As a young girl growing up at First Presbyterian Church, Roanoke, Va. – where she was baptized and confirmed – Susan Hyde Fellows remembers having a visceral response whenever missionaries would come to speak to her congregation.
"I had an aversion," Fellows said. "My body was screaming 'no'; not to being a missionary, but to the style and approach at that time."
Fellows eventually came to realize that – like the Biblical prophets – her initial resistance and objections to mission service were simply stages in her acceptance of God's call, which claimed her at an early age. Acknowledging that sense of call at last by "putting the pieces together," she has now entered the mission field herself.
As a member of the inaugural class of pastoral residents in For Such a Time as This – an innovative pastoral residency program of the General Assembly Mission Council designed to serve small, under-served congregations and develop missional pastors – Fellows was ordained to the ministry of the Word and Sacrament on Sunday, October 10, to serve the First Presbyterian Church of Grenada, Miss., as the congregation's designated pastor.
The Rev. Marcia Clark Myers, director of the Office of Vocation for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which oversees the new program, recognizes the U.S. landscape – in which half of the denomination's nearly 11,000 congregations have 100 or fewer members – as a mission field in which new pastors can help small churches with declining hope to live out the church-wide initiative to Grow Christ's Church Deep and Wide.
"Whenever we witness the commissioning of a new class of PC(USA) mission personnel charged to serve across the globe, I always think about all of the new seminary graduates like Susan who are seeking their first calls to serve in churches across our 173 presbyteries," said Myers. "Every day the staff members of Church Leadership Connection watch as ministers and candidates accept calls to go to the mission field right here in the U.S.A. Just like our international co-workers, they and their families pack their belongings and head off to new places of service – small towns, inner city neighborhoods, and a host of diverse settings – where they will take on the challenge of reaching new neighbors for Christ."
Fellows – who said she never expected to be a pastor – smiles at the path that led her to embrace the challenges and opportunities of leading a small congregation in a relatively isolated part of Mississippi. "As a religion and philosophy major in college, I was encouraged by my advisor to apply to seminary," she said, "but I went back home to teach because I didn’t see myself in the pulpit."
Still passionate about religious studies after a long and rewarding career in elementary education – during which time she adopted two children from India – she entered Wesley Theological Seminary in 2006. "I started seminary with no earthly idea where I would end up," said Fellows. "Even though I still wasn’t sure about the pulpit, my prayer throughout seminary was that God would lead me to where God wanted me to be."
Upon completing her final assessment with the Committee on Preparation for Ministry in National Capital Presbytery, Fellows still did not fully sense where she "needed to be." Several weeks later, returning home from a brief vacation, she found a gift waiting for her from her former chaplain at Wheaton College in Norton, Mass. It was a home communion kit. "How will I ever use this," she thought.
Still uncertain about where God's call would lead her, Fellows searched for inspiration in the pages of Presbyterians Today, where she saw an announcement for For Such a Time as This. She said that the program immediately appealed to her as "an active and creative ministry, in which transformation will be a reality for each of us."
No sooner had she spoken with one of her professors about her possible interest in the program, when both her liaison from the Committee on Preparation for Ministry as well as the Christian educator from her home church, the United Christian Parish of Reston, Va., immediately contacted her to tell her about it. "Two days later, when I heard the program coordinator, Marilyn Johns, do a presentation at our presbytery, I was convinced it was for me," Fellows said. "As soon as I made the decision, everything has fallen into place.
The For Such a Time as This program feels like one place where my skills will meet the needs of a community."
After only a month's time in her new setting, Fellows says that the transition is going well, thanks to the "warm and loving" support not only of church members but also of a whole network of pastor-mentors, presbytery, seminary, and national church leaders, an important component of the new program to guard against isolation.
"I am surprised and pleased that Grenada reminds me of the town where my grandmother lived," she said. "It feels like home."
The For Such a Time as This program is currently seeking potential partner presbyteries which are under-served and have difficulty attracting first call candidates, but which have three to four small churches – 100 or fewer in average worship attendance – that could serve as good learning settings for first call residents. Partner presbytery application forms – due December 15, 2010 – as well as further information for presbyteries and pastoral resident candidates for the class of 2011, are available on the program's Web site.