Mariana Thomas ’19 MDiv shares reflections on her international field education experience at Victory Presbyterian Church in Accra, Ghana, in the summer of 2017. Thomas traveled to Ghana hoping her time there would confirm her call to ministry. She says that her experiences in Ghana broadened her understanding of the church and of God’s work in the world.
Q: What drew you to Ghana and to Victory Presbyterian Church?
A: I studied abroad in South Africa in 2015 and it had a huge impact on me, so I knew that I wanted to go abroad again through international field education. The field education office offered me the opportunity to either return to South Africa or go to Ghana. After some discernment, I decided to go to Ghana because I wanted to push myself outside my comfort zone and go somewhere different.
Q: How did your experiences in Ghana help discern your call?
A: I traveled to Accra, Ghana, for the summer of 2017 to serve at Victory Presbyterian Church, a large district church with about 3,000 members, with the intention of solidifying my call to pastoral ministry and growing more confident in myself and in my vocational call. And I can say that my experiences in Ghana definitely did that. I am confident that God is equipping and forming me every day for the pastoral ministry to which I am called.
One particular day stands out as a moment when my call became clear. After communion Sundays, the ministers at Victory administer communion to those who are sick, shut in, or too elderly to travel to church. The first time I went with them, I was not in the mood to be engaging with people at all. It was early in the morning, I wasn’t feeling well, and it was raining. But as the day progressed, my heart opened and I began to connect with people. By the time we finished, I realized that I could have conducted home visits the entire day. I felt restored and rejuvenated, and I discovered that this is what I love to do: to be with the people of God in their high moments and their low moments, to experience life with God’s people. That’s when I fully accepted my call to ministry.
My time in Ghana really affirmed and confirmed my call to be a pastor. I was struggling with that before I left, but now I know that pastoral ministry is what God is calling me to do.
Q: What was the most rewarding part of your experience?
A: Being a witness to what God is doing on the other side of the world. I’ve never struggled to articulate how I feel, but as I was reflecting on my experience when I returned home, I didn’t have the words to express my awe and amazement at what God is doing in the world. It is a true honor and privilege to witness that.
Q: What was an unexpected challenge you faced, and how did you confront it?
A: Shortly after I arrived at Victory, a young girl passed away, and we went to do the home visit to comfort the family. I had never done that before, and it was so emotional for me. I broke down weeping as I thought about her, her friends, and her family. I felt totally inadequate and unprepared to comfort the family. Then I realized that THIS is ministry: to enter the brokenness of God’s people. That was really difficult to do, but it was a major learning experience.
Q: Can you walk us through a typical day at Victory?
A: One of the things I loved about Victory was that there was no such thing as a typical day. I went to the church every morning and would either work with the evangelism coordinator (my supervisor) or the second minister—the church has three ministers. This took me to a variety of places. Sometimes I would be in the office with the second minister all day, especially during the week leading up to communion, or I would go with her to visit and pray with a church member who was sick. Other times, I would work with the evangelism coordinator in the mission field. My duties varied in the field; I preached at a local high school and on the radio as part of a morning broadcast, and I joined in specific evangelism efforts such as evening services, the distribution of medical supplies, sports events that engaged the youth in the community, and individual door-to-door interactions that were geared toward engaging families or individuals from the local communities.
There was always something happening, and I was given so much freedom to do and see whatever I wanted. I went to funerals, weddings, and naming ceremonies, participated in junior youth church, and preached. There was nothing that I couldn’t do or explore (short of administering sacraments, of course). There was no pressure to do or not do certain things; rather, the pastoral staff was there to support and guide me as I discerned my path. In that free and safe space, I was really able to explore and accept my call to ministry.
Q: How did PTS prepare you for your field education experience?
A: Speech Communication in Ministry was very helpful. My professor was Dr. Yvette Joy Harris-Smith, and she recognized in me my gifts as a preacher. The tools she gave me in her class—especially the performative aspects of a sermon and the intentionality of reading Scripture in a way that brings it to life—really helped me to preach a powerful sermon while I was there.
Q: How has field education enriched your experience at PTS?
A: My time in Ghana really affirmed and confirmed my call to be a pastor. I was struggling with that before I left, but now I know that pastoral ministry is what God is calling me to do. Now that I have some experience in ministry, I know what it takes to really do it well.
Field education also rearranged my trajectory a bit. As I search for a denomination and prepare for ordination, it has definitely impacted the courses I want to take (I want to focus more on practical theology) and has given me direction as I navigate seminary to really be as effective as possible after graduation.