“I believe the church extends far beyond the congregation or building,” said the Reverend Mary Sellers Shaw. “I am called to build community both inside and outside the church.”
Rev. Shaw, a recent graduate of Vanderbilt University Divinity School, is Associate Pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Franklin, just outside of Nashville, Tennessee. The 27-year-old’s position owes in part to Pathways to Renewal, a dues reduction program offered by the Board of Pensions to encourage calls to young ministers.
FPC Franklin’s congregation has long had a “keen interest in mission and outreach,” said the Reverend Dr. Chris Joiner, FPC Franklin’s senior pastor.
Yet for many years, the church went without a leader dedicated to this growing area of ministry. It fell to Rev. Joiner to accompany church members on their increasingly ambitious mission trips, which in 2016 and 2017 included journeys to Lesbos, Greece, to work with Syrian refugees marooned in the camps there.
After returning and sharing their experiences and insights with the congregation, mission members and other congregants began dreaming of ways to expand FPC Franklin’s support of this vital ministry.
"I am called to build community both inside and outside the church."
― Rev. Mary Sellers Shaw
At about this time, Rev. Joiner heard about the Board’s Pathways to Renewal program. He had to be told about the opportunity “a couple of times,” he said, because he doubted FPC Franklin would qualify: The church had just finished a three-year capital campaign to retire debt from a building expansion, and its membership rolls numbered about 1,000.
Yet, the church did qualify. Any size Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregation that increases ministerial headcount is eligible for Pathways if the minister being called is under age 40 and has never previously been enrolled in Pastor’s Participation (full coverage in the Benefits Plan, 100 percent paid for by the employer).
The financial boost provided by Pathways to Renewal helped decide the question of whether FPC Franklin was ready to expand its pastoral staff. FPC Franklin hired Mary Sellers Shaw as Director of Mission and Outreach out of seminary last summer, and, upon her ordination in March 2019, called her to be Associate Pastor ― a new position responsible for leading the church’s mission and outreach ministries. She also supports Rev. Joiner in leading worship and providing pastoral care.
“I am so excited for this opportunity,” Rev. Shaw said. “And I’m grateful for the Board’s help. It’s a gift to the church.”
“She is a fine minister, and having an immediate, positive impact,” said Rev. Joiner, citing her work reaching out to the local community and her deep embrace of mission.
Rev. Shaw hit the ground running, leading a mission trip of eight congregants to the U.S.-Mexican border. The group worked with the Presbyterian border ministry Frontera de Cristo, helping to escort immigrants to border security gates, participating in a binational prayer vigil at the border wall, and building their understanding of border realities for immigrants and the churches that seek to serve them.
“We had a variety of political perspectives and ages, a good balance of genders on the trip,” Rev. Shaw said. “And we had a lot of questions. … One thing we all shared in common — a belief that we have a responsibility to talk faithfully about what’s happening at the border.”
Barely a month later, Rev. Shaw and another group of congregants helped provide disaster relief in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, where many people still are without homes since tornadoes devastated the area in 2017. She and the others spent a week helping build a home.
“Add ‘using a nail gun’ to the list of things the church has taught me that we didn’t learn in seminary!” she said.
Rev. Shaw also oversees the church’s winter shelter for people experiencing homelessness. FPC Franklin is one of about 200 faith communities that partner with Nashville’s Room In The Inn, which connects people in need of food, shelter, counseling, or other services with helpful resources. The role is familiar to her. The year before starting seminary, she was a PC(USA) Young Adult Volunteer (YAV), running Room In The Inn’s career center.
Thanks to Pathways, Rev. Shaw is able to join with FPC Franklin staff, congregants, and other community leaders, sharing Christ’s compassion both inside and outside the church.
“I like what Pathways is doing for the PC(USA) as well as for FPC Franklin,” Rev. Joiner said. “It has a real impact on real people.”
Pathways to Renewal brings young ministers into the Benefits Plan with the full benefits of Pastor’s Participation at substantially reduced dues. It is designed to provide hope of renewed leadership to small congregations and support to innovative ministries of churches of all sizes.