The Three Rivers Collaboration

October 15, 2020

Mark Nelson, executive director of the Three Rivers Collaboration

We are pleased to announce that Johnson University has received a $1 million grant from the Lilly Foundation, and that Mark Nelson will be joining our staff!

Johnson University has received a grant of $1 million from Lilly Endowment Inc. to help establish The Three Rivers Collaboration: A Learning Community of Resilient, Adaptive, and Transformative Congregations.

The program is funded through Lilly Endowment’s Thriving Congregations Initiative. The aim of the national initiative is to strengthen Christian congregations so they can help people deepen their relationships with God, build strong relationships with each other, and contribute to the flourishing of local communities and the world.

Lilly Endowment is making nearly $93 million in grants through the initiative. The grants will support organizations as they work directly with congregations and help them gain clarity about their values and missions, explore and understand better the communities in which they serve, and draw upon their theological traditions as they adapt ministries to meet changing needs.

The Three Rivers Collaboration (TRC) will guide Knoxville-area congregations through a process of refining their God-given mission within their ever-changing cultural context. The name alludes to the three rivers that give shape to Knoxville. The three rivers concept is an apt metaphor for the collaborative process of resiliency, adaptation, and transformation that leads to thriving congregations. The TRC will include workshops, retreats, immersion trips, and an optional master’s degree in which learning communities of twelve congregations will work together. Over the next five years, we hope to serve at least sixty faith communities through this process.

Mark Nelson will serve as executive director of the TRC. Mark planted a faith community called Crossings in downtown Knoxville in 2007, and he has served as lead pastor since the church began. His ministry experience also includes ten years of campus ministry at Purdue University in Indiana. In 2019 he co-authored Reframation: Seeing God, People, and Mission through Reenchanted Frames with Alan Hirsch. He is a 1987 graduate of Johnson University. His wife, Dr. Monica Nelson, leads the pre-nursing program at Johnson.

“The goals of the Thriving Congregations Initiative strongly resonate with the core mission of Johnson University,” said Tommy Smith, president at Johnson. “Johnson has a long history of support for local congregations through preparation of vocational ministers and other leaders. This initiative gives us an expanded opportunity to serve the churches by bringing the expertise of our academic resources to the real-life experiences of ministers and other church leaders by creating collaborative approaches to ministry in local communities. We are grateful to Lilly Endowment for this opportunity.”

Johnson University is one of 92 organizations taking part in the initiative. They represent and serve churches in a broad spectrum of Christian traditions, including Anabaptist, Baptist, Episcopal, evangelical, Lutheran, Methodist, Mennonite, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Reformed, Restoration, Roman Catholic and Orthodox, as well as congregations that describe themselves as nondenominational. Several organizations serve congregations in Black, Hispanic and Asian-American traditions.

“In the midst of a rapidly changing world, Christian congregations are grappling with how they can best carry forward their ministries,” said Christopher Coble, Lilly Endowment’s vice president for religion. “These grants will help congregations assess their ministries and draw on practices in their theological traditions to address new challenges and better nurture the spiritual vitality of the people they serve.”

Lilly Endowment launched the Thriving Congregations Initiative in 2019 as part of its commitment to support efforts that enhance the vitality of Christian congregations.