Although the major greeting card manufacturers have yet to design a card for the occasion, first-call pastors everywhere will soon be celebrating with their congregations “our first Christmas together” along with other firsts that are unique to their respective communities.

“When I preached my first sermon written in English and Spanish on the same topic, I experienced the delivery in very different ways,” said the Rev. Noe Juarez, who serves the Sunset Presbyterian Church in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., through the For Such a Time as This program. “I find it fascinating that each Sunday the Holy Spirit seems to speak one language better than the other!”

For Such a Time as This: A Small Church Residency—Growing Leaders, Growing Churches, launched last fall by the General Assembly Mission Council (GAMC), pairs small, under-served congregations with recent seminary graduates in a two-year pastoral residency relationship. Juarez, one of the ten members of the For Such a Time as This Class of 2011, pastors both an English and a Spanish-speaking congregation at Sunset, which average 50 and 30 worshipers respectively.

The program’s name, taken from the Old Testament book of Esther, draws a parallel between Esther’s unexpected rise to leadership in her own day and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s call for leaders to serve in a rapidly changing and challenging 21st-century context. About 4,000 of the PC(USA)’s more than 10,000 congregations average fewer than 50 people in attendance each Sunday.

“My first Christmas feast will be December 18, where children will be re-enacting the Christmas story, our praise band will be leading us in wonderful music and our great English and Spanish choir will be performing classic Christmas songs,” Juarez said. “During this special worship we will baptize a baby and we will also welcome new members. We will end our celebration with a delicious feast, a surprise Santa and live music.”

A group of people sitting at tables during a tree auction.

Participants in Williamstown's Third Annual Christmas Tree Auction. —Photograph courtesy of the Howard Family.

In West Virginia, members from both the Waverly-Bethel Presbyterian and First Presbyterian of Williamstown congregations — served by the Rev. Elizabeth Campbell, a For Such a Time as This pastoral resident — recently participated in Williamstown ‘s Third Annual Christmas Tree Auction. “This is a ministry fundraiser for the Christian education program,” Campbell said, “where church groups donate and decorate Christmas trees and the youth along with our Christian education director, Mrs. Nellie Howard, auction off the trees. This year, thanks to the hard work of Nellie, the youth and also their devoted committee, the auction raised almost double of what it has raised in the past.” Campbell explained that the money will support the congregations’ youth ministry and upcoming community education programs.

When Campbell first arrived as pastor earlier this fall, First Presbyterian Church of Williamstown averaged forty people in worship. Over the past few months, worship attendance has grown to an average of more than 65. The congregation welcomed three new members in early November.  

A woman in a church playing a saxophone.

The Rev. Elizabeth Campbell plays saxophone at Williamstown's Third Annual Christmas Tree Auction. —Photograph courtesy of the Howard Family.

Since Campbell, Juarez and the other members of the Class of 2011 accepted God’s call to venture into the unknown only a few short months ago, their congregations are already experiencing growth, as are the pastoral residents themselves.

“First-call pastors by definition are encountering firsts all the time,” said the Rev. Gregory Goodwiller, executive presbyter and stated clerk of the Presbytery of St. Andrew, based in Oxford, Miss. “The first time you have to preach after being up all night with a family, the first time you teach the book of Acts — all of those firsts are difficult the first time.”

Goodwiller, who in 2010 welcomed to the Presbytery of St. Andrew two of the six members of the program’s inaugural class of pastoral residents, acknowledged the program’s impact on making transitions into ministry less stressful for first time pastors.

“The concept of For Such a Time as This is that there are monthly gatherings where you reflect on your experiences but also engage in ongoing spiritual development and worship,” Goodwiller said. “It’s helpful for all of us in ministry to have those kinds of experiences.”

The Rev. Marcia Clark Myers, director of the PC(USA)’s Office of Vocation, which provides oversight for the program, affirmed the critical importance of the pastor/mentors, presbytery and national church leaders in the lives and ministries of the program’s pastoral residents.

A group of children at a Thanksgiving Party.

Children enjoy Sunset's 2011 Thanksgiving Party. —Photograph courtesy of Noe Juarez.

“By surrounding these new pastors with a network of support, we can provide some guidance and companionship on the journey into ministry to help make them effective leaders,” Myers said.

The Rev. Esta Jarrett, pastor of the Canton (N.C.) Presbyterian Church, expressed gratitude for both the program and the congregation which God called her to serve. “The best moments of ministry have come when I've felt so full of the presence of God that I lose my anxieties,” Jarrett said. “I study and write and prepare, but when I'm actually doing a baptism or a funeral or am standing at the Lord's Table saying those majestic, life-filled words, I forget everything but that moment. I'm so grateful to be where God means for me to be. Mostly, I'm grateful for the people of my congregation, who are full of humor and grace. We encourage each other in the life of faith every day.”

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For Such a Time as This: A Small Church Residency — Growing Leaders, Growing Churches is currently seeking gifts to allow the program to continue to help grow Christ’s church deep and wide by reenergizing and renewing our small congregations. Visit the website for further information or to make a gift.

Applications, due January 31, 2012, are available to presbyteries seeking to be partners in For Such a Time as This. For more information or to download an application, visit the website or email your questions.