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Finding their place

Four pastors reflect on their first calls, search process

February 16, 2010

The Rev. Karlin Bilcher wearing fishing gear while standing in  water.

The Rev. Karlin Bilcher

GREENSBORO, N.C.

 In the language of the fly fisherman, achieving the proper “balance and tension” is essential to mastering that elusive art. And, when that same fly fisherman happens to be a candidate for the ordained ministry, the same goes to finding that first call.

Mindful of the delicate balance and tension needed to reconcile what he identified as two distinct approaches to the pastoral search process, the Rev. Karlin Bilcher, a 2007 graduate of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, approached seeking a call with a fly fisherman’s patience and determination.

“On one level, there is a business aspect to the search process, which is just how the world works,” said Bilcher, who first enrolled with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Church Leadership Connection (CLC) in July 2007. CLC is the PC(USA)’s Internet-based matching and referral system, which connects entities seeking leaders with leaders seeking a call to service.

“If I forget a period in my Pastoral Information Form (PIF), churches will think I’m not a good writer. On the other side of that, this is in the Lord’s hands. You’re not finding a job, you’re seeking a call.” 

Bilcher, who said that his natural tendency in life is to take control, made a concerted effort to approach the search process first and foremost as a spiritual discipline.

Although keenly aware of the need to aggressively promote and market himself — as well as the preference among candidates to begin their search process with a specific type of ministry position in mind — Bilcher let all his presuppositions go in favor of what God could do.

“I asked myself, ‘Is God incapable of working through all that?’” he said.  “The answer was no.”

Bilcher, who had married and started a family while in seminary, took a job teaching fly fishing classes immediately after graduation while his wife, Emily Huck — who was working toward her own degree at Princeton Theological Seminary — worked as the office manager at their home church in Pittsburgh.

“When not at my day job or taking care of our infant daughter, Finley, I was working on seeking a call,” Bilcher said. “It seemed like thousands of hours in front of the computer, sending e-mails, networking and researching churches. It was a discipline to honestly surrender to the call process and trust and believe that God works from within the process, however flawed.”

Also walking alongside Bilcher and his family was the Rev. Scott Sunquist, professor of World Christianity at Pittsburgh Seminary. Sunquist taught Bilcher and worshipped with his family at the same Pittsburgh church.

“The call process, more than anything else, is about personal relationships,” Sunquist said. “This is not a bad thing; in fact, along with appropriate structures given by sessions and presbyteries, the process indicates that pastors are people who will relate to people in imitation of Christ. Ministry is about relationships in the pattern of Jesus, in the life of God.”

Two of the qualities Sunquist said he looks for in supporting and guiding recent seminary graduates are “the degree to which the person understands and deals with suffering, and the degree to which I have seen the graduate lay down their life for others.

“Because I had known Karlin longer than I had known most students and had seen him and his family in a variety of situations over time, it made it easy for me to give a ‘full-support’ evaluation when called upon,” said Sunquist. “In the case of a Karlin and Emily Bilcher, serving as a resource and support was a great joy and one of the most fulfilling elements of the seminary professor’s life.”

Like many first call seekers, Bilcher entered the process seeking a position as an associate pastor.  Upon learning from members of the CLC staff that there were twice as many candidates looking for associate positions as there were positions available, he expanded his search to include campus ministry, college chaplaincy and new church development pastoral opportunities. 

Because he was born and raised in north central New Jersey, Bilcher also had specific geographical preferences in mind when beginning his search.

“Although Emily and I agreed that we would go wherever the Lord led us, we just hoped it would not be somewhere like Alaska,” he said.

That’s exactly where he landed.

The last week of August 2009, Bilcher accepted a call and was ordained and installed as associate pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Anchorage, Alaska, where he feels fulfilled and confirmed in his call.

“You grow where you’re planted,” Bilcher said.

In developing Presbyterian leaders for today and tomorrow, the Rev. Marcia Clark Myers, director of the PC(USA)’s Office of Vocation, a joint ministry of the General Assembly Mission Council and the Office of the General Assembly, has consistently emphasized the need for mission-driven leadership across the PC(USA).

“About this time of year, even I have been known to remark, ‘I feel called to serve where there are palm trees,’ expressing my own longing to get out of the cold,” said Myers. “It’s interesting that church people often use the phrase, ‘I feel called ...’ to express our personal desires. Rarely do I hear ‘I feel called’ associated with uncomfortable places, especially harsh challenges or low pay. Yet scriptural call narratives prove exactly that to be true. God most often calls people who are slow to hear and reluctant to respond to places they don’t want to go.”
                                                                 
Citing the statistic that most Presbyterians are part of larger congregations while most of the leadership positions are in the smaller ones, Myers freely acknowledged the challenge of fostering a culture of mission-driven leadership among today’s ministers and candidates.

Of 2,253 ministers or candidates in the call system in 2009, fewer than 10 percent said they would be willing to consider a church of 100 members or less.

“Like Karlin Bilcher, many pastors do answer calls to places they would not have chosen,” she said. “They accept calls, like Abraham’s, away from extended family to the challenges of urban neighborhoods, the isolation of rural communities or the demands of bi-vocational ministry.

“So many of our congregations are awaiting pastoral leaders who will set aside their own expectations to serve in metropolitan areas or warmer regions to instead hear God’s call to serve where there is need.”

Going where she was called

One newly ordained minister who did precisely that was the Rev. Deborah J. Burger, who in the summer of 2009 was called from her native southern California to serve a 200-member, federated PC(USA) and United Methodist congregation in Bottineau, N.D., 30 miles from the Canadian border.

“I felt so called to this place at this time,” Burger said, “but I wouldn’t be here today unless I had opened myself up by saying, ‘God, show me what it is you want. God, show me your will.’”

A second-career pastor and single mother of two, Burger struggled to meet and eventually to overcome the many challenges associated with her call to ministry, which she first heard as a teenager.

While coping with the demands of a full-time teaching job and raising two children, Burger entered seminary part time at the Southern California campus of San Francisco Theological Seminary, completing her degree in seven years in the spring of 2007 as well as the requirements for candidacy with Los Ranchos Presbytery.

After graduation, Burger said that her initial PIF brought only “a few nibbles.” Taking full advantage of the PC(USA)’s connectional system, she sought the counsel of her “fabulous mentors” throughout the presbytery, who helped her to refine her PIF and refocus her search efforts.

Taking almost a year to discern where God might be calling her while continuing to teach full time, Burger posted her revised PIF with CLC in 2008. She then invested all of her energy in seeking a call.

“When I first started searching, I went through every open Church Information Form (CIF) online,” Burger said, referring to the form required of all Presbyterian congregations and other entities actively seeking leaders for ministry positions. “I sent out 168 PIFs and found it to be a very competitive market. I faced a lot of rejection.”   

The Rev. Joyce Lieberman, associate for Call System Support in the vocation office, said that in cultivating a culture of mission-driven leadership, it is not only the first call seekers who must be open to God’s will — the seeking congregations must also be willing to call candidates without any prior ordained ministry experience.

“For the 427 candidates seeking a first call in 2009, there were only 188 positions in the CLC system listed as being open to a first-call pastor,” she said. “Churches must be open to whomever God calls.”

Among the 25 congregations who did respond to Burger’s PIF was the United Parish Church in Bottineau, N.D.

“Geographically, it wasn’t in my scope,” Burger said. “I would never have picked this one, to leave a county in California with over 3 million people to go to a state that doesn’t even have 1 million. I said, ‘God, this has got to be your will, not my will.’”

Burger said that she often wondered during seminary and the long and often exhausting search process whether it was all worth it, especially the financial sacrifice and the time spent away from her children.

“Never for a moment did I think of leaving the denomination,” said Burger, a lifelong Presbyterian. “Whenever I got frustrated, I kept telling myself, ‘God called me, people didn’t call me.’”

Burger credited both her presbytery mentors as well as the members of United Parish Church in easing her family’s transition into life and ministry in North Dakota.

“The church understood that we were really scared, and that helped,” she said. “In fact, before my daughter and I moved to Bottineau, a couple from the church had already paid for my daughter to go to camp. They really helped. Today my daughter has friends, a job, is driving a car and taking flying lessons. Her life has really taken off.”

‘A blessing in disguise’

 

The same search process that ended so happily for Burger resulted in a very different outcome for another native Californian, Valerie Vogt.

In December 2009, Vogt — who spent more than 15 months seeking a first call — withdrew her candidacy in the PC(USA) in favor of pursuing ordination in the United Methodist Church.

Vogt, a 2006 graduate of Duke Divinity School formerly under care of San Francisco Presbytery, named several factors that made seeking a first call in the PC(USA) difficult for her.

“Going to a non-Presbyterian seminary put me at a disadvantage in understanding the process, especially things like getting internships that could potentially lead to a call,” she said. “Also, since my Committee on Preparation for Ministry was so far away, our only connection was once a year. When we did meet, it felt like checking off steps, not collaborating.”

In looking back at how her seminary experience inadequately prepared her to navigate the call process, Vogt said that she could have been more proactive in those years in seeking out advocates and opportunities.

“Although I had great internship experiences in some wonderful settings during seminary, including my home church in California,” she said, “had I chosen to become an affiliate member with a Presbyterian church in the Durham (N.C.) area, it could have helped me to have strong mentors advocating for me in the process both in the Southeast as well as on the West Coast.”

Because, like Bilcher, Vogt also became engaged to a classmate while in seminary, she faced a number of additional challenges. After graduation, she took an internship at her home church, Community Presbyterian Church in Danville, Calif., while her fiancé, Eric, who was in the class two years behind her, worked toward finishing his degree.

When she completed her presbytery-required internship hours, Vogt returned to North Carolina, where she worked as a chaplain resident for a year until Eric graduated in June 2008.

“I wasn’t ready to look for a call until Eric and I became engaged and knew our marriage plans,” she said. “We got engaged in the fall of 2007, which is about the time my home presbytery certified me as ready to receive a call. I just had no idea that I should have started searching even earlier than that. In looking back, I realize I waited too long.”

Once Eric had graduated, Vogt took jobs waitressing and dog-sitting as she traveled across the church attempting to make contacts with presbytery executives. She used CLC, pursuing at least 48 position openings through the PC(USA) or other Web sites. In the summer of 2008, she attended the Face to Face event at the 218th General Assembly in San Jose, but did not find it to be helpful.

“There weren’t any opportunities for first-call pastors there,” she said.

When by the fall of 2008 — after nine months of searching in the PC(USA) — she realized that any conversations she might have with Presbyterian churches could take up to six to eight months to result in a call, she and her husband began to look at opportunities with other denominations.

In December 2008, the Vogts heard from the Austin (Texas) District of the United Methodist Church (UMC) that they wanted to call the couple to service together. Deciding they could no longer wait, the couple accepted their current positions, which they began in June 2009. Vogt works at Saint John’s United Methodist Church in Austin, where she expects to be ordained in June 2011. Her husband, the Rev. Eric Vogt, is starting a new church development there while awaiting transfer of his orders from the Baptist General Convention of Texas, in which he had been previously ordained.

“I may be leaving to become a Methodist, but the Presbyterian Church will always be home to me,” said Vogt. “What makes me sad is that I feel called to God’s church and wanted to do that as a Presbyterian, where I was supported and loved. Even though I wanted to give back to the church which shaped me, I came to the point where I wanted to be serving and didn’t want to wait any longer. I guess it’s a blessing in disguise that my husband and I now have one church where we can be together.”

No limits

Traveling a path nearly the opposite of Vogt’s, the Rev. Nicholas Valadez, a native of Garland, Texas, followed God’s call to San Francisco Theological Seminary and then to his first ordained position as pastor of Parker Heights Presbyterian Church in Wapato, Wash., a 55-member congregation in a rural area of the Presbytery of Central Washington.

Valadez, who received his M.Div. in 2007, said he “stayed on top of the whole candidacy and search process” right from the start.

Grace Presbytery, where I was under care, gave me a sense of the necessary steps,” he said. “I like things to be in order, even if my desk doesn’t show it. I would see in the process what the next step was and would know that I had to stay on top of my committee liaison to get it all done.  I always tried to stay two months ahead of the game.”

While anticipating what was next for him in the process, Valadez also found great support among the seminary faculty and staff. Valadez also took advantage of special classes offered by the seminary on practical matters like how to search for a call and prepare a PIF.

Following graduation, Valadez moved to Dallas, where he met with the Committee on Preparation for Ministry to review and revise his PIF, which he posted with CLC just one week later.

Although statistics show that many candidates are only willing to serve in one to two states, Valadez embarked upon his own search process without any such restrictions.

“Moving to California helped me to know that I would be okay anywhere,” he said.

He was also open to a variety of position and community types, including rural areas, which only 7 percent of candidates in 2009 said they were willing to consider.

By July 2007, only three weeks after his PIF was sent to some 40 congregations, Valadez was already doing phone interviews. In August, he traveled to Alabama, Indiana and Washington for personal interviews.

On Labor Day, the Parker Heights church extended him the call. In October, Valadez was ordained at his home church, Southminster Presbyterian Church in Garland.

Although he called the search process “hard,” Valadez saw his youth and his single status as advantages, not only because he could be open to a broad range of opportunities but also because those qualities were appealing to the calling congregations.

Since his arrival in Wapato, Valadez has received an outpouring of support from both his congregation and his presbytery.

“Since Nick came to Parker Heights, the church life has changed drastically,” said the Rev. G. David Lambertson, executive presbyter of the Presbytery of Central Washington. “To ensure that he would continue to get the encouragement that small church pastors need, the Committee on Ministry and I recommended that he participate in the First Pastors Project, a Lilly-funded initiative out of North Carolina, which gave him tremendous support.”

Valadez has characterized his first two years as “smooth sailing” overall.

“I never knew that I would be so comfortable and happy living in a small, rural area,” he said.  “These are amazing, hard-working people who love God, and we work well together.”

In a whirlwind courtship last year, Valadez met his fiancée, Patty, to whom he proposed right before Christmas in 2009.

“How do I know I’m in the right place?” he asked. “I’ve got Patty now! How exciting is that?”

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