Ryan Pearce grew up in nondenominational evangelical congregations on the West Coast. His field education took him out of his comfort zone into a very traditional Presbyterian church in a small town.
It was a journey Pearce had waited for since arriving at Princeton Theological Seminary. The MDiv student went off to Northern Ireland in August 2018 for a year of field education.
“I never had the chance to do study abroad in college,” Pearce says. “And because my dad’s side of the family is Irish, I grew up hearing about Ireland as this special place.”
But Pearce, 26, a gregarious Bay Area native who loves hanging out with friends in coffee shops, had little idea of the challenges he would encounter — or how much he would grow — when he left Princeton for the sleepy seaside village of Groomsport.
He suddenly found himself as assistant minister at the Groomsport Presbyterian Church, founded in 1841, where he encountered a small congregation of mostly elderly members who were resolutely traditional in worship style and not shy about expressing discontent. One woman admonished Pearce for bringing a cup of coffee into the pulpit. Others told him they loathed the modern praise-and-worship music Pearce grew up listening to in West Coast evangelical churches. They called it “happy clappy.”
“My formative years were in West Coast, nondenominational church culture, and I never really experienced a traditional Presbyterian church,” Pearce says. “I made some mistakes. I said ‘I’m sorry’ a lot.”
Pearce’s year at Groomsport now seems like a logical step in a journey in which he frequently feels pulled by God to new challenges.
He set out to become a doctor, majoring in neuroscience, but gradually lost interest in science. His continuing desire to help and heal people led him to ministry and The Inn, a well-regarded campus ministry program at the University of Washington. When an admissions officer from Princeton Seminary visited one day, he decided it was time to venture to the East Coast.
“I had never done academic theology and really wanted to spend three years being shaped, molded, and challenged,” he says. “It was one of the best decisions I have ever made. Princeton does a great job of setting you up with the theoretical and the practical. I feel I now have the framework and knowledge to sit down and do the deep work I need to do.”
One of the key lessons he has learned at Princeton Seminary is that preaching should always “fit the context” of people’s lives.
At Groomsport, Pearce noticed congregants were anxious about the future of their church in a graying community where there was no influx of young parents.
So, in one of his last sermons, “A Crisis of Hope,” he drew from Paul’s Letters to validate their fears while seeking to allay any anxiety that the church had somehow failed in its mission. The congregation was touched, with many members thanking him afterward.
Now in his final year at Princeton, his goal is to work toward becoming a pastor.
“Part of the reason for going to Groomsport was to see if being a pastor was what I was called to do, and if it was what I wanted to do,” he says. He found it was.
“It’s hard. It’s exhausting. It’s occasionally thankless. And I love it.”