To the person in the pew, who probably has little reason to think about where her pastor attended seminary, giving to theological education can be a very abstract proposition. Couple this with a tough economy and sweeping changes in cultures and capacities of mainline denominations, and seminary development officers face a daunting task as they engage prospective donors.
Perhaps the most effective “pitch” isn’t one at all. Rather, it is an invitation to reflect on one’s own experience. We all have pivotal moments in our spiritual journeys, where we turn corners into deeper truths about our own selves and our roles in God’s world. What many of us may not realize is that oftentimes, in those crucial periods of growth when we seek the counsel of our pastor or spiritual mentor, we may unknowingly be drawing upon the skills of a theologically educated person. And by extension, we are depending on someone else’s financial resources and commitment to making God’s loving presence more known in our everyday lives.
Elizabeth “Bunny” Hampton and Adolph “Scoot” Hampton had the wherewithal and the vision to fund the education of 19 McCormick-educated pastors during a 10-year period beginning in 2000 with the establishment of the A.N. and Elizabeth Tomlinson-Hampton Scholarship. What compelled them? In part, it was their lifelong friendship with one Dr. Harold Blake Walker, a 1932 graduate of McCormick and the Hampton’s pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Evanston, Illinois. As parishioners of a McCormick-educated pastor, they became convicted of the need to extend the gifts of theological education to future generations.
Scoot and Bunny are now deceased, but their commitment to the Church has a much longer trajectory. We recently connected with three past Tomlinson-Hampton Scholars to catch a glimpse of how this particular giving legacy continues.
Ben Larson-Wolbrink (M.Div., Class of 2004) spent six years working as a Presbyterian campus minister in Tuscon at the University of Arizona, where he ministered to 75 students, five of whom eventually enrolled in seminary. Ben not only exposed students to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Young Adult Volunteer Program, but also with his wife, Gretchen Larson-Wolbrink (M.Div. Class of 2004), became involved in immigrant advocacy work along the Arizona/Mexico border.
Last year, Ben and Gretchen moved to Beacon, New York, where Ben serves as pastor of the First Presbyterian Church there. Ben’s greatest joy in ministry has been helping a more inwardly focused congregation connect to the larger community in Beacon. An intergenerational congregation, First Presbyterian is hosting a free meal for the homeless on Saturdays and encouraging artists in the congregation to act as a bridge to the local arts community.
As mainline church membership is dwindling nationwide, Ben believes Biblical teaching and cross-cultural ministry are crucial to training new lay leaders and preventing the church from devolving into a social club. He has seen the membership grow from 60 to 80 in his first year as pastor.
Jason Harshberger (M.Div., Class of 2003) was recently named the Senior Pastor of United Presbyterian Church in Laramie, Wyoming. Previously, he had spent seven and a half years working with youth at Fair Oaks Presbyterian Church in Oak Park, Illinois, before moving with his wife and three children to Wyoming.
Like many solo pastors, the expectations placed on Jason at United Presbyterian are considerable. He takes heart in knowing that many of his former classmates at McCormick face similar struggles, and through Facebook and other forms of communication he relies on these relationships of collegiality and collective wisdom to support his daily ministry.
Nevertheless, Jason has celebrated moments of joy and growth with his congregation, witnessing parishioners come to a deeper spiritual place through Bible study; finding that a newly implemented children’s ministry has increased worship attendance; and enjoying the support of a dedicated group of adult volunteers.
Nick Hatch (M.Div., Class of 2008), followed God’s call to ministry after first working as a mental health counselor for youth and a professional fly fishing guide and is now Associate Pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Great Falls, Montana.
Though he initially planned to enter ministry later in life, Nick was praying one day in a deserted canyon in Wyoming and heard God telling him to leave the life of working full-time outdoors and begin preparing for full-time ministry. Though he desires to return to focusing on work with youth someday, Nick enjoys his current position as a general associate pastor because it has enabled him to learn more about ministering to all ages and ways that the church as a whole works together.
The Hatch family – Nick, wife Amanda and daughter Madison – spent the past year and a half living in Great Falls, what Nick describes as a dusty cowboy town with not much else to do other than enjoy the great outdoors. He has started a fly fishing evangelistic ministry and loves getting paid to spend time with people and marvel at the natural beauty of God’s creation. Outreach like this has helped the church to grow, Nick said, and the demand for fishing lessons actually exceeds the time he has to teach.
Living in Montana reminds Nick of his small-town roots. Though he misses the learning environment at McCormick, he gladly embraces a working class community that appreciates down-to-earth preaching and personal, relational ministry. “I’m having a blast,” Hatch said. “I wouldn’t trade this for the world.”
As a former Tomlinson-Hampton scholar, Nick remembers how the financial support afforded him the space to focus on class and ministry, rather than splitting his time and finite energy with a part-time job. Furthermore, the absence of post-graduation loan payments gave him the freedom to go where God called him for his first pastoral position without worrying nearly as much about the salary he would receive. Nick still thinks daily about how Bunny and Scoot Hampton have helped support him and his family.
“There are deep benefits to following one’s calling,” Nick said, “rather than worrying about making ends meet.”
- by Alicia Leonardi (introduction by Geoff Ashmun)