The Thistle

Serving Those Who Sent Them – Joel Hathaway

Serving Those Who Sent Them

By Joel Hathaway
Alumni & Placement Services Director 

Although Jesus said, “A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown,” these seminary graduates returned to minister to the churches who sent them out in the first place—and learned more than they could have expected. 

For some Covenant Seminary graduates, the question “Can you ever really go home?” is academic; for others, it’s at the core of their ministerial calling. Going home may be less about future possibility and more about present responsibility to serve in ministry. The graduates you’ll meet here received calls by their home churches, allowing them to minister to the congregations who initially sent them and supported their desire to pursue seminary training. Responding to such a call brings together an amazing collage of blessings, challenges, and lessons for all—as Rev. Todd Gwennap (MDiv ’09) can attest. “I grew up in this church,” says Todd, who returned from seminary to serve as the assistant pastor of Christian education and young families at his sending church, Arden Presbyterian in Arden, North Carolina. “My parents met and got married in this church. My children are now the fourth generation at Arden.” Todd spent 22 years in the congregation before going off to seminary. Returning home raised many questions.

“There is always the fear of not being taken seriously. That was pretty real to me,” Todd explains. “There are people at this church who saw me in diapers. And then there is my youth. I was 25 when I was ordained. Not only was I seen as the ‘little kid’ who grew up and went off to seminary, I was the kid who grew up, went to seminary, and came back still relatively young.” How returning members-turned-pastors are received depends largely on the intentionality of the church leadership.

In Todd’s case, senior pastor Rev. Chris Yates (MDiv ’87) said to the the congregation, “While it is encouraging that Todd is a covenant child of this church, we brought him here to serve because we believe he is the best man for the job.”

Rev. Michael Wichlan (MDiv ’08), who returned to Trinity Presbyterian Chuch in Plano, Texas, to serve as assistant pastor of outreach and assimilation, received similar advocacy. “Our transition was eased by the way the session handled our coming in. On the Sunday it was announced, the senior pastor went through a list of my credentials and experience with the congregation before telling my name. People who didn’t know me could understand why I’d been called. For those we knew, it just added to their excitement.” As a result, Michael and his family entered with a great deal of trust and endorsement. The affirmation came not only from what God had done through them, but also because of God’s work in them through their brokenness.

“While being introduced to the congregation that first Sunday, we told some of our story, our need for marriage counseling, and shared openly that we are a broken family in desperate need of the gospel,” explains Michael. Such vulnerability—coupled with their previous experience at the church—has opened up many doors of ministry.

Erik McDaniel (MATS ’09) found similar opportunities when he returned to his sending church, Faith Presbyterian, in Anniston, Alabama. “People have turned to me for more intense help than before I left, like marriage counseling for example,” he says. “Many of my relationships with congregants had firm foundations from before I attended to seminary; I didn’t have to start from scratch with everybody. As Professor Bob Burns [associate professor of educational ministries] says, I had ‘relational capital.’ And seminary gave me immediate ‘professional capital’ with many of my friends. I have felt it, and others seem to acknowledge it; the mantle of assistant pastor and teaching elder has been placed on me. That is a beautiful and humbling reality.”

Retrospectively, people rarely know how fully situations and experiences have changed them until they are back among those who have known them longest. “One of my fears was that people would want the ‘old Erik,’ ” he shares. “I had changed while at Covenant Seminary.”

Todd agrees. “Seminary was such a fundamental time. My views on everything changed—and not just theologically. There was an entire paradigm shift. People who haven’t experienced something similar don’t usually have a context for understanding how that happens. I’m not the same person I was when I left for seminary.”

As certainly as these families have been shaped by their seminary experience, their churches have also changed. Arden has experienced a 40%–45% growth and turnover rate since Todd left for seminary, and Michael reentered a congregation that was 35%–40% different from the one he left. Even Erik was surprised by how many people he didn’t know when returning to Faith Presbyterian. These changes present learning opportunities as well as moments for repentance.

“I started operating under the assumption that many of the ‘rules’ for new pastors didn’t apply to me,” Todd confesses. “But from the church’s perspective, I was the new guy. I thought people would be interested in hearing my ideas, but that rubbed people the wrong way. My big mistake was talking more than listening. Somewhere I missed a lesson on humility. I’ve had to repent of that, and I’ve been blessed to see the reconciliation that has come out of it.”

Reflecting further, Todd says, “I hear Dr. Collins’s [professor of Old Testament] voice in my head every time I read the Bible. I also hear Dr. Guthrie [associate professor of educational ministries] saying, ‘Think systems; watch process.’ Alot of the training at seminary that I thought was less important has actually been the stuff that has mattered most. I’ve done a lot more meeting with people and building relationships than I expected. People need to see that I’m really just here to serve. If I went back to seminary today, I’d listen more in some areas—such as my counseling classes. Ones that weren’t as exciting to me as Greek and Hebrew turned out to be really important here.”

Surprisingly, there aren’t that many graduates who return to their home churches to serve after seminary. Part of this results from staffing needs. But, as Michael points out, part of a pastor’s responsibility is to confirm the external call of vocational ministry to some as well as encourage the lay ministry of many. If the Lord has planted an individual within the context of a specific congregation, it makes sense that his particular gifts and abilities are necessary. It is worth asking the questions: Did the church lose an important part of its ministry by sending this individual to seminary? Might the congregation be enriched further by extending a call to that candidate upon graduation?

“It’s good to be back,” Erik reflects. “Other families have grown up while we were gone, but so has mine. And it’s been hard. People’s lives went on while we were gone, and they learned how to balance family, work, and life with one another. Now that my family is back in town, close friends who loves us are trying to open up their lives to us, but the natural working of life in this stage has prevented us from getting as close as we once were. However, I am excited about the years to come.”

Todd says, “For many in the church, simply seeing a covenant child who was raised in this church return as a pastor has been the real encouragement. It is confirmation and assurance that God is working within the church community.” There is a validation of significance—not of an individual but of a group of people living their lives faithfully before God.

So, can you really go ‘home’? “I became a Christian in this church,” Michael says. “To be able to come back and minister in this context—wow! I’m serving the people who sent me. That means a lot to me emotionally and fires the passion that I put into my role. There is a degree to which I am truly home.”