Editor’s note: This is the latest in a series of stories about congregations engaged in significant outreach and evangelism ministries, reflecting the General Assembly’s commitment to “Grow Christ’s Church Deep and Wide.” — Jerry L. Van Marter

Even while earning his living testing water, Archie Fugate never stopped “testing the spirits.”

Nurtured and raised in the 18-member Drift (Ky.) Presbyterian Church in Transylvania Presbytery, Fugate clearly remembered the day when he asked God to give him the wisdom to help the small congregation grow, never suspecting that much of the growth he was praying for would ultimately be his own.

“I was reminded of how Sarah laughed when she and Abraham heard God’s vision for them,” Fugate said, citing the 18th chapter of Genesis.  “When I felt the call to become a commissioned lay pastor (CLP), I was planning to return to Drift, which had so supported me.  Little did I know where that call would lead.”

The call first led Fugate, one of the youngest elders ever to be elected at the Drift Church, to enroll in his presbytery’s CLP program in 1995. No sooner, however, had he completed the necessary requirements and became certified by Transylvania Presbytery, than his employer, McCoy & McCoy Laboratories — the largest, independently owned environmental laboratory in the state of Kentucky — presented him with two options. 

Fugate, the company’s coordinator for safe drinking water with oversight for 450 customers, was asked either to terminate his employment or move with his job to Western Kentucky.

Recalling the witness of Abraham and Sarah once again, Fugate chose in 1997 to relocate his family — wife, Sharon, and son, Sam — and establish their new home in Madisonville, in the heart of Western Kentucky Presbytery.

Having lost all his key Presbyterian contact numbers in the move, Fugate made a fresh start by getting in touch with then executive presbyter, John Kipp, asking him whether there might be a need for a CLP in Western Kentucky. 

Kipp responded immediately, accepting the transfer of Fugate’s credentials from Transylvania Presbytery and putting him to work within a matter of weeks at First Presbyterian Church, Central City, where he was warmly welcomed as the congregation’s new pastor. 

While serving First Church and clocking in 40-45 hours a week for McCoy & McCoy, Fugate still hungered to further his education and training. The following year, he enrolled in Western Kentucky’s CLP Diploma School, a lay leadership education program administered jointly by the presbytery and Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary (LPTS). Not only did the session at First Church support Fugate through that program, they also paid the necessary fees over the two years he was registered as a student.

The Rev. Garnett Foster, a former faculty member and Director of Field Education at LPTS, remembered Fugate fondly. “I had Archie in my small group in the ‘Practical Theology in Congregations’ course,” she said. "When we had the class do ‘windshield surveys’ of their neighborhood, I remember Archie coming in and saying, ‘In our neighborhood there are houses with swing sets, and I didn’t think there were children in the neighborhood.’ He was quick to see new venues for ministry.”

Not only could Fugate envision the many possibilities for ministry in his new context, he was also quick to relate his own growth to the growth potential in the congregation he served. “My biggest challenge,” Fugate said, “is to help my congregation move from being Sunday morning worshipers to disciples of Jesus Christ.  Of course I’m called to build the congregation’s size, but my larger vision is to help them move toward discipleship and get that strong footing in faith. I’m an example of that.”

It is a vision that resonates in both its spirit and its language with the call to “Grow Christ’s Church Deep and Wide,” the church-wide commitment adopted by the 218th General Assembly (2008) to help grow Christ’s church through evangelism, discipleship, servanthood and diversity.

“Archie not only grasps the significance of Deep & Wide, but has made a bold commitment to it for himself and in his own ministry setting,” said the Rev. Marcia Clark Myers, director of the Office of Vocation for the PC(USA). “In the eight years that he has served them as a CLP, First Church, Central City, has grown from 17 people attending Sunday worship to 45. And Archie himself has continued to grow in so many ways.”

Upon receiving his certificate from Western Kentucky’s Diploma School in 2000, Fugate’s passion for ministry soon led him to accept a second call to serve the Bevier Presbyterian Church in Drakesboro.

“Archie traveled a fair amount during the week,” recalled the Rev. Rich Cooper, executive presbyter of Western Kentucky, “but I really can’t remember a time when he didn’t return to do two services on Sunday morning. Bevier had about ten members and was just holding on, but Archie thought they were a fine group who deserved the best available ministry.”

Even as he met the challenges of holding a full time job while serving as a CLP for two completely different congregations, Fugate nevertheless found that his hunger to study had not abated. “I felt God calling me to school,” he said, “to be a fully ordained minister.”

As Fugate continued to follow the Scriptural mandate from 1 John 4 to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God,” he discovered that his call was in fact confirmed by the two congregations he was serving.

Sharing his vision for ordained ministry with the session of First Church, Fugate found the elders to be unanimous in their response. “We can help support you if that’s what you’d like to do,” they said. At first, Fugate resisted, “because I knew they couldn’t afford it,” he said. “I refused to hear God’s call to seminary.”

In the meantime, having also heard of Fugate’s call to ordained ministry, the Bevier Church called a special session meeting. “We hear you want to go to seminary,” the church treasurer said. She then opened the checkbook and was prepared to write Fugate a check for the entire balance that was in the account. “I can get the rest for you,” she added.

Fugate and Cooper both remembered with gratitude — and some amazement — the incredible circumstances surrounding what happened next.

According to Cooper, the Bevier Church had always said that it would keep its doors open as long as the congregation’s pianist, Beverly Fisher, was alive. Fisher, a blind woman who played the piano completely by ear, had died suddenly at about the same time Fugate had made the decision to go to seminary. 

“Soon afterwards, I remember that the church quickly began to talk about merging with the Central City Church,” Cooper recalled. “Archie orchestrated the merger and the church asked to sell the property to a person who lived in the very small old mining town and would care for it.  When they requested that the money from the sale be given to the Central City Church, the presbytery agreed.”

When the session at the Central City church learned what the former Bevier church had done to underwrite Fugate’s seminary tuition, they voted to cover all of his bills and expenses, as he would no longer be able to work while studying full time. “Go in tomorrow and quit your job,” the elders told him.

Fugate was awed, humbled, and profoundly grateful. “By God’s grace,” he said, “everything I needed to be able to go to seminary was provided.”

Cooper added that Fugate’s pastor and mentor, the Rev. Lon Lorton, of First Presbyterian Church, Madisonville, had been very influential in guiding Fugate “through the maze of discernment” as he got to the point where he was able, with confidence, to enter into full-time study at LPTS.

Once in seminary, Fugate applied himself to his rigorous course of study, commuting home only on weekends to be with his family. He continued to serve the First Presbyterian Church as a CLP while attending seminary.  His dedication impressed Debra Mumford, LPTS’ assistant professor of homiletics, with whom Fugate took two preaching classes.

“What I liked most about having Archie in my class is that he was very open and willing to learn, even after being a CLP for so many years and having preached for a long time,” Mumford said. “He really thought about the art of preaching and what it means, an attitude that will serve him well in parish ministry.”

When Fugate graduated from LPTS last year, he found himself wrestling with his commitment to serve the Central City Church. “Archie always felt called to the Central City Church,” Cooper reflected. “The presbytery’s Committee on Ministry and its Committee on Preparation for Ministry were aware of the call and cautioned him to be sure he listened to what God wanted, not just what he thought he had to do.”

Never wavering from his belief that he was to return there, Fugate was ordained and installed at the First Presbyterian Church, Central City, on July 13, 2008. Mumford preached his ordination sermon.

Embracing Fugate on that day — in addition to representatives of all of the churches, the seminary, and the three Kentucky presbyteries, which had nurtured and supported him — was his family. 

“My wife, Sharon, said that she always dreamed she would marry a pastor,” Fugate recalled. “Her pride swelled at every milestone that I passed. She and my son, Sam, made so many sacrifices so that I could answer this call. Now I can freely devote my attention to my family and my church.”

Also in attendance was Myers, herself a former interim executive presbyter for Transylvania Presbytery who knew Fugate prior to joining the national staff of the Presbyterian Church (USA). “What I see represented in these leaders from all levels of the church surrounding Archie is that our church ecosystem truly prepares leaders. I have great faith that Archie and his congregation have a bright future together.”

Signs of that future are already here. Fugate has been busy since his arrival recycling and updating old computers in order to set up a computer room at the church. Newly opened, the church’s computer room is now available to any student within the community who needs to use a computer after school. 

Members of the congregation also provide individual tutoring by request. Fugate has also initiated a quarterly program for youth and a weekly disciple training Bible study, the church’s first Wednesday night service in 20 years.

Fugate has characterized this year — in which the church celebrated its 120th anniversary — as a “challenging and exciting time.” As the congregation prepares to welcome three new members at its upcoming Christmas Eve service, Fugate said, “What better gift could there be at Christmas than gathering at the manger to celebrate and receive Christ’s newest disciples.”