Board employee spotlight: Meet John McFayden

March 20, 2019
The Reverend Dr. John G. McFayden, Executive Vice President and Chief of Church Engagement, looks back at his path of ministry.

There once was a Presbyterian minister who started a motorcycle gang at his church. No, the minister was not the Reverend Dr. John G. McFayden. That was the Reverend Dr. Blair Monie, while serving as the pastor of Preston Hollow Presbyterian Church in Dallas. Decades earlier and before riding motorcycles, he let a young long-haired and bearded John McFayden know that, yes, he could ride a motorcycle and be a minister.

“Blair influenced me as a pastor,” said Rev. McFayden, Executive Vice President and Chief of Church Engagement at the Board of Pensions (and avid biker). “He broke a lot of my stereotypes about Presbyterian ministers.”

Rev. McFayden was two-thirds of the way through Princeton Theological Seminary, trekking toward an academic career, when he began to see his way to a pastoral calling. Rev. Monie, who was a “teaching church” supervisor at the seminary, was his guide. When Rev. Monie died last year, he was remembered at Preston Hollow, where he served two decades, as “an A+ theologian with a pastor’s heart.”

The same could be said of Rev. McFayden, who at 25, after immersing himself in great theological writings and delving into American church history, went to the mountains outside Charlottesville, Virginia, to lead two rural congregations: Cove and Rockfish. A self-described “pseudo urbane city boy” raised in Raleigh, North Carolina, he considered this opportunity with skepticism. Still, he had worked summers at a Presbyterian camp on the North Carolina-Virginia line from ages 13 to 21, eventually leading backpacking camps in the mountains — and he was “ripe for new challenges.”

Today, Cove Presbyterian Church is planning its 250th anniversary celebration, and Rev. McFayden was invited to write up what he remembered from his service there in 1981-1984. On one page, typed single-space, he shared warmly humorous vignettes, with lessons in humility, community, grace, and just plain living. There is talk of dandelion wine, dove hunting, and prayers for luck at the casino. These eight paragraphs could be titled The making of a pastor.

“A lot of times, we have preconceptions of where we want to be … that are surprised by the way things develop or the ways that God calls us,” Rev. McFayden said. “They were very generous and gracious. They gave me a lot of rein and let me try things and let me fail.”

Rev. McFayden went on to serve a congregation that was striving to be an interracial ministry outside Washington, D.C., and then a 500-member congregation in Dale City, Virginia. Before joining the Board of Pensions, he was senior pastor for a large church outside Chicago.

Looking back, he sees how congregations he served would have benefited from recent Board initiatives to support, strengthen, and sustain the ministry and mission of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Cove, Rockfish, and Dale City would have flourished under Pathways to Renewal, the Board’s dues incentive program for small congregations and any church that increases ministerial headcount.

There were times before and after Rev. McFayden’s ministry that Cove and Rockfish had stated supply ministers. An installed pastor is more fully available to lead and develop pastoral ministry and programs that help a congregation thrive. As for the Dale City church, it needed an associate pastor “the day I got there,” Rev. McFayden said. “It was a size that was hard to provide needed pastoral care and programmatic leadership for.”

The most recent church he served, in the Chicago-area, could afford a five-member pastoral staff, but two or three of those positions tended to be filled by younger ministers, fresh out of seminary. Financial struggle was not unheard of.

“Housing was relatively expensive in that community,” Rev. McFayden said. “We were paying more than the presbytery minimum. Still, being able to afford housing could be a challenge, compounded by debt.” A Ministerial Educational Debt Assistance Grant from the Board, with a maximum value of up to $25,000, may have made “a difference in the salary being adequate to live and serve in that community,” he said.

Now, young pastors like the ones who served alongside Rev. McFayden would also qualify for the Board’s CREDO program for recently ordained ministers. It provides guidance in leadership formation as well as support in all areas of wholeness — spiritual, vocational, health, and financial.

Asked to compare congregational ministry to his Board of Pensions call, Rev. McFayden said that in both cases, “it’s being the Church.” It’s working together to discern God’s call. “We’ve really engaged in listening to the Church and trying to hear and understand and take seriously where their pain points are and where their challenges are,” he said, describing the Board’s outreach of the last four years.

Today, Rev. McFayden is open to the evolution of his own ministry. He’s no longer the “kid, young and … growing quickly” who was skeptical about a call in rural Virginia. He’s newly married, to Hamida Shirazy, a Philadelphia dentist and native of Mombasa, Kenya, and the two talk of one day returning to that country to serve in new ways.

“I have a personal and historical interest in, and commitment to, interracial and interfaith relationships,” Rev. McFayden said, recalling the segregated South of his boyhood. “The experiences we’ve had in life and the relationships shape us, and we’re surprised in the ways we’re called upon that we don’t necessarily anticipate.”

Watch Rev. McFayden explain Pathways to Renewal.