When the Rev. Marcia Clark Myers spoke of God's call to leave country and family in order to enter a land of risk and promise, her allusion reached far beyond the example of Abram and Sarai deep into the contemporary landscape of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), where out of nearly 2,300 PC(USA) ministers and candidates seeking new calls, few are willing to consider a church of 100 members or less.
Myers' message here on Saturday, September 11, was directed to the inaugural class of six pastoral residents, who – having already risen to the challenge of being called by God to unknown, remote places – gathered from Sept. 8-11 with their presbytery leaders, mentors and members of the PC(USA) national staff for a comprehensive orientation program for For Such a Time as This, an innovative pastoral residency program designed to serve small, under-served congregations and develop missional pastors.
In her sermon entitled, "Go to a land I shall show you," delivered during the orientation’s closing commissioning service, Myers – director of the Office of Vocation for the PC(USA) – emphasized the concept that all ministry today is "unknown land." To prepare for the challenges of their new calling, orientation participants worshiped together, built community, and were briefed on a broad variety of topics and ministry resources, including small church dynamics, nurturing practices of spiritual disciplines, coaching skills for presbytery leaders, and the PC(USA)'s church-wide initiative, Growing Christ’s Church Deep & Wide. In addition to Myers, leaders from the staff team included Marilyn Johns, the residency program’s coordinator, Quinn Fox, associate for theology, and Philip Lotspeich, coordinator for church growth.
"Especially at this time in history," Myers said, "God calls us to ministry that will unfold before us and which will call us to adapt, to improvise along the way, using what we know and learning as we go."
In the program's first year, six recent seminary graduates have been paired with small churches in a two-year pastoral residency relationship during which they will be supported and guided by a network of pastor/mentors, presbytery, seminary, and national church leaders. Four presbyteries – Heartland, St. Andrew, Northern Plains and South Dakota – representing congregations in Missouri, Mississippi, North Dakota and South Dakota will provide the initial group of ministry settings for 2010. In the coming months, all six pastoral residents will be ordained as ministers of the Word and Sacrament in the PC(USA) to serve their respective churches as designated pastors.
"Any ministry – Missouri to Malawi, Brooklyn to Biloxi, Willow Lake and Grenada – is challenging, scary, and a venture into the unknown," Myers said, referencing several of the program's first ministry settings. "Yet you go not alone. You go with God. You go to minister with Presbyterian leaders who know Christ and have deep faith formed over a lifetime. You go surrounded by the wider church, who minister with you and support you in that place."
Among those presbytery leaders looking forward to both the immediate as well as the long-term impact of the program is the Rev. Steve Minnema, executive presbyter for the Presbytery of Northern Plains.
"Our presbytery might be approximately 65 churches, and of those, probably less than half are served by called and installed, ordained Presbyterian clergy," said Minnema. "The issues for us are preserving a sense of Presbyterian identity and building up the role of the elder in those churches served by non-Presbyterians.
Our challenge is to try to help the leadership of our churches to claim the gifts in our heritage, in particular the office of elder and the role that can be in the life of the church. It takes some people with some familiarity with our heritage and commitment to it to help us do that. We're hoping that this program can bring another person in to the life of the presbytery with some seminary training and some commitment to being Presbyterian as they go about the ministry in our midst."
In that hopeful spirit, Minnema will be welcoming Trudy Dumont, a graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary, who will be serving the Presbyterian Church of Rolla, N.D., and St. John Presbyterian Church. Minnema described Rolla/St. John – which is one church in two buildings and two communities – as a vital congregation with a good youth program and a good interest in mission.
"The exciting thing to me about this program relative to Rolla/St. John is that that church has had a history of some estrangement from the presbytery and even more so from the General Assembly," Minnema said. "In the course of their participation, the chair of their committee told me that they never felt any closer to both the presbytery and the denomination than they have as they’ve made connections and gotten support through this program."
Another of the six residents, Jason Ku, who immigrated to the United States from Korea in 1979, expressed not only delight but surprise that his first call was to an English-speaking congregation in Holden, Mo.
"One of the challenges I started seeing in seeking my first call was that most churches were seeking ministers with a number of years of experience," said Ku, a second-career pastor and a 2007 graduate of San Francisco Theological Seminary. "I knew, too, that my background as an immigrant and speaking English as a second language would make it hard for me to get into an English-speaking congregation.
I am so grateful because if I can do my first ministry successfully, my Korean-American associates and the younger generations will be able to see the vision and the hope that can widen their opportunities to serve in the future.”
Two of Ku's four sisters who still live in Korea – along with his 83-year old mother – will be flying in for his ordination by his home presbytery, the Presbytery of Sacramento, on Sunday, October 10, where they will be joined by a host of other relatives. "It turns out to be my big family event," Ku said. "I thank God for that."
The Rev. Charles Spencer, executive presbyter of Heartland Presbytery – of which the First Presbyterian Church of Holden, Mo., is a member – described the congregation as "very hopeful." Prior to Ku’s arrival, the 26-member church had been over a decade without a full-time resident pastor.
"We're very excited," Spencer said, "the Committee on Ministry and the presbytery as a whole. We have a lot of churches watching. There were churches that couldn’t quite be moved to participate this year, but they are watching."
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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.