LIMA — During her senior year in high school, Emily Hedrick experienced a crisis of faith.
This is not, of course, unusual. During our teenage years many of us start asking questions. Big questions. Questions about the meaning of life and the existence of God, questions about the challenges we will be expected to face on the long journey through adulthood. Hedrick struggled with these questions through her early years at Goshen College in Goshen, Indiana, and ultimately, after “killing God,” as she describes it, she made “a conscious decision to try and cognitively reconstruct [her] own faith situation to be something healthier.”
This decision led Hedrick back to the Mennonite faith of her youth.
In addition to finding a path back to God in Goshen, Hedrick also developed a fondness for the American Midwest. So after the 25-year-old Pennsylvania native finished her graduate work at the Wake Forest University School of Divinity, walking away with a Master’s of Divinity degree and a calling to the ministry, she decided that she wanted to return to the Midwest.
“I come from a very rich suburban area of Philadelphia,” Hedrick said. “I knew a little bit about the Midwest and how it’s different. And one of the things that appealed to me about the Midwest is that it is different than what I grew up in. So when I was looking for places to pastor at the end of my divinity school career, I decided that I would take a look at the Midwest. I specifically wanted to be [there] and I was glad there was a place available.”
That place was Lima Mennonite Church, an 80-member congregation that was seeking to replace the Rev. David Elkins, who had served the congregation for seven years before leaving to pastor Central Mennonite Church in Archbold.
After doing a number of long-distance interviews, Hedrick came to Lima for the first time over the Thanksgiving weekend, 2015. And meeting the members of the congregation in person confirmed the favorable impressions she had formed during her initial conversations with members of the search committee.
“The interview [process] kind of goes both ways,” she said. “I was trying to figure out if the church would be a good fit for me, with them trying to figure out if I would be a good fit for them. In my interactions with them I saw how they cared for each other. The questions that they asked and the way that they described the church really did appeal to me. Particularly what came through was that they were able to hold a variety of theological opinions in their congregation and still see fit to come together and worship God together and that wasn’t going to get in the way.”
The job was offered and Hedrick accepted, assuming her duties as pastor this past June.
She said that the advice her instructors gave her in divinity school — that she wouldn’t know everything she needed to know until she actually took charge of a congregation — has served her well since moving to Lima.
“I am thankful that they made that clear,” she said. “But I think that maybe what’s taken me most off guard has been the fact that there actually is a church that’s willing to have a 25-year-old woman as their only pastor and navigating what that means, because there aren’t many pastors of that description around. It did not occur to me until I started how strange that is. In some ways it feels like new territory for everyone.”
Hedrick is settling in to a new town as well, and she says that she is happy now to call Lima home. Lima, she says, has a certain charm that appeals to her.
“You can tell that there were these beautiful buildings that had been really loved at one point. And it’s interesting to drive around and wonder about the stories. And also to think about, ‘Well, is there a future here?’ Maybe there’s also a story yet to be told. Both sides of it, both the past and the future.”
Focusing for now on the present, Hedrick notes that the Mennonite tradition is very much focused on service and what it means to follow in the way of Jesus, to make it a lifestyle rather than just a belief system. So she intends to build on her own narrative by getting to know her new community better, and by listening to the members of her congregation who are already engaged in volunteer work.
This is, after all, the role of the pastor. And that is why Hedrick chose to go into the ministry rather than pursue an academic career.
“I love academics and have a lot of fun reading and doing the intellectual things,” she said. “But at a certain point it comes down to practicalities, meaning I want the things that I study to have meaning in people’s lives, So, to me, there’s something really exciting about being able to bring what I’ve learned to others. That can be done in the academy in some ways, but I think I’m much more attracted to how that can happen in the local church.”
Reach Dayton Fandray at firstname.lastname@example.org.