For many students, college graduation confers a degree, but not much confidence. For some, the uncertain economy adds pressure to quickly pick a steady job. Still worse, Christian graduates often leave college with no idea how their faith relates to their field of study.

These factors are driving the popularity of the gap year — a nine-month program of travel, community service, or internship work to help graduates prepare for life’s next phase. The Greenville Fellows Program in Greenville, South Carolina, offers college graduates the space to explore career options and connect their faith to all of life. In the process the fellows are transforming the church and their community.

The Greenville Fellows Program (GFP) operates through Mitchell Road Presbyterian Church (MRPC). GFP is one of 21 Fellows programs under the umbrella of The Fellows Initiative. Each Fellows Program involves a nine-month internship in the fellow’s field of study, seminary coursework, discipleship, mentoring, community service, involvement in a local church, and living with a host family from the church.

Kenneth Parham, GFP board director and an MRPC elder, sees GFP as a way to develop godly, thoughtful leaders for the church and the business world.

“The mission of [GFP] is to develop godly leaders who are more secure in their identity in Christ, more confident in their calling, more purposeful with their lives, and joyful in their living,” he said.

Fellows follow a demanding schedule. A typical week involves three days of internship work, one day attending seminary classes, and one day in leadership training.  Fellows spend one or two evenings in class, and once each week they gather at a host family’s house to make dinner together and participate in a roundtable discussion.

After enjoying a day off on Saturday, fellows worship at MRPC on Sunday morning and attend small groups in the evening.

Fellows also get practical training in résumé crafting and job interviewing and spend time interviewing local Christian business leaders on how those leaders connect their faith and work.

Rod Mays is the GFP director. Already a Greenville resident, Mays was a logical fit for the position after his 16 years as Reformed University Ministries’ national coordinator. Mays knew that he wanted his next season of ministry to be within the context of the local church, so when MRPC hired his wife to lead the church’s counseling ministry and women’s ministry, senior pastor Andy Lewis approached Mays about eventually becoming the GFP director.

Because Mays serves as adjunct faculty at Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS) Charlotte, fellows earn seminary credit for their studies at GFP. Under Mays’ instruction, fellows take classes in systematic theology, Old Testament and New Testament surveys, counseling, and worldviews.

“[Mays’] RUF connections made him a good fit to recruit and network [potential fellows],” Lewis said. “Being the elder statesman, he helps to legitimize the program in the eyes of parents and business leaders.”

Changing Public Perceptions

Legitimacy was especially important for GFP. In the energetic city of 61,000 — known for its charm and livability — some Greenville businesspeople see the church as a barrier to progress.

“Christians haven’t done a good job of relating to those in business,” Lewis said. “We have made it largely a Sunday religion and haven’t done a good job of sending [church members into the community].”

Because of this cultural bias, GFP puts a special emphasis on the internship aspect of the program. Initially Lewis had to beg businesses to hire fellows, and the GFP joined the Greenville Chamber of Commerce to raise its profile and gain credibility. After the first year, nearly all the fellows received job offers from their internship companies. Lewis now has businesses calling him to ask for fellows to hire.

According to Parham, Christians in Greenville didn’t generally integrate their faith with their work; as a result the Christian faith sometimes seemed irrelevant to most of life. But as the fellows live and work in the business community — with excellence and without an agenda — they demonstrate how integral their faith is to the way they work and engage.

“We believe, and are just starting to see, that this can rebuild trust and make the city thankful for the church, maybe even see a deep need for the church and, ultimately, Jesus,” he said.

Working Out the Gospel in Life

After growing up in Nashville and attending college in Birmingham, Hannah Granbery chose to move to Greenville to be part of GFP’s first class. Granbery heard about Fellows programs from a college small-group leader. After researching different programs through The Fellows Initiative, she decided the MRPC culture would be a good fit. Granbery loves Greenville’s beautiful downtown, the city’s vibrant food culture, and the role city parks play in Greenville life.

As a fellow, she interned in the marketing department of a nonprofit organization, a position well-suited for using her journalism degree with an emphasis in nonprofit marketing, her dream had always been working for the top digital marketing agency. The internship allowed Granbery to get involved in different aspects of nonprofit work, particularly fundraising and development.

Ultimately Granbery decided that nonprofit marketing was not where she wanted to work full time. “I got a lot of skills from working, but I realized I don’t know if this [field] is for me,” she said. “I didn’t see it as wasted time at all because it was extremely beneficial. I gained some marketable skills through [my internship].”

Granbery now puts those skills to work for another nonprofit: She is the GFP program coordinator. She handles the GFP’s logistics and serves as the liaison between Mays, the GFP board of directors, and the fellows. And Granbery still gets to enjoy Greenville’s food and arts scenes.

Most of the fellows in Granbery’s class did stay on with the companies where they interned. Some of them are featured in videos on the GFP website (greenvillefellows.org). While working for a church is not the job Granbery imagined, her work still offers opportunities aplenty for applying what she learned as a fellow.

“[My internship] reinforced that there should be a connection between faith and work. … God ordained work to be pleasing to Him. I learned that in [GFP].”

Catching the Vision, Shouldering the Load, Reaping the Reward

In August 2015 GFP welcomed its third class of fellows. Even as fellows programs across the country gain momentum, churches often require more time to understand the benefits of taking on the program.

Lewis spent years working with his session to bring a fellows program to Greenville. As an elder, Parham recalled when the session realized that MRPC needed leaders who could eventually shape the church and the broader culture by applying the Gospel to every area of life.

Once the session saw that it needed future leaders, Parham joined Lewis’ campaign to bring a fellows program to Greenville. But the endeavor is huge. MRPC, a 1,900-member congregation, needs more than 100 volunteers every year to serve as hosts, mentors, teachers, job-placement coordinators, and community-group participants. The eight board members are all MRPC members. Each board member leads a component of the program and is responsible for recruiting and equipping the volunteers who will assist in that area.

As they engage the fellows, MRPC members have been challenged to think more seriously about the ways that God values their work. As these ideas trickle through the congregation, MRPC has started rethinking its philosophy on missions.

The church is moving away from supporting missions only with money and prayer and thinking instead about “blooming where you’re planted,” an idea promoted by Amy Sherman’s book “Kingdom Calling.”

GFP is already seeing the next generation of leaders grow at the church. Every fellow who has stayed in Greenville after the term’s end has continued attending MRPC. “Over 10 years we can add 80 to 100 community-involved, worldview-savvy church members,” Lewis said.

In the process other MRPC members are changed. As they engage with the fellows, they must wrestle with the same issues, and they too begin to see their work and lives differently.

“It is beyond exciting to be a part of establishing recent college grads in these truths and a faith that runs seamlessly through all parts of their lives while at the same time driving it deeper and deeper into my own heart,” Parham said.

Fellows leave their gap year with jobs, community, and a deeper understanding of how God is at work in the church and the world. For MRPC, the fellows, and Greenville, it is a worthwhile investment. c

For more information visit greenville-fellows.org.