Pastor Alex Fischer may have big shoes to fill, but he is excited to see if he can fill them with his Vans. Yes, Vans. At 27-years-old, Fischer is bringing a fresh perspective to Hillsborough Presbyterian, a church that has been holding services since the early 19th century.
Fischer sat down with the News of Orange to talk about how he matches up with the church’s mission, how he hopes to lead it, and how he hopes to amplify its role in the community through God.
Where are you coming from? My wife and I are coming from Richmond, Va. I was serving at a church there called Second Presbyterian Church. Not too dissimilar from Hillsborough. It’s also downtown and has a wide history that reaches back into the earlier part of the 19th century. That was my first call out of seminary. It was a two-year residency where along with serving at the church, I served the VCU campus community and was a campus pastor.
What brought you to Hillsborough? Seeking the next step in my wife’s and my journey. For one thing, the residency was a limited engagement. For another thing, we did feel like it was time to try something new and do the next thing. So, in the Presbyterian church, the way you look for a new church I describe as being a lot like online dating: you have a profile, the church has a profile. They have a committee that represents the church, so you talk with the committees at various places. You feel out and see what’s going to best fit. From the start I felt like Hillsborough was the place I wanted to come. Geographically it’s where we wanted to be. I’m from North Carolina, my wife’s from Maryland. We met in school at Appalachian State University, so it feels like home to her. It would be close to friends and family. As far as the church goes, what they conveyed in their profile and what the committee conveyed to me was they were at a point where they’re starting to ask really great questions about who they are and what their place is in the community of Hillsborough, and how they can be even more faithful and authentic to who they are as God’s people and being called to serve out in the community. So, that excites me. Of course, COVID came along and threw a wrench in a lot of things, but we’re still moving forward. I’m still here. It’s been great.
What do you believe has brought Hills-borough Presbyterian Church to the point of wanting to further define its place in the community? First, when the previous pastor retired — he was here for quite some time, I believe 15 years — part of responsibilities for a church is when it starts to look for a new pastor is to do a mission study. Essentially, it’s taking stock of where we’re at, what’s been our history, what are we currently feeling and experiencing and what are we envisioning? They did this mission study and that’s another thing that impressed me about this church. Not all churches do that, even though they should. The mission study was so in-depth and thorough with the demographics of the community needs and speaking with various community leaders and different folks in the community about their hopes and desires and struggles and fears. Through those questions they brought their own questions about where do we fit in all of this? Do we see ourselves fitting into these needs, or needs that aren’t being made that we notice? It was the mission study that really was the catalyst to asking those questions.
How long of a process was it? The overall process from when the previous pastor retired to my beginning was 2 1/2 years. It was actually a pretty long time. In terms of the mission study, that was the first major piece that happened before they even started the search process. I think, it was definitely months. It might have been up to a year for all these interviews, all these gatherings with church members to hear feedback, to give information. It took some time.
Were you looking at any other churches for a position? Theoretically, yes. In actuality, Hillsborough was my first and top choice. I sent my stuff to them and it just moved along and kept moving along. I never talked with any other church.
How old are you? I just turned 27.
How have you been received at the church? The first week has been great. Everyone’s been so kind and welcoming. I’ve received so many cards in the mail, meals delivered to our door, which is always good. One of my favorite things about church is gathering around the table. That thing, it’s so practical, but it also speaks volumes about what community is and what community can be. This past weekend was my first Sunday in the pulpit. What we’re doing right now is streaming live on YouTube every Sunday at 11 a.m. It went great. You know, I’ve been used to the streaming thing for a few months now from my previous church. So that felt natural. Of course, coming into a new community and learning its rhythm and the way they do things can be a challenge, but I think overall we think it went well. It was good.
Were you nervous? Yeah, a little bit. I definitely have a sense that, no matter how many times I get in the pulpit, I’ll have the butterflies and the stomach stage fright. A couple of mentors of mine have said that if you’re not getting in the pulpit with those, then you need to re-think some things. It’s a responsibility that you shouldn’t take lightly in terms of what you’re doing. Yeah, a little bit nervous, but I learned to sort of work through those feelings as well.
What is the age demographic for your church? We have, like many Presbyterian churches, a lot of retired folks in our congregation. We also have a lot of folks who are maybe near retirement who are working at the various universities around us and in the Triangle. We have a fair number of young families with young kids that make up our congregation. I know one thing the church is desiring is to make sure we are a welcoming space to all kinds of people and for all types of families. Right now we’ve got a good make up of young children, young families, young adults, retirees and near-retirees.
Do you feel like your age and more youthful perspective played a role in your hiring? I asked if the church was comfortable with having someone my age in the pulpit, generationally speaking. What they said to me was they were open to whoever was the right fit, whatever their experience level. What was expressed to me was they appreciated my energy and my presence in the pulpit after meeting me and seeing videos of me leading worship and preaching sermons. But I also wanted to make clear to them when I was talking with the committee and some folks at the Presbytery helped with me as well. Who we get to come to the church is everybody’s responsibility. It’s not just mine and it’s not just me being young that’s going to get folks in the door. It’s going to be a lot of other things as well. I can’t say they were necessarily looking for someone my age. It just so happened to be that that was the case.
How would you describe that energy? For me it’s sort of the thing of, and maybe it’s still just my level of experience, to me I want to do my job and I want to do my job well. In terms of energy, I want to do my best to bring it. This is what matters to me and it’s important. It’s a joy to be able to do this. As best as I can I try to let gratitude guide my actions and my leading. For me, when I think about all that it takes to be here and do this for my career, I’m in a pretty good spot. For what it is and when you look at the landscape for church right now in America, I’m pretty lucky to be here. So, with that in mind, it just helps me to bring that energy to say, ‘It’s good to be here, it’s good to be in this space with these people.’ And it’s good be a part of something we all believe in collectively.
You mention the landscape for church right now in America, given recent and continuing events, do you envision the role of this church changing, and if so, how? My own sense as a person and as a pastor is that the church has a responsibility to speak hope, life and love out into the world. We call it the ‘good news of Jesus Christ,’ and what makes it good news is that God is for life, God is for people, God is for flourishing and wholeness of all people. When people are not being treated according to the ethic that we hold as Christians, which is love God and love your neighbor, I think we have to speak into that. We have to say, ‘we are for loving people, and for helping them to thrive and flourish.’ We are certainly interested in the work of justice and the work of mission in this community, and seeing that play out and being a part of that. One of the efforts that we are part of locally is Justice United, which is a local organization that is helping in all kinds of ways to advocate with and for people who are facing injustice in the community. I haven’t yet had the pleasure of being a part of those efforts, but hearing what they’re up to sounds terrific and is so bold and brave for this church to be a part of.
Do you have any planned changes? Not right now. We’ll see what the future holds. For me, what’s important at this time is listening to and learning from this community, to the Hillsborough community and getting to know its hopes, desires, fears and frustrations. That’s one thing that attracted me to this church is in this mission study process they redirected their mission statement a little bit. It begins with the words ‘To listen, to learn, to share, to journey together with Jesus Christ.’ All of those things put together to me are what faith is all about. What the work of loving God and loving your neighbor is all about.
Are there any specific changes the church has expressed interest in making? Not yet.
COVID has made church services particularly difficult: How is this church handling keeping contact with it members? Right now, as far as Sunday services are concerned, we’re sticking with streaming. We have wonderful church volunteers who are helping us put that together every Sunday, and I am so thankful for them. That’s the plan for now. Sometimes it’s Zoom being broadcast on YouTube. It’s difficult for us to do outdoor things for one, we don’t really have a parking lot; second, it’s getting so hot that it’s difficult. But we’re always looking for ideas that allow us to have services safely and in a way that makes sense. The challenge I gave during my sermon this past Sunday was where we are right now it’s easy to give in to despair. God is still here and God is still calling us to be God’s people. We need to figure out a new way forward to where God is leading us. As we journey together, I as your new pastor, we’re going to figure that out together over the next weeks, months years.
How much are you looking forward to the day when you can again open your doors and welcome members? I told some folks the other day part of the reason I’m a pastor is because I love people. I’m an extrovert. Not a lot of pastors are, I don’t think, but I’m an extrovert. I love being in community. That’s how I was raised in the church. That’s something I’m excited about. That’s one of the hardest parts about this is how do you maintain that sense of community when you can’t physically meet? It’s a lot harder to do over the phone and email.
How many people attend this church? Average worship attendance before COVID was about 75 people.
What do you do in your free time? Right now, it’s wrangling a new puppy. My wife and I got a puppy a mere four days after moving here. We didn’t necessarily plan that, but the opportunity presented itself. Also, I’m a musician. I’m a guitar player. Of course, I’m not really jamming with folks right now, but that’s something I love to do in my free time or any time I can get. I’m a big movie person, although I can’t go to the movie theaters right now.