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Christmas Joy

Finding the right road through times of financial hardship

December 7, 2021 by Emily Enders Odom

Like most people, the Rev. Meg Shoeman subscribed to the myth that clergy are superhuman.

“People tend to think if you’re in ministry in some capacity that you’re probably fine and you don’t have any needs,” said Shoeman, “but we’re all human and needs do arise.”

Just as they did for her.

Shoeman, who earned her M.Div. from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in 2007, candidly confessed that hers has been a “very long journey” since graduating and she isn’t anywhere close to where she thought she would be at this point in her life.

Unlike many of her classmates who sought ordination right after graduation, Shoeman — because she came out as gay in the years before the PC(USA)’s constitutional prohibition of gay and lesbian ordination was removed — left the ordination process and chose another path.

“After graduation, I started working at an animal shelter, which I thought would be temporary, but I ended up being there a lot longer,” she said. “I remember walking down the steps of the shelter one day and having this fleeting thought that church is a thing of my past. It was crushing.”

But her fleeting thought was just that.

Providentially finding a red shirt hanging in her closet just ahead of Pentecost Sunday that year, Shoeman put it on and went to church. Not long afterward, she reentered the ordination process under care of Market Square Presbyterian Church in her hometown of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Because she soon learned that the Committee on Preparation for Ministry in the Presbytery of Carlisle now required that all ministry candidates complete a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education, she interned at Penn State Health’s Hershey Medical Center. Liking her internship so well, Shoeman ended up staying on to complete a yearlong residency there before accepting a full-time call at Children’s [Hospital] of Alabama in Birmingham, to which she was ordained on June 3, 2018.

Although the position was a great fit, the culture wasn’t. A little more than a year later, Shoeman decided to return to Harrisburg — only she did so without a plan.

“I came back with the idea of updating my PIF [Personal Information Form] and seeking a call,” she said, “but it didn’t happen. I thought I would give myself maybe six months or a year, and then COVID happened. Just to make some money, I was working on a PRN [as needed] basis as a chaplain at Hershey Medical Center, part-time at a coffee shop and also in a temporary pastoral position at the Market Square Church. When COVID shut the coffee shop down and I didn’t have my normal source of income, that’s when I knew I really needed some financial help.”

The Rev. Meg Shoeman, above, appears with the Rev. Cheryl Galan, interim executive presbyter for the Presbytery of Carlisle. (Screenshot)

Fortunately, the Rev. Cheryl Galan, interim executive presbyter for the Presbytery of Carlisle, was standing by with two timely recommendations.

“Because Cheryl knew that I’d been seeking a call and that I was really in need of purposeful work, she suggested that I apply for the position of temporary part-time stated clerk for the presbytery,” said Shoeman. “And when I told her that I didn’t think I was qualified, she said, ‘You’ll learn.’”

Galan’s second suggestion was similarly a lifesaver.

“When I learned that Meg was struggling financially, I thought immediately of the Assistance Program of the Board of Pensions,” said Galan. “We had recently enrolled her in ‘Minister’s Choice’ [through the Board of Pensions], as she had begun a part-time position as temporary stated clerk with the Presbytery of Carlisle. And I knew we had some emergency funds available in the presbytery to match a grant provided by the Board of Pensions.”

The Emergency Grant that Shoeman ultimately received was made possible, in part, by the PC(USA)’s annual Christmas Joy Offering, a cherished Presbyterian tradition since the 1930s, which distributes gifts equally to the Assistance Program of the Board of Pensions and to Presbyterian-related schools and colleges equipping communities of color. The Assistance Program provides need-based grants to help active and retired plan members and their families.

The Rev. Meg Shoeman poses with her late dog, Torrance. (Contributed photo)

“I could not imagine the stress Meg was under,” added Galan. “Her circumstances made her an ideal candidate for an Emergency Assistance Grant. I assured her that these funds are available for situations like hers and we worked together on the application.”

Galan described the application process as straightforward, with the news of the grant’s approval arriving quickly.

“Rev. Shoeman’s scenario reflects what is best about our Emergency Grant program, which is structured to be a shared financial contribution from the employing organizations throughout the PC(USA) and the Board of Pensions’ Assistance Fund,” said Lucas McCool, Assistance Program operations manager. “Rev. Shoeman’s grant was shared equally by the Presbytery of Carlisle. It speaks to the ever-present and strong relationships that remain throughout our community, where support is expressed not only from those local to the member in need, but also the larger Church.”

The Board’s Emergency Assistance Program is available to plan members who experience a period of hardship — such as a significant decrease in work due to the pandemic — or a crisis event.

“Whether it’s a special circumstance or relief for those impacted by a natural disaster or supplementing incomes for retired members to ensure their dignity, the Board is here for those who serve,” said Ruth Adams, director of the Assistance Program.

Now that the pressure on Shoeman to meet her basic living expenses has been alleviated, she intends to focus on discerning her next call, perhaps a full-time chaplaincy staff position in a hospital.

“My experience with the Assistance Program has changed my understanding of who needs help,” she said, “but I’ve needed help. I think the beauty breaks through in the fact that there was someone there to say, ‘Hey, did you know that there’s help?’ That someone was Cheryl. She paid attention and reached out to me, even when I wasn’t explicitly stating my needs. I think that the goodness is that people in the Church do care about each other and notice and respond to each other’s needs.”

Throughout her journey, Shoeman said that in addition to Galan’s and her presbytery’s active support and encouragement, a prayer by Thomas Merton has also helped to keep her centered. In the well-known “Merton Prayer,” the American theologian and mystic confessed to having no idea where he was going, but knew that God would lead him by the right road.

Thanks in large part, to the Christmas Joy Offering, Shoeman believes she is now on that road.

“I am grateful for the generosity of Presbyterians, whose Christmas Joy offerings make it possible to provide support and sustenance to those like Meg, whom God has called,” Galan said. “Such gifts bring essential peace of mind and demonstrate our gratitude for God’s gift in the Christ child.”

Give to the Christmas Joy Offering to help the Assistance Program of the Board of Pensions support our leaders: past, present and future.

This was published for Presbyterian News Service on December 7, 2021.

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