All across the country as students are getting ready for the back-to-school season, the Rev. Paula Cooper is packing and preparing for an orientation program of a different kind.

Cooper — a member of the Small Church Residency Program’s Class of 2014 — will soon be heading to the Presbyterian Center here to take part in a comprehensive orientation program and a service of commissioning to her first ordained call as pastor of Curby Memorial Presbyterian Church in St. Louis, in the Presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy.

“I am very honored and humbled to be serving Christ through this excellent program,” Cooper said. “Although I have always worked in the church and have served as a ruling elder, now that God has entrusted me with leading on a deeper level, I’m especially grateful for the incredible network of support that the Small Church Residency Program provides. I’m ecstatic and so enthusiastic.”

Established in 2009, the Small Church Residency Program is a timely and innovative program focused on spiritual, vocational and congregational transformation. Although its name and application process may have changed since it began, the program’s goal of pairing small, underserved congregations in rural, small-town and urban settings with recent seminary graduates remains the same.

Following the Aug. 25-29 gathering in Louisville, Cooper and the rest of her class will begin a two-year pastoral-residency relationship in their respective churches, during which they will be supported and guided by a cluster of pastor-mentors. Members of the program’s Class of 2013 will also take part in the orientation for a mid-point check-in.

Since the program began, 33 recent seminary graduates will have served 39 congregations in 15 presbyteries.

“Now that the application process has been simplified and folded into the Church Leadership Connection, we have seen an increase not only in interest but also in inquiries from prospective pastoral residents and presbyteries,” said the Rev. Cynthia Cushman, coordinator for the program.

The Rev. Charles Wiley, coordinator of the PC(USA)’s  office of Theology and Worship, which oversees the Small Church Residency Program, said that the recent changes to the program’s structure were made intentionally to broaden its impact.

“While the program’s impact has always been deep in the congregations and communities it has served, we’re ready to expand,” Wiley said. “Our goal is to quadruple the program’s reach over the next four years to serve more congregations and presbyteries.”

One presbytery that has newly entered the program is Hudson River Presbytery in Scarborough, New York.

 “Hudson River Presbytery has grown in spirit and vision during the past few years because of the gifts and perspectives of younger pastors,” said the Rev. Susan R. Andrews, general presbyter. “We intentionally partnered with the Small Church Residency Program because we are eager to continue to nurture and mentor those new to pastoral ministry and to change as a result of the fresh vision and skill they bring to us. The Small Church Residency Program gives us energy and hope for the future of the church.”

Emily Enders Odom ― communications strategist for Theology, Worship and Education ― is serving with Presbyterian News Service from late-August until mid-November while Bethany Furkin Daily is on maternity leave.