Just as ministry partners at all levels of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) have been working to address the challenges of preparing leaders, the General Assembly Mission Council heard an exciting update on an innovative pastoral residency program.

For Such a Time as This, which launched in November 2009, is designed to serve underserved congregations and develop missional pastors.

Named for a reference from the book of Esther, For Such a Time as This is a pilot program that seeks to pair small, underserved congregations with recent seminary graduates who are interested in serving where there is need, specifically in small membership congregations.

The program’s name invokes Esther’s unexpected rise to leadership in her own day even as the PC(USA) is calling leaders to serve in a rapidly changing and challenging 21st century context — half of the denomination’ss nearly 11,000 congregations have 100 or fewer members. The concept was inspired in part by Teach For America, which recruits recent college graduates to teach in underserved urban and rural public schools.

Citing the statistic that most Presbyterians are part of larger congregations while most of the leadership positions are in the smaller ones, the Rev. Marcia Clark Myers, director of the PC(USA)’s Office of Vocation, acknowledged the challenge of fostering a culture of mission-driven leadership among today’s ministers and candidates.

Of 2,253 ministers or candidates in the Presbyterian call system in 2009, fewer than 10 percent said they would be willing to consider a church of 100 members or less. Only 7 percent were open to service in a rural area.

“So many of our congregations are awaiting pastoral leaders who will answer God’s call to serve in places they wouldn’t have expected to go,” Myers told the GAMC. “It is precisely for that reason that I can talk about this new pastoral residency program almost as readily as I can talk about my own granddaughter. It is so exciting for us to partner with presbyteries and small congregations in this way, helping churches and new pastors grow Christ’s church deep and wide.”

The presbyteries of Heartland, St. Andrew, Northern Plains and South Dakota — the latter two presbyteries working in partnership — were selected as the program’ss initial group of ministry settings for 2010. To qualify as partner presbyteries, each was asked to identify several small churches that would serve as especially good learning settings for first call pastors. The three presbytery clusters in the program’s first year will have two to four residency churches each, for a total of seven openings. During their tenure, pastoral residents will be supported and guided by a network of pastor/mentors, presbytery, seminary and national church leaders.

Applications for the first class of seven pastoral residents were evaluated and chosen by the seven members of the PC(USA)’s pastoral residency team. A representative of the anonymous foundation, which has committed a grant of $450,000 over the four years of the pilot program, also participated in the selection process.

“Our team has worked hard to find the best candidates for the best small churches,” said Marilyn Johns, the program’s coordinator. “We are hopeful that by the end of the summer, seven small congregations will have excellent, transformative pastoral leadership and will begin to see higher self-esteem, increased excitement and energy, and, most important, a new vision for ministry in their communities and in the world. The churches and the candidates are ready to get going!”

Among the criteria for selection was a Gallup assessment tool, which each of the applicants took to help to determine their aptitude for transformative leadership. The process yielded an outstanding pool of highly qualified candidates — diverse in gender and racial-ethnic background — whose applications the presbyteries are now reviewing with their small membership congregations.

Once they have been extended a call, the seven pastoral residents in the class of 2010 will be ordained as ministers of the Word and Sacrament in the PC(USA). All of their positions are full-time, designated pastor positions and will be compensated at presbytery minimum salaries. Additionally, pastoral residents will be enrolled in the PC(USA) Board of Pensions plan and may qualify for the Board of Pensions seminary debt assistance program.

As the pastoral resident candidates await news of where they will be going, the participating presbyteries are just as eager for the program to get under way.

“For Such a Time as This is for such a presbytery as ours,” said the Rev. Steve Minnema, interim executive presbyter of the Presbytery of Northern Plains. “One of our sites, the Rolla/St. John Church in mid-northern North Dakota, is a vital congregation meeting in two communities that — with the right pastor — is poised to grow. When I called the chair of the nominating committee to tell him they could start looking at the people we’ve been given to consider, he thanked me and said their church had never felt more connected to the presbytery and even to the national church because of the support they were receiving in this program.

“For Such a Time as This is a great example of what we can do when we take the risks involved in working together and doing things differently.”