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Partnership lifts seminarians’ experience to new heights at Montreat music conference

Presbyterian Engagement Award makes mentoring, learning and fellowship possible

by Darla Carter | Presbyterian News Service

Participants process into worship during the Worship & Music Conference held in June at the Montreat Conference Center in North Carolina. (Contributed photo)

LOUISVILLE — As the year draws to a close, the Presbyterian Association of Musicians and the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s Financial Aid for Service are reflecting on a flourishing partnership that resulted in a half dozen seminarians being sent to the annual Worship and Music Conference in Montreat, North Carolina earlier this year.

The seminarians received an all-expenses-paid trip to the June conference as a result of receiving a Presbyterian Engagement Award from Financial Aid for Service (FAFS). The award, which is not open to the general public, will be available again next year for select students to attend the 50th anniversary of the Worship and Music Conference.

The Presbyterian Engagement Award is “a Presbyterian Mission Agency program for student aid recipients to create opportunities for them to participate in the life of the church through attending events,” including the Worship and Music Conference and Ecumenical Advocacy Days, said FAFS Coordinator Laura Bryan.

“We sent a lot of people (30) to a lot of places this year,” Bryan said.

Financial Aid for Service was especially interested in partnering with PAM because “we were particularly looking for something that would be uniquely appropriate for seminarians and would help equip them as they were seeking their first call, and the PAM conference really fit the bill for us,” she said.

The intergenerational Worship and Music Conference is a full week of worship and music for professionals, musicians, clergy, laypersons, choirs, youth groups and families. Next year’s theme will be “A Great Cloud of Witnesses.”

Some people think of the event as just an organ conference or a choir conference, but it’s actually “for anyone who participates (in) or leads worship,” said Kelly Abraham, PAM’s executive director.

The event, which attracts about 1,400 people over the course of two weeks, provides participants with ideas that they can use to enhance worship at their own churches, whether that be incorporating children into worship or using art, drama or handbells.

In addition to singing and playing music, “you may attend preaching and/or worship reflections seminars to assist with your back-home worship planning,” Abraham said. “It’s all about what happens on Sunday; all aspects of it. Bring your whole worship team, bring your choirs because there’s something for everybody.”

As part of its nearly three-year relationship with PAM, FAFS plans to send about the same number of seminarians to the 2020 conference as it did this year.

The conference can be eye-opening for seminarians in terms of how to plan worship, select hymns and make the whole process collaborative, said Abraham.

The event “models not only good worship and good music, but it models good relationships between musicians and pastors,” she said. “We have to keep modeling that for our churches today. … When those relationships are working well — those are when you see the Spirit at work and good worship happens.”

This year, the opportunity to attend the conference came with some enhancements for the Presbyterian Engagement Award recipients. For example, the seminarians were housed as a group and received mentoring from the Rev. Kendra Buckwalter Smith, director of the Worship Program at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, and the Rev. Dr. David Gambrell, associate for Worship in the PC(USA)’s Office of Theology and Worship.

“PAM rented a house for them,” Bryan said. “They literally lived together for a week … and then came back at different periods of time during the week … to talk about what they were learning.”

The feedback from the seminarians was overwhelmingly positive, Bryan said.

“The students wrote wonderful reflections about how much they value this experience, how much they learn from it, and how excited they were,” she said.

For example, Marilyn Panco from the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary wrote, “Seeing all of the youth and children participating in activities, worship and music was inspiring and gave me renewed hope for our future as God’s people.”

Panco also described participating in art and music classes and being “inspired to be the creative person that God made me and to share that newfound freedom with others.”

The group of seminarians also included Nat Amarquaye, 57, of Maryland, who’s pursuing a Master of Divinity degree online from the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary.

“My experience with PAM will help me most in organizing praise and worship and (understanding) the role that music plays in the church,” said Amarquaye, a native of Ghana who attends Christ the King Presbyterian Church in Berwyn Heights, Maryland.

In his reflection, Amarquaye recalled a time when a “preacher’s interaction and the response of the people were remarkable. … I also observed many changes in the daily liturgy which spiced up the formation. I think sticking to one formation can be very boring, and I believe my home church can benefit from this also.”

In an email, Gambrell said that as a mentor, “I enjoyed experiencing the event through his (Nat’s) eyes, as he reflected on different practices with the sacraments and intergenerational worship. I also learned from him as he shared insights from the context of worship in his home congregation.”

The Presbyterian Engagement Award is limited to people who apply for the Presbyterian Study Grant, which provides up to $6,000 in need-based aid to eligible seminarians. The opportunity to apply for that grant won’t roll around until March.

But “we use Presbyterian engagement as a way to keep students interested in the program throughout the year,” Bryan said. “It’s an enhancement to being an applicant for aid.”

Lauren Scott, one of the six seminarians Financial Aid for Service sent to the conference this year, called the event an incredible opportunity that filled her with an overwhelming sense of gratitude. The participant from Columbia Theological Seminary states in her reflection:

“God of Creativity, you call us with all of our minds, bodies, and souls to worship and love you. Thank you for the worship I experienced at the Music and Worship Conference at Montreat. It was a week that was refreshing, enlivening, and enriching. Thank you for the many minds, bodies, and souls that planned, created, led, and supported this conference. Please remind them that the work, energy, and love that they poured into this event does not go unnoticed.”

If you would like to help Financial Aid for Service continue to fund projects like this for seminarians, consider making a gift to this ECO (Extra Commitment Opportunities): E052102.

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