Saving lives, strengthening pastoral ministry
Daily disciplines learned with peers in The Company of New Pastors “cracks open the Kingdom” for those entering ministry
June 1, 2011
Apple’s journey into The Company of New Pastors, which is centered in helping seminary students develop a deeply theological core as they enter pastoral ministry, began in 2000. In her junior year at Columbia Theological Seminary she took a Jan Term missional course led by then faculty member Darrell Guder. Held at the Ecumenical Centre in Geneva, students were able to interact with colleagues from the World Council of Churches. “We sat on the basement floor together at Le Cenacle, which was run by the Fathers of the Blessed Sacrament, reading Scripture together, praying together,” says Apple. “Seeing Guder, a faithful faculty member, not afraid ‘to open Scripture’ was profound. I learned that to work with God in the world with the gospel, we must be a relational people.”
Apple returned to Columbia with a renewed sense of excitement. She didn’t know it yet, but her life was about to change. “I remember it so clearly, that night when the phone rang,” she says. “I said hello, put the phone to my shoulder. The kids were at the table eating ice cream. My hands were in water, doing dishes.” Apple allows the imagery to settle. “This call was deeply connected to my baptismal calling.” Darrell Guder was on the line. “‘We’re starting a new pilot program,’” he began, ‘with the office of Theology and Worship, to help students preparing to receive a call to pastoral ministry. We’d like you to join us.’”
Guder, Apple, and six other Columbia students were in one of five Excellent from the Start groups at seminaries around the country. They became the model for what eventually became The Company of New Pastors. “For a year we met every month at Darrell’s house for a meal,” says Apple. “We were praying, worshiping, singing, and connecting with each other.” They also studied their vows of ordination. One night the group began to talk about “one of those ordination amendments going to GA that year.”
Apple remembers Guder, her faculty mentor, saying, “Well, I know where I stand,” then stopping, as if catching himself. “What’s important to me is being a faithful evangelist, and that takes movement. Standing suggests rigidity. So I’d say, this is where I am right now, but I’m aware the Spirit might make way for change.” Guder doesn’t recall those remarks, but certainly “trusts Apple’s recollection” saying “I would make the same statement today.”
Apple entered into her first call of ministry at Grace Presbyterian Church in Mobile, Ala., knowing that she wanted access to the “power of this kind of peer group” that handles differences “by affirming Christ.” She was “reconfigured” into a group of new pastors from seminaries around the country, along with two pastor mentors. They all get together for the first time at Stony Point in New York in October 2011. “There was one person I knew, Blaine Hill, a friend in my group from Columbia,” says Apple. “In the middle of our first worship together we were reading from the Scots Confession. It was like four pages long.” Apple and Hill caught each other’s eye. Being formed by confessional readings was part of what they’d been called to in The Company of New Pastors.
But in the moment—with the memory of the World Trade Center’s towers still smoking as they had flown over the city— it seemed absurd. “We all decided to leave behind the rigidity of the liturgy,” says Apple. Together they decided to sing the hymn that was sung before every baptism when Apple was growing up, “Blest Be the Tie That Binds.” When they got to the words “sympathizing tear,” she says she “lost it. I’d come to that meeting knowing I was pregnant, but not sure the pregnancy was viable.” With a history of miscarriages, she headed into the meeting in silence, keeping the news to herself lest she become too vulnerable. In the course of the days ahead, pastor mentor Bill Steele shared a collect —which is both a liturgical action and a short prayer—that he had written for his congregation on 9/11: “God of consoling tenderness, Jesus of Nazareth wept at the grave of Lazarus and grieved over the loss of his friend,” Steele began. “Today, people stand at lonely windows looking for the return of loved ones, but the door does not open, the phone is silent. A familiar voice no longer speaks, and a beloved’s laughter is hushed. All is silence.” This form of prayer was new to Apple. The biblical expression of grief profoundly shaped Apple, preparing her for ministry in significant places of sorrow. As God would have it, Steele and Apple were both from Pittsburgh. During their time together, they discovered they’d both been baptized at Pleasant Hills Presbyterian Church. They’d gone through the waters of the same font, decades apart.
Those early experiences of blessing — her third child recently turned nine — deepened Apple’s resolve to make the disciplines of The Company of New Pastors part of her life in pastoral ministry. Daily prayer, Scripture reading, being shaped by the confessions and a willingness to be mentored has helped her — and others — weather the storms of transition and loss in the 21st century.
Apple is now a mentor pastor for a Company of New Pastors group, giving back to the ministry that gave so much to her. With those who are entering into their first call, she is able to share stories of God’s faithfulness and presence in the midst of all that is living and dying.
Recently, Apple was crafting liturgy for worship, including the prayers of the people. The lectionary text was from Luke — the road to Emmaus. Bathed in Scripture, she was beginning to compose prayers to God when she was called unexpectedly into a hospital trauma unit. A member of Idlewild Presbyterian Church had suffered a fatal head injury. Apple describes how The Company of New Pastors discipline shaped her response. “There weren’t words to speak into the shock and despair. But I believe and so I prayed, ‘God give me the words.’ And they came: ‘As certain as a waltz melody fills this trauma unit,’ she prayed, ‘and brings memories of the ways you bind us in intimate love, You, Lord, You alone are One who astonishes, who knows we stand still and look sad, and hears us when we utter, ‘We had hoped.’”
Apple says, “Those words of Scripture were the words the family needed to hear at that time. They were given with the Spirit’s groaning and shaped by these disciplines. That’s what I mean when I say The Company of New Pastors has saved my life in ministry. Thanks be to God. I’ve learned to stay in Scripture and prayer, which keeps me open to being directed in the ways of the Spirit.”