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The Mutuality of Mentorship

by Allie Naskret 

After serving in ministry for more than fifty years, the Reverend Thomas E. Fisher (M.Div., 1958) has come to understand the blessed paradox that is at the heart of service. “Everything in life is about mutuality and reciprocity — you receive as you give, and you give as you receive,” he says. Fisher, who has been a pastor, mentor, and advisor to others for much of his life, says that he has been greatly enriched by these relationships, which have taught him that “learning never ceases.” 

Fisher was born and raised in New Jersey. Beginning at age twelve, he attended Ewing Presbyterian Church, where his father and mother were elders and active members of the congregation. During periods of pastoral vacancy, the church would invite professors from Princeton Theological Seminary to preach. Sitting in the pews of his home church, Fisher listened to the passionate words of Seminary professors such as Norman Victor Hope and Bill Beeners. His faith grew, surrounded by a loving congregation and many beloved mentors.

Fisher later enrolled at Hamilton College, where he studied philosophy and music and attended required chapel services. During his time there, he began to consider attending seminary. Fisher speaks glowingly about the mentors, including faculty members, who influenced him. “[When I think about life] I believe it’s helpful to think about the people who have helped make the ‘desirable me,’” he says.  

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Fisher admits that it took some adjustment transitioning from Hamilton College, a liberal arts school, to a vocationally oriented school like Princeton Seminary. According to Fisher, his field education at Calvary Presbyterian Church in Wyncote, Pennsylvania, and his weekly chats with Pastor Lewis Briner were especially valuable parts of his seminary experience. He also fondly remembers studying ecumenics with President John Mackay, being introduced to “ontological deviation” by Emile Cailliet and to Soren Kierkegaard by Hans Hoffman, and studying under faculty members Howard Tilman Kuist, Lefferts Loetscher, Ed Dowey, and Campbell Wyckoff. Fisher also sang in the Parsons Quartet and the Seminary Choir, then under the direction of David Hugh Jones. He went on many trips with the choir, including a tour one summer through Mexico and Guatemala.

It was at Princeton that Fisher met his wife, Clara Joe Minarik, one of the early female candidates for ordination at PTS. The summer before his senior year, Fisher spent three months hitchhiking and bicycling around Europe; when he returned, he says he “stepped off the boat and met his wife.” Minarik’s first year at Princeton was Fisher’s last year. The two were engaged on Valentine’s Day of that year and were married that summer.

While Minarik had wanted to continue her studies at Princeton, Fisher had accepted a position at Abington Presbyterian Church in suburban Philadelphia, which meant that she would have to commute to school. Minarik met with opposition from the dean of the Seminary, who insisted that she must live on campus Monday through Friday for a “total experience” in order to complete her studies. When she pointed out that many male students commuted to the Seminary for classes, the dean replied that she was “not one of the guys.” As Minarik tells the story, she slammed the door to the dean’s office on her way out. Although she did not end up returning to Princeton, she continued to serve faithfully in the church. She realizes that her experience with the dean cannot be taken out of the context of its time, the spring of 1958, when women were just beginning to be ordained and were somewhat of a threat to their male counterparts.

Fisher and his wife (who celebrated their 53rd wedding anniversary this summer) have served in many churches across the country, and thus have an expansive view of the Presbyterian Church (USA). Fisher has held pastorates in suburban Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Scottsdale, Arizona, San Francisco, California, and Athens, Ohio. Fisher was called back to be the pastor at Calvary Presbyterian in Wyncote some fifteen years after serving there as a PTS student. Calvary Presbyterian was designated a PTS “teaching church,” so as pastor, Fisher supervised several student interns of his own from Princeton Seminary. Several decades later, Fisher would also be invited back to his home church in Ewing to preach at the church’s 300th anniversary celebration.

Fisher has also served the national church in various capacities. He served for eleven years on the National Committee on the Self Development of People and was an elected member of the PCUSA General Assembly Council from 1994 to 2000. During this time, he was also director of the Presbyterian Investment and Loan Program, Inc., liaison to the Association of Presbyterian Colleges and Universities, and member of a task force and advisory committee for the Call/Placement System.

While completing a doctorate at San Francisco Seminary, Fisher began his term on the Committee on the Self-Development of People. According to Fisher, this program represents an “improvement on the traditional concept of charity” in that it doesn’t “do for” folks but “stands by and with them.” The program “listens to the dreams of people who are economically disadvantaged and underprivileged” and helps them bring these dreams to reality. Fisher says that the committee has been willing to take a lot of risks in funding various projects. “One of the most interesting afternoons of [his] life,” took place in a maximum-security prison in New York State, where he met with inmates who were requesting money to buy computer hardware and software to study penal reform. The committee listened to these inmates’ dreams and responded by investing in their unusual project.

In his retirement, Fisher has continued to invest in others’ dreams. Fisher and his wife currently live in Amherst, Massachusetts, where Fisher serves as adjunct religious advisor at Amherst and Smith Colleges and a member of the University of Massachusetts Religious Affairs Committee. Fisher continues to be a mentor to young people, graciously opening his heart and home to students, many of whom return to visit him and his wife years after graduating. Fisher says that he has always told parishioners and students that he is “available to talk with anybody, about anything, (most) anytime.” He humbly acknowledges that he “learns together” with those whom he mentors. “I don’t know that I have this profound wisdom to share…but I’ve been around a long time,” he jokes.

Eric Osborne (M.Div., 2007) is one of many PTS students who have been nurtured into ministry by Tom Fisher. Osborne, a graduate of Amherst College who also studied at Stanford Law School, is currently interning with a federal judge and has been endorsed as a candidate for ministry by Idlewild Presbyterian Church in Memphis, Tennessee. Osborne says, “The Rev. Fisher was a great support to me during my time at Amherst, and he played a key role in mentoring me and leading me to seminary. He is a deep intellectual, a generous and kind man, and one who seems practically always willing and able to find time for students.”

When asked to offer advice to aspiring pastors, Fisher replied, “Keep reading, thinking, being open to new possibilities…God is always on the side of the oppressed, and always on the horizons, doing things in this world we call ours.” And as we concluded our interview, Fisher warmly extended an invitation to his home: “If you ever find yourself in Amherst, Massachusetts…”