by Heather Roote Faller
When Matthew Nickel went to his student mailbox at Princeton Seminary in the fall of 2006, he found a note: “We prayed for you today,” it said, followed by dozens of signatures of the members of Grosse Pointe Memorial Church near Detroit, Michigan, Nickel’s home church. “There’s nothing that makes you feel like you might actually be doing the right thing than to know people are praying for you,” Nickel said. He returned to the Detroit Presbytery after graduation in May 2009 to serve as associate pastor and Lilly intern at the First Presbyterian Church of Ann Arbor. “A call doesn’t come out of thin air, a call comes out of nurture, and the churches that nurture us into considering a call are the communities we go back to serve. I wouldn’t have been able to do this if the church hadn’t supported me spiritually, emotionally, and financially,” he said.
Nickel began attending Grosse Pointe Memorial Church, where Peter J.M. Henry (PTS M.Div., 1996; Th.M., 2001; Ph.D., 2009) is currently pastor, when he was in high school. A small church plant nurtured him in college, “embodying Christ,” he said, at a time when, as a student, he “didn’t have much money, needed rides, needed help finding things; people were generous.” When Nickel came back to Michigan after graduating from college, he volunteered to work with youth at Grosse Pointe. But it was when he was asked to join the church’s Pastor Nominating Committee that his path became clear to him.
“One of the greatest blessings I’ve received was to be on the PNC and see how different every pastor is in his or her call, and that told me that God calls a lot of different people,” Nickel said. It was very hard for him to leave the small business he and his father had started together, but when in his devotions he read in the Gospel of Matthew how James and John dropped their nets and left their father Zebedee’s fishing business, Nickel said he realized that “if God ignites a spark in you to take a different path, then you listen.”
Nickel said he chose Princeton because when he came to campus he saw community. “The practice of theology and scripture happens together, as a community; we don’t live our faith alone, so we shouldn’t study it alone, either,” he said. “The great thing about Princeton that was unique is that the community holds two things in tension that are essential to being a pastor. One was a strong commitment of both students and faculty to academics—but never at the expense of ministry and developing who we are as leaders in the church.” That community was also evident in worship in Miller Chapel, he said. “I’m going to miss worshipping together in chapel every day.”
At the First Presbyterian Church of Ann Arbor, Nickel will be ordained and serve as an associate pastor, and be part of the Lilly Pastoral Residency Program, a two-year program that helps new pastors in their first call to develop healthy professional patterns and build healthy relationships, so they can sustain ministry for the long term. Nickel plans to focus on church administration, as well as preaching and pastoral care. “It’s an exciting church because it has a lot of local ministries that work with the pastoral needs of the community,” he said. The church has about 2,000 members, and many of its pastors are PTS alumni/ae, including Melissa Anne Rogers (M.Div., 1994) and Budge Gere (M.Div., 1970; D.Min., 1982). Nickel looks forward to learning from them. “The kinds of things I learn from First Presbyterian could be things I take with me to a smaller congregation that is looking to focus its ministries on needs in the community in new and creative ways,” he said.
When fellow students asked him, Why Michigan? Nickel smiled. “I was seeking a place to go into ministry that needs ministry. I know with the economic situation, Michigan may not be an attractive place to go…. In reality as pastors we’re not called to the glamorous places, which is not to say there isn’t something exciting about being called to a community that needs leadership and nurture. Michigan needs…people to partner with it, and is a place to teach and lead and love and grow and be community together.”
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