‘Surprised by joy’

Financial Aid for Service’s student loan assistance program became a saving grace for a pastor and her late husband

by Paul Seebeck | Presbyterian News Service

the Rev. Stacy Smith (Photo by Chris Desmond)

LOUISVILLE — The Rev. Stacy Smith says she has been “surprised by joy” as she looks back at the last five years of her life.

In 2015, her husband Kevin was diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor. As he began chemotherapy, Smith was working at a faith-based advocacy organization. She was also taking on more student debt, finishing a doctoral degree at Vanderbilt University. Plus, they were doing construction on their home.

“It was a nightmare,” she said.

By 2017, Kevin had to quit working, and Smith had a fulltime job at a health care system. But she needed an additional part-job to help pay their bills, which included a $500-per-month payment on her student loans. She’d done some pulpit supply and a three-month stint as an interim pastor, but hadn’t really served a church, including preaching every Sunday, in more than 10 years.

But then she interviewed at Buntyn Presbyterian Church in Memphis, Tennessee, a church looking for a part-time pastor. As she began her service there, Smith found about the student loan assistance programs offered through Presbyterian Mission Agency’s  Financial Aid for Service.

Through the loan forgiveness for pastors, she discovered that she could  receive up to $15,000 over the span of span of a four-and- half-year period by serving a PC(USA) congregation or worshiping community of no more than 150 members.

Happier times (from left): Stacy Smith, Kevin and his three children, Spencer,  Molly and Kevin. (Photo by Jamie Harmon)

In 2019, doctors confirmed that Kevin’s cancerous tumor had come back and was more aggressive. As he and Stacy flew around the country consulting with renowned cancer centers in Houston, Boston, Chicago and Durham, North Carolina, expenses were mounting.

And then Stacy Smith received a big surprise.

Financial Aid for Service had changed the rules to help make its loan assistance program even more accessible for pastors serving smaller PC(USA) congregations and worshiping communities. Now people like Smith, who is serving a 75-member congregation, could receive up to $25,000 in loan assistance over five years. Even better, FAFS made it retroactive, so her student loan provider received $5,000 in April and another $5,000 in October. Plus, she could continue receiving this benefit for three more years.

“They’ve been so fantastic,” she said. “And the only thing they asked of me was to serve a small congregation of Christian believers, who were life-giving to me even as my husband was dying.” The retroactive change gave Smith added incentive to continue to serve Buntyn Presbyterian Church. The church had been so flexible and wonderful to her and her husband, Smith said, that she didn’t feel the need to go anywhere else.

Even though Kevin considered himself an atheist, he loved the people in the church — and they loved him back, Smith said. He would cook at church potlucks and help out with maintenance issues. Occasionally he would attend worship to sit in the balcony and run sound.

“Everyone was embraced, even with all the craziness going on,” Smith said.  “They’ve been a blessing to me and a blessing to my husband, and I think they would say I’ve been a blessing to them.”

By fall of 2019 Kevin was still feeling pretty good.  But as they were consulting with a palliative care physician, Smith said she’ll never forget what he said: “Get the popcorn now, because pretty soon you’ll have to come back and watch the movie.”

She and Kevin did some final things together. They saw the sights of Boston, found his late father’s decommissioned aircraft carrier in Philadelphia, went sailing off Martha’s Vineyard, and had the meal of a lifetime in New York City. And then they went down to Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia — a place that Kevin, who was a blacksmith, had always loved.

Stacy with Kevin at his celebration of life service in January 2020. (Photo by Laryn Bakker)

Then in January 2020, on Martin King Luther Jr. Sunday, they held a celebration of his life, because Kevin had wanted to attend his own funeral. Smith had never presided at a service of celebration and blessing for a person still alive, but she received help from her PC(USA) colleagues. And the 150 people who attended seemed to enjoy the dinner at a museum on the banks of the Mississippi River — even though it felt a little strange.  And then eight weeks later, COVID-19 hit.

So when Kevin died in May, “everything was sort of settled,” she said, “because of what we’d done in January.”

Now that the Board of Pensions of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)  has added the Minister’s Choice option that goes into effect in 2021, Smith said that Buntyn Presbyterian Church will pay less in pension dues while she will receive additional benefits. This includes the ability to apply for additional student debt assistance, this time through the Board of Pensions.  If all goes well, she expects to pay off her student loans by 2022.

Calling it a “Holy Spirit thing,” Smith said serving the Buntyn congregation has been one of the most surprising and positive experiences of her life.

“The PC(USA) had my back as my husband was dying,” she said. “The connectional church was a saving grace for us.”

To find out more about Student Loan Assistance programs available through Financial Aid for Service, click here.

Watch the Rev. Stacy Smith express her gratitude for FAFS’s student loan assistance program here.  

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