Entering a conference room filled with such a wealth of resources, Hal Bennett could scarcely contain his exuberance.
“I’ve been jumping up and down like a little kid and praising God every day since I became a part of the For Such a Time as This program,” he said. “My seminary training has come to fruition, and I’m looking forward to doing the work that God has called me to do.”
Bennett—who has been called to serve the Dulatown Presbyterian Church in Lenoir, N.C.—is one of six recent seminary graduates who have received their first calls to ministry in the third year of For Such a Time as This. The program is designed to renew the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) by developing missional pastors and equipping them to serve and grow small congregations.
Launched in fall 2009 by the office of Vocation—a joint ministry of the Presbyterian Mission Agency and the Office of the General Assembly—For Such a Time as This is a timely and innovative program that pairs small, underserved congregations in rural, small town, and urban settings with recent seminary graduates in two-year pastoral calls, during which they are supported and guided by a cluster of pastor-mentors.
The six members of the class of 2012 gathered August 20–23 for a comprehensive orientation program, during which they were commissioned for service in small membership congregations in the program’s 2012 partner presbyteries of Heartland, Western North Carolina, Northeast Georgia, Tampa Bay, and Northern Plains.
“What we are here to do is to bring together a network of people who are resources to you,” said the Rev. Dr. Marcia Clark Myers, director of the office of Vocation, addressing the gathering of first-call pastors, pastor-mentors, and presbytery representatives in the opening session on August 20. “This week will serve as an introduction to a whole host of people who may inspire you and with whom you can connect at various points. This is a time where wisdom will be shared. As we elicit wisdom from the gathered group and the resource people we have brought to you, this is the model that we hope will be a part of your experience of the program all along, that we are the ‘switchboard’ to connect you with people and resources.”
To prepare for the challenges of small church ministry, orientation participants worshiped together, built community, and were briefed on a broad variety of topics and ministry resources, including small church dynamics, session and presbytery context, family systems, Board of Pensions benefits, seminary debt relief, and spiritual practices.
Among the week’s highlights was the August 22 service of Word and Table, at which the Rev. Neal Presa, Moderator of the 220th General Assembly (2012), preached. In a powerful message based on John 6:51–58, Presa artfully employed a simple yet hypnotic refrain—“eat, drink, flesh, blood”—to call believers back to the basics of the Christian faith.
“Flesh and blood, blood and flesh, they go,” said Presa. “So much hangs in the balance.”
Calling the six pastoral residents by name and identifying the states in which they will serve, he continued, “That’s where they go, in the flesh, in the blood.”
Following the sermon, Linda Valentine, executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, and the Rev. Gradye Parsons, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly, presided over the commissioning.
Throughout the course of the week, the Rev. Cindy Cushman, the program’s coordinator, emphasized the critical role of pastor-mentors, who were also on hand to receive coaching skills training.
“This program has been a really positive experience for the presbytery, the General Assembly, and the ministers to work together,” said the Rev. Ron Galvin, a minister member of Heartland Presbytery, which has participated in all three cycles of For Such a Time as This. “It instills excitement in congregations that have lost hope. Every one of our people that have been a part of this program, their churches have grown and grown. There’s a new sense of hope and vitality in each of those congregations, and what a blessing that is. We’ve got to stop closing churches and start building churches. I think this program is an important piece of that. It’s just a win-win all the way around.”
Galvin, who first served in 2010 as pastor-mentor to the Rev. Jason Ku in Holden, Mo., will now mentor Jay Kim, who has been called to serve the First Presbyterian Church of Higginsville, Mo.
“I find that when you’re a mentor, you learn as much as the person being mentored does,” he said.
The Rev. Nancy Kahaian, transitional presbyter for the Presbytery of Tampa Bay, said that she welcomed “the fresh infusion, external perspective, and new energy” that Virgiliana Pickering will bring to Keystone Presbyterian Church in Odessa, Fla.
“This is fertile ground for something wonderful and a mark of the Holy Spirit,” Kahaian said.
The orientation program also provided an opportunity for the 10 members of the class of 2011 to join their newest colleagues, not only to pray for them in their new calls but also to participate in their own midpoint informational and sharing session at the Presbyterian Center.
The Rev. Jason Clapper, who began serving the Lavonia (Ga.) Presbyterian Church in July 2011, said that he found the debriefing session for his class to be especially helpful.
“This whole week has been such an incredible community experience, which is what we were really looking for through the program,” Clapper said. “We needed a community that would be able to support us because small church ministry is hard, and we’ve really become that group. It was good to hear that people are struggling with the same things, even though all of the churches and contexts are different. It just helps you to realize that the same sort of struggles are going on everywhere. It gives you a sense that we can do it together.”