A circuitous journey

From percentages to pastoral care

June 17, 2011

Southern California

The Rev. Adel Malek didn’t necessarily intend to become a Presbyterian minister. An engineer by profession, he and his wife moved from Egypt to the United States in the late 1980s. Malek worked as an engineer until he retired last December.

But along the way, he became a pastor too.

In the early ’90s Malek, was working for the State of California when he walked into the office of one of his consultants during lunch to drop off some papers.

“I found him taking his lunch and reading his Bible and so I asked him, ‘Are you a Christian?’ He said, ‘I’m a Jehovah’s Witness.’ I said, ‘Well, would you like to speak about Christianity?’”

For the next 18 months, Malek and the man shared lunch together once a week. Malek’s goal, as he explains it, was not to convert the colleague, but to try to better understand the Jehovah’s Witness perspective regarding the Trinity.

“He asked a lot of smart questions, so I had to study the Bible more,” Malek.

A year and a half later, the colleague was transferred from Los Angeles to New York, but Malek’s interest in studying Scripture had been piqued. He wondered how he could continue to polish and use the knowledge he had gained.

So, after some searching, he began to attend what were then called ‘extension’ classes through Fuller Seminary in Southern California.

“They told me, ‘To study, you have to choose a certain track,’” Malek said. Not knowing which one to choose, he decided on ‘apologetics.’ After a year or two, Malek became interested in studying Greek and Hebrew, but was told he couldn’t do so with the apologetics track. He didn’t want to be ordained, so he decided to pursue a Master of Arts in Theology, not an M.Div.

After graduating with the MA in 2003, Malek began an Arabic-speaking fellowship at his church while still working full time as an engineer. He still did not want to be a pastor.

“I thought that I would just be doing the Bible Study and preaching — I’m not very good at pastoral care and visitation, and actually, I thought that it would make me bored,” he said.

But he found himself ‘doing pastoral care’ anyway.

“I found that it would be rude not to visit people if they were sick or in need, or if someone asked me to coffee and begins to discuss his son’s drug problem — what was I to do?” he said.

Malek began to realize that, rather than being a boring chore, his love for people gave him the impetus and the basis for his acts of pastoral care.

“This is Christianity — welcome to being a Christian,” he said. “I thought, before, that the pastor’s job would be about half and half — half preaching, half pastoral care. But it is not really ‘half and half’ — it is more like ‘whatever happens, it will happen’ and it doesn’t matter the percentages. I had been calculating like an engineer!

“When I found myself doing everything like a pastor I said, ‘You know what? It’s really not bad. How about I begin the process?’” Malek said. 

So, after consulting with his wife, his pastor and a few friends, Malek entered the process to become an ordained Presbyterian minister — a decade after taking his first seminary course.

Ordination requirements behind him, Malek set about getting ready to receive a call. The only catch was that not only was he a full time engineer, but his wife was also still working, so relocating was not really an option. This can be a challenging situation for many pastors who are ‘geographically inflexible’ seeking calls — but especially when one is seeking a call within the Arabic-speaking world of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

One day, Malek was speaking with a colleague, Amgad Beblawi in the denomination’s office of Middle Eastern Congregational Support.

“He asked me if I was willing to go to Arizona for a few weeks because a pastor there had not been able to take a vacation for the past two years. I said sure, but be careful that it is not the first Sunday of the month so they don’t ask me to offer the Lord’s Supper.”

His friend’s response was quick: “You know what? We really need to ordain you.” Malek’s response was equally as quick: “Well, look for a church to do it!”

But as the conversation unfolded, both men realized that they might need to think outside the box. Malek, a trained pastor, an Arabic speaker, and long-time resident of the United States, had skills, qualifications and experience that would be ideal in mentoring other Arabic-speaking pastors and churches within the PC(USA). But he did not have a call.

“I said, “We have one of the most creative executive presbyters in the nation, Steve Yamaguchi — maybe he would be willing to receive this idea, just a baby now — who knows what might happen with it?” Malek said.

So Malek and Amgad met with Yamaguchi and Stated Clerk Keith Geckeler. Though receptive to the idea, there were two glaring issues: where would the money come from, and what would the accountability look like?

The money part was easy — Malek would be a tentmaker. The accountability piece also began to fall into place, with a special committee set up to report back to the presbytery’s committee on ministry.

“So, I am reporting to the COM but coordinate my work with the GAMC because they are the ones who know where the needs are,” said Malek, whose duties include mentoring new pastors, conflict resolution for churches, leadership training, preaching and interpreting Middle Eastern culture and issues back to the PC(USA).

“I didn’t go through the normal process,” said Malek, the engineer turned pastor, percentages traded in for pastoral care.

Erin Dunigan is a freelance writer, photographer, and pastor who lives in a small coastal community in Baja California, Mexico when she is not following her wanderlust out into the world.

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