social innovation in a Christian way wants to flip [the world] on its head so we see [it] from Jesus’ point of view.

Reverend Dr. Kenda Creasy Dean

Kenda Creasy Dean, Innovating for Love (Memphis, TN: Market Square Publishing, 2022)