The Rev. Gary Ferner is the first to admit that there is nothing uniquely extraordinary about Fairmount Community Church UCC. The Syracuse, N.Y.-based church doesn't have a large membership, it doesn't have a whole lot of money, and it's not based in a progressive metropolis. But what the church does have that others don't is a spirit that calls an unusual number of members to serve the church in an official capacity.
"We are just a basic, average Central New York church, but someone has fed these folks," said Ferner. "Despite our normal conflicts with our open and affirming stance, building issues, money issues, the fact that we keep sending people into authorized ministry is a real blessing."
Fairmont UCC has about 200 members, 60 who attend worship regularly. But in the past 20 years, five individuals have been ordained or licensed, with more on the verge of doing so. While the number may not seem extraordinarily high, Ferner notes that in his nearly 20-year career as a pastor at multiple UCC churches, he previously had never had a member become authorized. Ferner credits much of this to the leadership of the Rev. P.V. George, who served Fairmount from the 1960s until the 1990s and is the current pastor emeritus. George, who came to the United States from India to serve in ministry, set a tone that has been carried on 20 years later.
"Our congregation thinks of him as the ideal minister," Ferner said. "He has amazing humility – people are instantly attracted to the sincerity of his message."
The Fairmount members who have been licensed or authorized were at all different stages of life. One woman was in her 50s and had recently lost her job as an insurance agent. Another is 70, and will be 72 before she's officially ordained. George's daughter – the leader of this trend – was ordained back in 1993 at a young age to follow in her father's footsteps. The Rev. Joe A. Colon, Jr., a retired NYPD homicide detective, was ordained in 2012, and has since become a chaplain at two hospitals in the Syracuse area. While he credits Ferner and George for their unconditional support and guidance, he also credits the mysterious power of the Holy Spirit for leading him to Fairmount.
While in seminary at Colgate Rochester (N.Y.) Crozer Divinity School, Colon "felt in his heart" that he needed to become part of a UCC church. One Sunday while trying to find a different UCC, Colon took a few wrong turns and instead wound up at Fairmount, where UCC General Minister and President, the Rev. Geoffrey A. Black, was preaching a guest sermon. Unsure of exactly where he had ended up or who Black was, Colon sat in the back of the church until the end of the service, when Black referred him to Ferner and the rest was history.
"The Holy Spirit was my GPS," Colon said. "Fairmount is a very loving church and the people are very interested in the discernment process. Gary (Ferner) played a major role as a mentor, and P.V. (George) was the cherry on top of the cake, there to help you whatever your needs are. It's been a blessing ever since."
Like many others, Colon's experience at Fairmount has helped him find his life's meaning. Had he stumbled upon any other church, he believes things may not have ended up the same way.
"Any church at any time has someone who is gifted at ministry," Ferner said. "The question is, are they encouraging this gift or not? Fairmount just seems to do this well. It happened before I got here, it's happening while I'm here, and I'm confident it will happen when I'm gone."