Born and raised in Centralia, Mark McHugh found his way back to Harrison Square Presbyterian Church in the fall of 2017. McHugh started making changes in the church and surrounding community as the director of congregational life, and on Sunday, March 10, he will be ordained as a pastor.
Harrison Square feels like home to McHugh, who was baptized as a baby at the First Presbyterian church. Centralia was a great community to be raised in, he said. His mother was a speech therapist at Fords Prairie Elementary School and his father worked at Washington Orthopedics until starting his own business above the train depot in downtown Centralia.
“The celebration next Sunday will be exciting for me because being from this small town and having all these people who I love deeply, who were my pediatricians when I was a kid or my coaches when I was in high school, having these people there who were a part of my life in one place feels like the fun part of it to me,” he said.
McHugh attended Seattle Pacific University for his undergraduate education, where he originally planned to study biology until he smelled formaldehyde for the first time. He eventually found an interest in theology, where he became passionate about learning a new way of speaking, McHugh said.
Like in his high school days, McHugh enjoyed playing basketball for two years at Seattle Pacific, where his views on life slowly changed. After putting his importance into being successful in sports, McHugh began to see the needs around him differently while attending college.
“Especially when I was a younger kid, sports were where my access point for formation was,” McHugh said. “To still maintain that at SPU but also to have a broader sense of, ‘I am more than an athlete,’ kind of erupted.”
After he finished his theology degree, McHugh married his wife Jody and they worked in Seattle for two years until moving to North Carolina for McHugh’s seminary at Duke Divinity. To be ordained as a pastor, a person must pass four written exams, a psychological evaluation and get a three-year seminary education, requiring a number of classes.
The current pastor of Harrison Square, Ralph Carr, has been with the church for five years. When Carr first started at Harrison Square, the church was struggling with money and attendance, but things started to change once McHugh became part of the staff, he said.
“Five years ago the congregation was dead. They had a building debt they were struggling to pay, there was despair and hopelessness,” Carr said. “When Mark came on board, it just exploded. It’s just a combination of a lot of things but he was the right person for the right time.”
Carr and the rest of the church staff spent up to eight months deciding what direction to go in before eventually hiring McHugh. Carr says he began making a difference in the church within months of being there.
“Over the years I’ve worked with a lot of troubled congregations. When the pastor and the congregation don’t fit, it’s not good,” Carr said. “It’s just the perfect fit. I can’t imagine a more fun guy to work with and more capable guy to work with.”
Since starting at Harrison Square, McHugh has organized multiple “missional communities” within the church intended to serve the community in different ways. One of those communities is the Common Room, a multi-denominational gathering for young adults to come together to worship and eat.
“We aren’t bound by one theological idea,” McHugh said. “(The Common Room) is a place where we are seeking to find, in Jesus, something that we hold in common.”
An important idea in McHugh’s process of creating community is a quote from Frederick Buechner that says, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
As McHugh was becoming familiar with the community again, he realized there wasn’t a specific ministry available for young adults. The church successfully applied for a New Ways Grant through the Olympia Presbytery, obtaining a $25,000 grant to start the Common Room.
“When you’re onto the right idea, people get excited about it, they want to participate in it,” McHugh said. “Then you start to realize at the end of the day there are a bunch of people who weren’t a part of the initial conversation who are now shaping and rolling out new ideas.”
Since The Common Room started, more young people have started attending the church’s Sunday service, Carr said. Overall, the church’s attendance has grown and they have been able to spend more time reaching out to the community.
“I just turned 80 and to be leading a congregation that explodes at the end of your ministry is frankly unbelievable,” Carr said.
McHugh said he believes this is an exciting time to be entering into the world of ministry. The church has been moving from trying to get people to come to the church, to instead meeting people where they are at, he said.
“I see the ways that being the church now can become something that’s about ingenuity and imagination and thinking about new ways of doing what we’ve done, or new ways of saying things we’ve always said and letting go of some of the things we shouldn’t say anymore,” McHugh said.
McHugh’s ordination will take place at 5 p.m. on Sunday, March 10 in the Harrison Square Presbyterian Church sanctuary. For more information, visit the church’s website, http://www.harrisonsquarepc.com/.
Ordination of Mark McHugh
5 p.m. Sunday, March 10
Harrison Square Presbyterian Church
1227 Harrison Ave.
Centralia, WA 98531