It was an unusual idea for an outreach ministry.
But in 2016, after getting the go-ahead from his congregation, the Rev. Matt McNelly, MDiv/MACEF ’04, bought a 24-foot pontoon boat, fishing equipment, and lifejackets.
“We were probably the only church to have our own boat,” says McNelly, of the Pullman Presbyterian Church in southeastern Washington State.
And McNelly might well be the first pastor to develop a contemporary ministry around fishing.
His GoFish! program has become an essential part of Pullman Presbyterian, drawing participants from in and outside the congregation and gaining national attention as an innovative way to engage young people beyond the walls of the church.
Every year starting in late June, McNelly and his interns take small groups out on the Snake River for daylong fishing expeditions, occasional overnight trips, and — for the first time last summer — a weeklong fishing camp. Each trip is a spiritual journey in which the casting of lines is complemented by prayers, communal meals, periods of silence, readings, and discussion. This summer, the program continues with modifications to accommodate for COVID-19; capacity on the boat has been reduced, youth and adults wear masks, overnight trips are suspended to avoid groups in confined places, and camp has been replaced with multi-night fishing excursions.
McNelly likens it to a floating monastic community where the young people grow spiritually through hard work, cooperation, and bearing witness to creation — including breathtaking sunsets, star-filled skies, and views of the rolling Palouse Hills.
“I want kids to experience the wildness of the world,” McNelly says. “And to understand that in the midst of that creation, God speaks, and they are able to see his fingerprints.”
Along with a sense of awe and adventure, there’s also some work involved. McNelly suggests that Jesus chose fishermen to be among his first disciples because they are well acquainted with struggle.
“This is not like going to the local trout pond, setting up your lawn chair, and tossing out your bobber and worm,” he says. “You are actively engaged and dealing with the elements. Sometimes you reap a great harvest, but sometimes you fail.”
“We help kids embrace that struggle and talk them through it,” he said.
McNelly has long been something of a spiritual entrepreneur. A native of the lumber town of Longview, Washington, he grew up in an evangelical church and had a natural gift for ministry. He was inspired by his maternal grandparents who, out of economic necessity, shifted from farming to working in paper mills to opening a car dealership.
“I joke with people that I learned a lot about ministry from growing up on the car lot,” he said. “But watching my grandparents work, and seeing the kindness they showed to people from all walks of life had a profound impact on me, and it tapped into some entrepreneurial elements of my own.”
In 2000, armed with a bachelor’s degree in biology from Whitworth University of Spokane and two years of experience as a youth minister at First Presbyterian Church of Bellevue, McNelly and his wife, Amy, enrolled together in Princeton Seminary.
The courses sharpened his theological thinking, and the field work stretched his ministerial skills, McNelly said. He cites two particularly valuable experiences: the Clinical Pastoral Education program in which he worked with patients in a psychiatric setting, and his field education assignment in the Allentown Presbyterian Church in New Jersey, where he was mentored by the Rev. Stephen Heinzel-Nelson.
“Seminary was a time of intense growth,” said McNelly, who earned both a Master of Divinity and a Master of Arts in Christian Education and Formation. “I grew in my theological thinking, had amazing opportunities to develop the self-awareness to provide pastoral care, and had a fantastic mentor pastor in Stephen Heinzel-Nelson.”
When he became pastor at Pullman Presbyterian in 2006, he faced challenges. The congregation was aging, the membership dwindling. He focused on building trust. During a particularly lean time, for example, he voluntarily reduced his hours. It was right about then that he took note of a state-supported fishing program targeting the northern pikeminnow, a predatory species threatening the local salmon population. The program paid anglers $5 to $8 for every pikeminnow caught.
The idea for GoFish! began to take hold. The congregation, which helped offset some of the initial costs, liked the plan. To this day, young people don’t have to pay much to participate, and they often wind up making money from pikeminnow catches.
“Here I was with this kind of crazy idea for combining a fish bounty program with youth ministry, and the congregation supported it,” McNelly said. “And I think that’s because of the trust that had been established over the years.”
He also got a thumbs-up from the Hatch-a-thon, a Shark Tank-style conference held at Princeton Seminary by the group Ministry Incubators, co-founded by Kenda Creasy Dean, the Mary D. Synnott Professor of Youth, Church, and Culture at the seminary, and Mark DeVries, a seminary alumnus.
GoFish! is now entering its fifth year.
And Pullman Presbyterian is experiencing a rebirth of its own.
“In the last few years we have grown much younger and diverse in terms of generations we minister to,” McNelly said. “There’s a feeling of vitality and growth, and GoFish! is part of that mosaic.”