The following is an oral history of a successful pastoral transition at Hampton Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, Pennsylvania. You’ll hear from a variety of voices – the leaving pastor, the head pastor at the church, a youth member of the associate pastor nominating committee, the new pastor and his wife – as they share their experiences of going through this time of transition. The story is not always happy. There is a lot of anxiety. But in the end, the presence and providence of God’s fingerprints are all over this time and season.
Cast of characters:
Ted Martin: Senior pastor, Hampton Presbyterian Church
Brian Wallace: Former associate pastor, Hampton Presbyterian Church
Ryan Pixton: New associate pastor, Hampton Presbyterian Church
Debbie Pixton: Ryan’s spouse
Kerri Savastano: Youth member of the APNC, Hampton Presbyterian Church
Act I: The transition begins
May 1, 2016 Ted Martin: The associate pastor entered my office and stated, “Ted, I need to share some news with you.” It wouldn’t have been nearly as traumatic if I wasn’t preparing to leave for a three-and-a-half-month-long sabbatical at the end of May. His timeframe for departure was the end of June.
Spring 2016 Kerri Savastano: Brian Wallace called to ask if I would be on the APNC, explained it and was able to tell me some of the people who would be on the committee.
June 9, 2016 Ted: I was officially on sabbatical.
June 12, 2016 Ted: Officially, the APNC began June 12, 2016. A timeline was distributed which outlined some key target dates and actions for the committee; it was speculated that by mid-May 2017 a new associate pastor would be called.
Mid-July 2016 Kerri: The first APNC meeting was a meet-and-greet where we learned what we are going to do and about the steps of the process. I was excited. It was the right decision to be a part of the group.
Summer 2016 Brian Wallace: As I prepared to wrap up my time at Hampton, I felt that Ryan would be the ideal successor for a number of reasons and I even mentioned that to him at one point, but he wasn’t interested.
October 2016 Ted: The session approved the MIF at their October meeting.
November 9, 2016 Ted: We were live on the CLC website. We awaited a flurry of PIFs to come streaming into our inbox. In some ways, this anticipation was akin to a meteorologist’s winter forecast; it was all bluster and no reality. We didn’t receive reams worth of PIFs.
November 22, 2016 Ted: We received a matching report from the CLC. It was a start. As we read through some of the matches, we quickly realized that some of them just didn’t fit. We cast our net wider. We utilized posting sites for youth ministry positions, and we tapped known resources for trusted leads.
October 2016 Brian: Ryan and I spoke regularly in late 2016 by phone as his previous congregation was going through some transitions. I sensed then that Ryan was probably being led in a new direction, but his sense of commitment and loyalty was keeping him from seeing that. Certainly not a negative trait in a person.
November 2016 Ryan Pixton: I attended the CREDO conference and my small group there helped me process a lot, including my feeling burned out. It gave me some much-needed structure but ultimately, as I think back, it was probably the start of me realizing that what the church needed and the gifts I had to give might not be lining up like they were when I was first called to the church.
Act II: Narrowing down the candidates
January 9, 2017 Ted: The new year cracked open, and we broke the ice for the interviewing process with six candidates who cleared the winnowing process to be considered for a phone interview. Two of the candidates withdrew from consideration, and we moved forward with the other four. It was a busy week. We performed two interviews per night with extensive debriefing afterward.
January-March 2017 Ted: It was a very hard process. Through many interviews and a time of prayer and discernment, God led us to a couple of very worthy candidates. We raised our hopes and had them dashed. We interviewed some more.
March 1, 2017 Ted: When the first of March roared in like a lion, we were prepped to have a couple on-site interviews. The presbytery was informed, and they did their due diligence.
March 11, 2017 Ted: We had a very promising candidate visit the church. It was a full weekend of conversation and exploration, and all was very promising.
April 12, 2017 Ted: The candidate was back for a second on-site interview. It was fairly clear that the search committee was approaching a time of making an offer. It looked like the original timeline was going to fall into place. Everything looked good.
April 2017 Kerri: The candidate was nice, but not the fit we were looking for when we got him with the youth.
End of April 2017 Ted: The bottom dropped out when the candidate declined the position. Every egg in the basket had broken, the air was totally sucked out of the room, the sails hung limp. Take your pick of classic clichés. The search committee was back to square one.
Act III: Beginnings and endings
May 3, 2017 Ted: We initiated a “re-match” with the CLC. Within a couple of weeks, we had three self-referrals and several matches that actually looked good from the CLC. The committee strapped in with new vigor.
May 2017 Kerri: It became more difficult to find people to interview. It was pretty slow-going and there weren’t as many new candidates to pick from. The process could be nitty-gritty with members of the PNC wanting to throw candidates out and not even grant them a phone interview.
Early June 2017 Ryan: Still at my former church, we found out that my wife Debbie was pregnant. I was excited to know that a second child was on the way, excited to be able to tell the congregation and excited to see how my daughter would be as a big sister.
June 20, 2017 Ryan: I met with the personnel committee for my annual review. Together we determined that my gifts and talents no longer lined up with the needs of the church. This was one of the hardest conversations I have ever had. It was especially hard because things were going great for Debbie and we had a little one on the way. There was a lot of uncertainty over what the future holds.
June 20, 2017 Brian: Ryan either texted me or left me a voicemail asking me to call him. At that point it was clear to me that Ryan was being led in a new direction and at that point he was starting to agree. In my new role as a presbytery staff person, I was excited that Ryan was open to a new call as I had two positions in Pittsburgh Presbytery that I thought would be a good for him. I was mindful, though, of the “old boys club” look if Ryan succeeded me at Hampton, but Hampton had spent a year looking at that point and had truly conducted an open search.
June 20, 2017 Debbie Pixton: We had to move. I was devastated. Why God? I was just starting to gain traction here. I was slated for a promotion. And what about the baby on the way? Does no one care that he (and we) just gave another week to supporting the youth here by leading them on a mission trip? What would have been enough?
Late June 2017 Brian: I shared Ryan’s name with the rest of our staff in June and then stepped out of the way.
Early July 2017 Ryan: It was announced to the congregation that I would be leaving in mid-August so they can start the program-year fresh. I started my search officially. It was very strange to say goodbye knowing what was best for the church and for me, but not knowing where we would end up.
Early July 2017 Ryan: I called Ted to let him know I was submitting my name for associate pastor. I was very excited about the possibility to go back to a place that had helped me learn about ministry as a seminary intern.
Early July 2017 Ted: It was a cool, refreshing breeze when I was first contacted by Ryan. “Ted, is Hampton still in search of an associate pastor?” His inquiry was sincere and intoned with weighted interest. “It is,” I said. “We just came off a very disappointing time of playing second fiddle to our top candidate.” “I would like to submit my PIF for consideration. I’m ready to move,” he responded. “Ryan! You’d be a great candidate!” I knew this, because he had served HPC as an intern while in seminary. “We will do this by the book. I don’t want it to smell fishy or have any indication of you being a shoe-in.” Ryan agreed.
Early July 2017 Kerri: We liked Ryan’s application and everyone else already knew him and they liked him and were excited. There was already a certainty that he was at least a good person to bring in.
July 8, 2017 Debbie: We lost the baby. On the third day of our vacation. Did we need more heartache? Why was this happening?
July 8, 2017 Ryan: We lost the baby early in our vacation. We’d just scheduled a possible in-person meet up to interview with the committee. I felt empty inside and didn’t know how to support my wife. I didn’t know how to help our daughter who was two, or how to shelter her from the mixture of emotions that her mommy and daddy were going through. I wondered if the Hampton stuff was too good to be true as I had to cancel the interview. I also didn’t know if they had someone else they were interested in that would work out more smoothly, because it had seemed like the perfect chance to have an in-person conversation as I was traveling nearby for our vacation.
Act IV: Sensing the Spirit
July 19, 2017 Ryan: The first conversation with the APNC was great and it felt like we were tracking on many different fronts. It stirred hope in me that this might be where God was indeed calling me. It also felt a like a whirlwind as we were very much in a sort of fog with everything that was happening — from starting to say goodbye, to losing the baby, to reconnecting to a church that was so important in my journey to ordination.
July 19, 2017 Kerri: During the first conversation, I thought he was a pretty good fit. He knew the Bible in a way that I thought he would be able to relate it to kids. We interviewed a lot of arrogant people who really knew their Bible, but didn’t seem like they would be able to relate it to kids.
July 19, 2017 Ted: We interviewed three candidates. It boiled down to two. After the dust settled, Ryan prevailed and the committee was unanimous to invite him and his family for an on-site interview the weekend of July 31.
Early August 2017 Ryan: The in-person interview was great as I got to put faces to some of the new people. It was a whirlwind sort of a weekend as we also had some time to look at houses for sale. The meeting with presbytery was also a confirmation of sorts that this was where God wanted my family to come. All this was met with excitement after the farewell breakfast when I was offered the job.
Early August 2017 Kerri: When he came here and I got to see him interact with the youth, I felt good. He was really good at interacting with the youth. While he was with us, I could really get the best sense of how he would be if he had the position. The youth also had good feedback after his visit and felt the devotion he did with us was applicable and well said. We could tell that he was also very grounded and able to help both youth and adults learn more.
August 1, 2017 Debbie: The only house in the area that would be a possibility for us was owned by people we know. God, you have a unique sense of humor.
August 4, 2017 Ted: Ryan accepted the terms of call and received the Holy Spirit’s leading to become the next associate pastor of Hampton Presbyterian Church. There was joy and celebration to be heard across the land! The big step was coming. The nominating committee did their job. Now, Ryan needed to prove his mettle before the congregation by preaching a “candidating sermon” and the congregation needed to vote on him.
August 11, 2017 Debbie: Our house sold in a day. Only God could do that. Thank goodness. Who can manage a house on the market with a toddler?
August 2017 Brian: I was 99.9% sure that I had discerned correctly that God was calling me to something new, but for me, the call of Ryan to Hampton was the last “confirming piece.”
September 15-17, 2017 Ryan: This was my candidating weekend. It was great to be back in worship at Hampton Presbyterian Church and being there brought back so many fond memories. When the vote came back positive, it felt like I was part of a movie script. It seemed like something that could only be dreamed up in the mind of a director.
September 17, 2017 Ted: Ryan preached and the congregation voted. What a great joy to welcome him. His official starting date was determined to be October 1 with his first day in the office October 15.
January 2018 Debbie: A positive pregnancy test! God, can we do this? I don’t have a new job yet. This is not my timing.
July 2018 Debbie: I had another interview. But who would hire someone 31 weeks pregnant? Would they be willing to wait for me to bring this beautiful girl into the world and have some time with her?
August 2018 Debbie: I finally have a new job! Starting in November. Thank you, Lord, for not forgetting me, even during all the days it felt like this was best for Ryan and I was left behind. Keep showing me how it is best for all of us. I’ll start in November, so I will be able to have time with the baby.
September 2018 Debbie: Our precious girl has arrived. All three of us are in love with her and grateful for this gift from heaven.
No transition is without stress, uncertainty and unexpected twists and turns. The challenge for people of faith is to remember that the Spirit is at work and God’s promises are sure. PNCs, pastors and congregations may need to remind one another, in the words of Jeremiah 29:11, that the Lord declares, “I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”