Answering God’s call to ministry sets in motion an exhilarating, often scary venture into the unknown. Just like a marriage.
Bart Smith, a senior at Austin (Texas) Presbyterian Theological Seminary, and Elizabeth Toland, a senior at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Ga., happen to be facing both challenges—their first calls and their impending marriage—simultaneously and nearly a thousand miles apart. Smith and Toland met as second-semester juniors when both attended the “Crossing Borders, Encountering God” event in Phoenix in 2010.
As first-call seekers and soon-to-be newlyweds, much of the anxiety that they might otherwise be feeling has been greatly alleviated by the financial support both have received through the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Presbyterian Study Grant (PSG) program. Designed for full-time theological students preparing to serve in PC(USA) congregations, the PSG program is one of many scholarship and loan opportunities offered through the General Assembly Mission Council’s Office of Financial Aid for Studies.
“This award is tangible evidence of the benefits of mutual support and resource sharing that comes when Christians walk together in a denomination,” said Smith. “My fiancée, who is also a recipient of this award, and I both anticipate graduating and seeking a pastoral position in May. The fact that our debt is reduced by significant financial aid also influences the types of calls we will seek. We will be able to consider serving smaller churches without the added stress of large student loan repayments.”
For Laura Bryan, associate for Financial Aid for Studies, Smith and Toland personify the program’s objectives.
“When I think about our goals for the Presbyterian Study Grant, one of the benefits we value most about this program is its ability to reduce educational debt so that call-seeking candidates are able to more freely respond to God’s call, wherever it may lead them,” Bryan said. “Seminary debt reduction is a particularly acute need for married students, students with dependents, and clergy couples who may lack the flexibility to accept any call, anywhere.”
In developing Presbyterian leaders for today and tomorrow, the Rev. Marcia Clark Myers, director of the PC(USA)’s Office of Vocation— which includes the work of Financial Aid for Studies—has consistently emphasized the need for mission-driven leadership across the PC(USA).
“Programs like the Presbyterian Study Grant are developed precisely to respond to the mission priorities and leadership needs of the church,” Myers said. “Our loans and grants serve to foster a culture of mission-driven leadership among today’s ministers and candidates, especially in the light of the very real financial obligations and geographical restrictions they face.”
As Smith and Toland approach graduation from their respective seminaries, their May 27 marriage in Lawrence, Kan., and their June 18 move to Roanoke, Va.—where Toland has accepted a call as the new associate teaching elder at Second Presbyterian Church—they do so with an abiding faith and a profound sense of gratitude to the church in which they were raised and nurtured.
“Students are direct beneficiaries of the generosity and hard work of so many faithful Presbyterians through the years and across the country,” Smith said. “Because people harnessed their efforts and resources together and trusted that God would work with what they had gathered, countless others and I have had a more positive seminary experience, accruing less debt because of the Presbyterian Study Grant.”
“Bart sums up everything that we hope for when an award is made,” said Bryan. “I hope that our walk together is also what inspires others to seek aid as students, to mentor those preparing for leadership on behalf of congregations and mid councils, and to assist students by supporting scholarships.”
# # #
Applications for the Presbyterian Study Grant are due June 15 for the 2012–2013 academic year. Visit the website to download an application.