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By Tom Holmes
One of the kids in Rev. Sarah Iliff McGill's youth group at Fair Oaks Presbyterian Church recently asked her, "What do you do all day — pray and watch TV?"
McGill laughed recalling the moment, but if your only experience with pastors is watching them for one hour on Sunday or relating to them at a youth group meeting, you don't know any better. In fact, everyone now serving as a pastor began their journey to ordination with the same ignorance of what that role really involves.
Rev. Wayne Myer, the senior pastor at Fair Oaks and McGill's supervisor, says that being a pastor is a role seminary graduates have to "live into." It's not just a matter of having acquired knowledge and skills; it has to do with a certain feel and developing a touch and that takes time.
McGill began her work as associate pastor at Fair Oaks just six months ago. In spite of having earned a Master of Divinity degree from Princeton University in 2009, she acknowledged that she still had a long way to go in the process of living into the role of pastor.
The new pastor laughed — she laughs a lot — as she remembered one grandiose expectation about being the youth pastor.
"I kind of came in with the idea that once the kids meet me, they'll just love me, and they'll want to hang out with me."
She imitated a water balloon exploding on the sidewalk to indicate what happened to that love-at-first-sight fantasy. Sobered by the realization that building relationships doesn't happen overnight, she observed, "I don't think, honestly, that the kids in this youth group are going to see me as their pastor for another two years. I think it's going to take awhile."
McGill, however, did not come in totally naïve about what it takes to be an effective pastor. Her mother was a Christian educator at First Presbyterian Church in Wheaton. "She would bring me to work with her," she recalled. "Church felt like a second home."
And her best friend's father was the congregation's pastor. Observing those two church professionals up close, along with the Monday-through-Saturday workings of the congregation — when the members are not always at their Sunday morning best — has tempered any dreamy idealism she brought to her new role with a large dose of realism.
"I think I'm still in the honeymoon stage at Fair Oaks," she said, "but one thing that helps me not have crazy expectations is what I learned from my mother and my best friend's father as I was growing up. I heard about conflicts in the congregation and saw that not everyone does things with the right intentions. I also saw that pastors are human."
Perhaps because she understood that working in the church is not all sweetness and light, McGill took advantage of several internship opportunities during her time in college and seminary.
During her sophomore year at Augustana College in Rock Island, she took a break from academics and worked with a pastor in Richland, Mich.
"That experience," she recalled, "helped take me out of the college setting — where everything is about you — to a place where it's about the community, where you use what you learned for the good of that community."
After entering Princeton Seminary, McGill participated in a three-month summer clinical pastoral education internship at a women's maximum security prison in Bedford Hills, N.Y. "It was a hard summer," she said. "I learned it was not my job to judge the inmates but to be concerned about their spiritual health. The experience deepened my understanding of grace."
During her last year at Princeton, she served as a college chaplain at a Presbyterian church on campus. "What I learned from that internship was how much I loved young people," she said. "I also realized how much young people struggle with their faith in college." The role of pastor was becoming increasingly comfortable.
In the year between graduating from seminary and coming to Fair Oaks, McGill served her final internship as a college chaplain at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. There she witnessed the frustration of working with a dysfunctional staff and grew in her understanding of how the interaction of personalities influences the effectiveness of leadership in the church.
McGill admits the learning curve at Fair Oaks has been steep. "I did feel pretty overwhelmed," she said. "There's a lot to learn that seminary just can't teach you." The stress of going through a lot of personal changes — getting married Aug. 21, moving to Oak Park, starting at Fair Oaks on Sept. 1 and being ordained Sept. 26 — wore her down so much she came down with pneumonia.
At first the new pastor followed the advice that Julie Giegler, Fair Oaks' Christian educator, gave her: "In the beginning, just put out the fires nearest you."
Those who have worked with her say she is a quick study and that she has already moved beyond merely putting out fires.
Congregation member Christine Baumbach was first impressed by the new pastor's warm smile, genuine interest in people and desire to build relationships. After working with McGill planning activities for their pre-Lenten season, Baumbach concluded, "A simple, warm smile started it, but I am now seeing an effective, graceful leader emerging."
McGill's "boss" added that at first his associate's enthusiasm for youth activities outpaced her ability to plan details, like having enough drivers to transport the kids. He also noticed a tentativeness in her leading of worship.
"Now she has not only built relationships with youth, but has really shown excellent administrative skills," said Myer. "In leading worship, she has taken a stronger voice and authority even after this short amount of time."
Another member, Stephanie Espinoza who works with her in the junior high youth ministry, said, "Sarah has moved from simply trying to get through an activity without losing the kids' attention, to getting them to actively think about their faith. I feel she is finally hitting her stride and is getting to the point where she has some breathing room to think about where she wants to take the church's youth program in the long term."
Echoing Espinoza's comment, Wendy Owen, another Fair Oaks member, said, "Sarah is overflowing with ideas for building relationships with our youth. Over the last several months, I've seen her gaining confidence in her own great ideas."