For Lisa Magaly López-Marcial, the call to seminary was also a call to leave home.

López-Marcial, a member of Iglesia Presbiteriana DOMVS DEI in Cabo Rojo, Puerto Rico, moved to the United States three years ago to begin her studies at Princeton Theological Seminary.

“I hadn’t been speaking English full time so coming here and trying to do academic studies was very hard in the beginning,” said López-Marcial. “My brain would get tired and I’d ask myself, ‘What am I doing?’ Why did I even think I could do this?’”

López-Marcial’s first months of adapting to a new place, culture, and language were an added strain on an already rigorous theological education.

“Lisa’s story bears out what we know to be true of the scriptural call narratives,” said the Rev. Marcia Clark Myers, director of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Office of Vocation. “God most often calls people to places they don’t want to go. As with Abraham, God called Lisa away from her family and home. It was not a call that she sought, but rather she was chosen for it.”

 In fact, as López-Marcial advanced and excelled in her studies at Princeton Seminary, her academic achievements prompted her peers and professors to encourage her to consider doctoral studies and a career in academia.

“Discernment is a funny thing,” said López-Marcial, “it’s really more of an art than a science and you can’t really describe to a ‘T’ how it happened, but you know it happened when it happens. Though I had been considering doing doctoral work, I am certain that God is calling me towards parish ministry. It is in my work directly with congregations that I have found the greatest joy and passion.” 

López-Marcial’s journey of discernment has been significantly informed by her active prayer life, her experience with congregations, and her life and worship in various communities of faith.

Her passion for congregational leadership is coupled with a dynamic vision for more empowered church members, a vision that stems from growing up in a healthy, growing church in Puerto Rico and her experience of congregations in North America. 

“I come from a context in which the laity are very active, where everyone has a part in worship,” said López-Marcial. “That dynamic seemed to foster greater involvement in the church and greater outreach. We have to train the laity and have that be a way to get everyone on board for this thing that we call church.”

Another idea she has for empowering church members is what she calls “a network of one-on-one discipleship,” a model she has seen applied successfully in various contexts.

“You start with your elders and you train them to be teachers to other people,” López-Marcial explained. “They take on members and have one-on-one time on a weekly or monthly basis and just focus on relationship building, spiritual relationship building with another person and then have a ‘pay it forward’ system.”

Although not specifically engaged in one-on-one discipleship, one congregation that López-Marcial says is modeling the kind of openness she hopes to see practiced across the PC(USA) is the First Presbyterian Church in Hamilton Square, where she currently worships. 

“The leadership is open to new ideas and creative ways of being the people of God and there is a lot of space for the people of the congregation to be involved in different ways as they move toward greater lay participation in all areas,” she said.

Along her vocational journey, López-Marcial has been grateful for the financial support she has received through the Presbyterian Study Grant, a program offered through Financial Aid for Studies for full-time theological students enrolled in Master of Divinity or Master of Christian Education programs. She is thankful to the denomination in which she was nurtured for allowing her to pursue her calling without the added burden of student debt.

 “A lot of my friends here in seminary have a lot of student debt because they couldn’t get access to scholarships,” López-Marcial said.  “That’s holding them back from the ministries God is calling them to in smaller congregations because they have to think about paying things off.”

Programs like the Presbyterian Study Grant, The Board of Pensions Seminary Debt Assistance Program and the new Theological Student Loan (TSL) Loan Forgiveness Program directly address that concern by helping seminary students like López-Marcial to answer God’s call to serve where there is need.

“I realize that parish work will be as challenging as it is exciting,” said López-Marcial, “but I trust God will keep showing me the way and sustain me through it.”

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Applications for the Presbyterian Study Grant are due June 1 for the 2011-2012 academic year. Visit the website to download an application.

Drew Stockstill is a freelance writer in Decatur, Ga., where he is currently a student at Columbia Theological Seminary.