By LAUREL BUSBY
Special to Circling the News
As a child, Reverend Matt Hardin attended a small church in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, built during the Civil War.
About a dozen people came to services, and a minister traveled to preach to them every Sunday morning at 9 a.m. before returning to his bigger, home church.
“The pastor was a grounded, contemplative man, and my mom and I were both drawn to him,” Hardin said. As a teenager with divorced parents, “the church was a wonderful foundation for me. To hear the teachings and the wisdom and the lessons from Jesus brought me a lot of peace and understanding during some of those years where you’re changing as a person.”
That grounding in Christianity became a central part of Hardin’s life and eventually led him to become the lead pastor at Pacific Palisades Presbyterian Church. His official installation, an event that is open to the entire community, will occur on October 17 at 10 a.m.
After high school, Hardin said he studied philosophy at George Mason University, in Virginia near Washington DC, because he enjoyed thinking about and asking big questions, but he simultaneously attended church and participated in both bible study and the campus ministry. But he did not plan to become a pastor.
In fact, after graduation in 1999, he worked at the U.S. Customs Services as an internal affairs investigator, a job which was not the right fit for him.
“It definitely didn’t feed my soul,” he said. During lunch breaks, he would read and consider what was important and meaningful to him. “Gradually I gave into the idea of going to seminary and seeing where that would take me…. God was drawing me in, luring me little by little.”
He first earned a master of divinity at Columbia Theological Seminary, and he is currently working toward a doctor of ministry degree at the school.
After becoming a pastor, Hardin led a church in a North Carolina town with one stoplight, and he later spent five years as the pastor of an international church in Tokyo, Japan, where he met his eventual wife, Mary Fish, a Canadian schoolteacher, who now teaches seventh grade at the Brentwood School.
The couple moved to Los Angeles in 2013, married that November, and Hardin became pastor of Westwood Presbyterian Church, which he led for the next seven years. In October last year, he stepped down from that position, took a few months off, and began working at Palisades Presbyterian in January. An interim pastor had guided the church for two years as part of the transition from longtime minister Eric Schaefer, a typical pattern for Presbyterian churches.
Due to the lockdown restrictions of the pandemic, his initial ministry had to be conducted mainly online. He and associate pastor Reverend Dr. Grace Park recorded the Sunday service at home on their cell phones, and those segments were then edited together with the choral music also recorded at home.
“It’s been very strange and uneven and unpredictable and frustrating for all of us, regardless of how you stand on different aspects of this,” he noted.
However, on May 16, the church opened again for Sunday services, which are available both via livestream and in-person at 10 a.m. Some activities have remained restricted, such as the choir, but the service does now include professional vocalists. In addition, in July, post-ceremony coffee and refreshments restarted, which allowed Hardin to connect on a personal level with church members.
“I’m starting to get to know people,” Hardin said. During the lockdowns,
“I never got to see any of them or hear their stories. It’s been really refreshing and a wonderful encouragement to have some of these things return.”
As the pastor, Hardin plans to continue to promote many of the existing traditions of the church. For example, he said he strives for an open and welcoming church, so that anyone will feel comfortable attending services or activities. In addition, the church has always strived to reach out to the community and the world.
“We’re a church that believes in looking outward,” he noted. “We believe in taking care of our family and friends, but also in looking out….A big part of our ministry is reaching out to serve.”
The church provides fellowship activities with various mission and service organizations like Habitat for Humanity and the Pacific Palisades Task Force on Homelessness. They also host sobriety organizations, the Optimists Club, and senior yoga.
In addition, families and children are central to the church, which operates a preschool, summer camp, and in normal times a vacation bible school. As activities resume, he hopes to add more options for children and teens.
“Our goal is to really be a place where families and children can be connected, a place where they can be nurtured and loved and learn about the Christian tradition,” Hardin said. “I’m motivated as a pastor, but also as a parent.”
Hardin and his wife have two sons, Joshua, 5, and Luke, 2.
Another important part of his ministry stems from a men’s spiritual organization called Illuman, an inclusive group with a Judeo-Christian perspective that also welcomes wisdom from other religious traditions. In 2010, while still living in Japan, Hardin flew to San Francisco to attend their retreat.
“I had a really transformative experience,” said Hardin, who sometimes shares details of the group’s work with the congregation. “It will always stay with me and impacts me as a husband, as a pastor, and as a parent. It’s about having an authentic relationship with God, being authentic with troubles that I face, but also seeing those troubles as a way forward for growth and healing.”
Visit palipres.org for more information about church events and to register for services.