Mission is a big part of First Presbyterian Church’s identity. If you need any reminder of the focus of the Jacksonville, Ill., congregation, the Mission Yearbook for Prayer and Study in the pew will provide it.
“There’s a long history which precedes me so I want to be very clear to give credit to former pastors and to others in the laity and mission committee who have really helped with this. It’s a pattern I inherited but we’ve kept it up,” said the Rev. John Kay, pastor of First.
The books were originally incorporated as part of the worship service, and while they’re not used in that way anymore, they are still used by members and visitors.
“We include at the top of every bulletin a biblical text, a mediation thought for people if they want to center their thoughts but also the page in the mission yearbook,” he says. “Everyone gets a bulletin and every bulletin has that day’s reference, encouraging them to pick up that mission yearbook of prayer.”
Kay said he has gotten some comments from visitors about the yearbooks in the pews.
“One of the things we say to people that come to this congregation is, ‘This is a part of who we are. We’re concerned about the world in which we live as we try to say who we are as Presbyterians,’” he said.
While the books themselves have generated comments, the real focus for Kay and the members of First Presbyterian is what they represent.
“I think the mission yearbook serves as an ongoing visible symbol of the importance of mission at home and abroad,” he said. “The mission yearbook is one part of what we do but we have other ways to build on that and try to make more personal our commitment to mission here and around the world.”
Mission abroad is a special emphasis at First Presbyterian, in large part thanks to some unexpected connections formed many years ago.
First Presbyterian is the founding church of nearby Illinois College and maintains a strong relationship with the school. About 55 years ago, a young Thai student named Amnuay Tapingkae came to study at the college. The school paid his tuition, and the church agreed to support him with room and board. Tapingkae went on to get his doctorate and eventually became the president of Payap University in Chian Mai, Thailand.
“It’s quite a significant educational institution and strongly influenced by the Presbyterian mission heritage, which now carries on under the umbrella of the Church of Christ in Thailand,” Kay said.
Tapingkae also became friends with many of the church members while he was in Jacksonville, including one young man named Kenneth Dobson who went on to become a missionary in Thailand and is now retired and still living there. Another couple who had been missionaries and worked at Payap University moved to Jacksonville for their retirement.
“The connections do wonderful things for a congregation because they just make that distant land seem so real and so personal,” Kay said.
Groups from the church have also gone on mission trips abroad, including one trip to Thailand 10 years ago where Dobson served as the group’s guide. Kay met Tapingkae while he was there and invited him to visit Jacksonville on an upcoming trip he was planning to the United States. While on that trip, Tapingkae proposed another arrangement for a young Thai woman to study at the college as he had done many years before. The church and the school once again agreed.
The church also does some work much closer to home, some of which also has a long history.
“This congregation started the first kindergarten in the city of Jacksonville more than 50 years ago,” Kay said.
While the kindergarten has been transformed into a preschool that is part of the church’s Christian Education ministry, they still work on outreach with local children.
“We have a daycare in our building and it was the first daycare in Jacksonville, it’s been here 27 years,” Kay said. “It’s intended to meet the needs of children who have working parents and a particular emphasis for us is to care for children whose families are underprivileged or who are living on the margins.”
When it comes to supporting mission projects financially, the members of First Presbyterian take their responsibility very seriously. For the last eight years, the church has dedicated a proportion of its budget to mission.
“I just thought families decide what proportion of household income they are going to give to the church, the church ought to be thinking of what proportion of its income its going give to mission around the world,” Kay said.
The church’s goal was to give 20 percent of its budget to mission. In order to get there, the church would try to increase the amount by 1 percent each year — a significant challenge that equates to an increase of at least $5,000 a year.
“First Presbyterian Church of Jacksonville is one of our best mission partners,” said the Rev. Sue Krummel, executive presbyter for the Presbytery of Great Rivers. “They contribute funds that are used at the presbytery, synod and General Assembly level as well as supporting mission projects that they identify. They are certainly one of the leaders in our presbytery in helping us to bring hope in the name of Jesus Christ, every hour, every day.”
Kay said his congregation has been blessed in that even in harsh economic times, it hasn’t had to reduce its budget, although it has been concerned about that possibility.
“We thought maybe we should recognize this is a hard time and ask for less — go for half a percent this year,” said Kay of the discussions he had with members of the church’s annual stewardship campaign.
He was surprised when the chairman of the finance committee put aside this option, saying, “If we can’t fund it, we can’t fund it, but we ought not stop ahead of time.”
“This is not simply history or the vision of a few. In large measure it seems to be embraced by the congregation,” Kay says. “I am more than happy to put my weight behind it and support it but this is not something a pastor does, it’s something a congregation does. And it makes my heart very grateful to be a part of a congregation that has this history and continues to endeavor to be faithful to it.”
Toni Montgomery is a freelance writer in Statesville, N.C., where she is also secretary for First Presbyterian Church there.