By Michael Cooper-White for The Gettysburg Times
March 28, 2019
Rev. Terrence McCarthy, right, is providing expanded pastoral attention for Gettysburg’s United Lutheran Seminary students during an experimental trial period. In the seminary’s Church of the Abiding Presence, McCarthy appears with senior seminarian Ashlin Marchese who awaits learning where her first parish call will emerge.
Springtime is an especially stressful season on a seminary campus. Recognizing the strains seminarians undergo this time of year, leaders of United Lutheran Seminary (ULS) are experimenting with an added measure of pastoral support for students during the hectic final weeks of this academic year.
Beyond the usual final papers and exams common on all graduate school campuses, seminarians at every stage of their careers face imminent major transitions and intense plunges into “real life” situations.
Many first-year seminarians will spend the upcoming summer in chaplaincy settings such as emergency rooms or mental health crisis centers. Those mid-career are approaching year-long internships in parishes that will be the proving grounds in which to apply all their book learning. And seniors anxiously await discovering where they will begin their first full-time calls.
While seminaries always have an abundance of clergy who serve as faculty or in administrative posts, the ULS president and dean wanted to place experienced pastors on both the Gettysburg and Philadelphia campuses whose singular focus will be spiritual care for students.
Rev. Dr. Jayakiran Sebastian, ULS dean, explained the seminary’s purpose for a trial run with the program.
“This role involves helping students learn to be advocates for themselves, provide bible study and meditation opportunities, and offer pastoral care and brief counseling as needed,” Sebastian said.
The two clergy selected to fulfill roles in the trial program will also be available to ULS students involved in its innovative “distributed learning” (DL) program, Sebastian said. The far-flung DL community is constituted by students spread around the country who take courses online and visit one of the campuses for short-term intensive classes of a week or two. The two pastors will attend to the DL students by telephone, email or virtual ZOOM sessions via computer.
At the Philadelphia campus, Rev. Gwendolyn King will be ministering part-time for the remainder of the spring semester. She brings to the post extensive experience as a U.S. Air Force chaplain and campus pastor at Dartmouth College.
In Gettysburg, Rev. Terrence “Terry” McCarthy will fill a similar pastoral role three days per week. A 2009 graduate of the seminary, McCarthy knows about stress and challenges.
Three years ago, he was watching his son’s ballgame in Littlestown when he felt a tingling in his arm and then lost track of what was happening in the game. A massive stroke landed him in hospitals and skilled nursing facilities for the next several months.
Unable to continue serving his beloved parish in Hanover, McCarthy went on medical disability.
“My greatest fear,” he said, “was that I would lose my profession that I waited most of my life to pursue.”
McCarthy was among those often called “second-career students” who enrolled in seminary after years at his first profession as an occupational therapist.
When the seminary began to imagine expanding its pastoral care for students, McCarthy and King were recommended by their bishops. Each now spends several hours per week on campus and online offering a listening ear for seminarians who want to share their joys and challenges.
McCarthy has a special passion for helping seminarians see the vital role they can play in society today.
“I see my role as helping students realize they have a theological voice, which I didn’t recognize until I was several years into ministry,” he said.
“I want to help students understand they have value and to affirm each person’s journey no matter what their background, faith tradition or gender identity,” he said. “I’m going to begin by listening to students’ stories.”
Because of McCarthy’s personal health crisis, he is keenly aware of the fragility of life, which he describes as giving him a greater sense of urgency, boldness and gratitude.
“Time is precious,” McCarthy said.
He recognizes and sees the need “to help others feel centered and seize their opportunities to exercise their theological voices.”
McCarthy also says his confrontation with a life-threatening stroke forced him to clarify his personal priorities. During the months he was unable to hold a ministry post, he participated in demonstrations advocating for the poor, working for election reform, and in other ways calling for greater social justice.
Above all, he said, it’s important “to put people first and give more people a voice.”