As we head into our first full week of double unemployment sans benefits, I can't help but reflect upon one of the most fateful decisions in my life. In 1998, I went back to school to pursue a doctoral degree. My initial plan was to study historical theology, that is, the historical development of theology within the Christian faith. Because of shakeups at the school had reduced the theology department, I was left with a focus on Systematic Theology as my major, with Old Testament theology and Patristics (the study of the early Church Fathers) as my two minors.
Many things were going on in our life at that time. My wife was none too happy about returning to a school that had turned back to the more June Cleaver approach to understanding a woman's role in life. This created tension in our marriage. Plus, I was not happy with the tone and tenor of the school either. When I first went to pursue my Masters, the school was certainly moderate to left of center, with there being a noticeable scorn that the more progressive professors and students had for the traditional brand of Christianity. Many conservative students had objected to this, calling it judgemental, unchristian, and wrong. Lo and behold, when the school became almost exclusively conservative (and increasingly Calvinist), what did those same students and professors do who had complained? You got it. The same thing. That level of hypocrisy left a bad taste in my mouth.
The biggest problem, however, was that I was already questioning my faith vis-a-vis the Protestant, Evangelical, Baptist expressions of the Christian faith. As a pastor, I began to wonder about the doctrines of Baptist life. Heck, I began to wonder about Christianity as a whole, since at the time, I only had the Protestant expression to consider. Sola Scriptura was a big problem, as was the multiple denominational interpretations of Scripture without a clear authority (or an authority that was acknowledged).
It was in one particular seminar that his came crashing down. The particular focus of the seminar was on the Providence of God. That is, how God actually makes this old creation work. Is there free will? Does God preordain everything? Does God actually damn people to hell, or can people freely choose (and freely lose) their salvation? Most of the class was conservative Calvinist, but we had enough students who were from the Arminian tradition (the opposite of Calvinist) to bring the discussion to a boil.
Back and forth the debate raged. Scriptures were tossed to and fro like a volleyball out of control. One would appeal to Romans 9, another to John 3:16, one would invoke the Old Israelite covenants, while looking to Paul's more universal appeals in Romans and Ephesians was used by another. At that moment, I literally lost my faith - at least my faith in Protestant Christianity. As a pastor, that was something. I no longer believed. Where to go? What to do?
Well, what happened has been mentioned on other posts. What I chose to do was throw myself into pastoral ministry, get as far away from the school as possible, come back to my childhood stomping grounds, and hope that this would all make my grasp of Christian theology work better in the trenches of actual hands-on ministry. Therefore, on the eve of the new millennium, when all the world wondered about Y2K, we packed up our meager belongings into a moving van and headed north to Ohio. And here we have remained.
All of this is to say that, in hindsight, I would have been better to remain in the program and complete my doctorate - assuming I would have succeeded of course. The pastoral ministry did not salve my wounds of doubt. In fact, the church I pastored was so riddled with problems, it became crucial toward opening my wife's eyes up to the dark side of Protestant life. This was important because the time we chose to begin moving toward the Catholic Church was at the height of the sex abuse revelations. Though we eventually left that church for another (and quite wonderful) church assignment, what we saw at that Church did more to erase any concerns about the problems within the Catholic Church than anything I could imagine.
In the end, we came into the Catholic Church. We went through much: agonizing hours of prayer, study, reflection discussion, debate, argument, and searching. We left everything behind: colleagues and friends, our livelihoods (she taught at a Protestant Christian School), our benefits, retirement, income. We uprooted our children from a rather calm and idyllic life where they were with Mom or Dad most of the time, where we were there for them when they needed it, where they were 'the Pastor's kids' in a religious environment where that still meant something. And what we received?
Well, we received Truth and full communion with Christ through the Eucharist and the Sacramental ministries of the Catholic Church. But alas, as I never went the path of a certified Chaplain, nor did I complete my doctorate and receive a PhD, that is what we have received. I'm not saying that's nothing. It's that proverbial pearl of great value. But as we are now realizing, that pearl of great value may be food for the soul, but it doesn't pay bills or put mundane food on the table. I wonder, quite frequently, if I had stayed and finished my PhD if things would have turned out differently. Would I have come into the Church? Probably. It was being in a PhD program and seeing at the highest scholarly levels the deficiencies of Protestant Doctrine that kicked me down the path toward Rome in the first place
But more to the point, would I have a job? Fact of the matter is, there are scant few 'Protestant Clergy Converts to Catholicism.' There really aren't that many. Oh, there are 'Clergy' converts in that you have fellows who served in some capacity in Protestant ministry. But on the whole, most usually had other actual vocations that they could lean upon. Many did have PhDs, and though they may have been tossed out of a Protestant seminary, they found eager arms in Catholic universities or even secular universities. Others who convert under the title 'Former Protestant Clergy' are, to be honest, former clergy in the broadest sense: seminarians who never even served as clergy, part time clergy, an odd youth pastor, a bi-vocational minister (someone who serves churches but has a career outside of actual ministry), or sometimes, simply a person who did ministry services by way of their careers (a lawyer who served in some church capacity for instance). The point being, the fabled 'minister walks away from pulpit to enter the Catholic Church' are few and far between.
Why? This is why. Because most fellows are not prepared to lose everything they have, go bankrupt and broke and homeless, and consign their families to hardships and destitution for the Catholic Faith. That's why. Not that I'm all that wonderful. I'm just stubborn. I believe the Catholic Faith is the Truth of God revealed to humanity. So I won't be going anywhere any time soon. And knowing what I know now probably wouldn't have changed much. It might only have prepared me more. As it was, I got caught up with a couple apostolates (that's ministries to Protestant ears) that assured me all works out, the Church is big and helps and most ministers end up doing just fine.
Well, Catholics help out. Being a generous lot, we've received more than one generous act of alms giving from fabulously generous individuals in the Church since we've come into Catholicism. But the point is, the Church itself is not geared for helping Protestant Clergy Converts. Anglican priests? Yes, they can get into the priesthood without getting their feet wet. A few other denominations: Lutheran and sometimes Methodist. But if you don't feel called to the priesthood, and you don't have a PhD, you had best settle on hanging up your ministry experience for good and getting a job in the secular world.
Which brings me to reality. The fact is, for people who have normal resumes, it is a brutal job market. Many Clergy Converts who insist all will work out are, to be honest, gray haired and getting old. They came into the Church in the 80s and 90s, when the economy appeared to be booming, when having a Masters (any Masters) was a feather in the cap and one could almost walk in and find employment that same day. I know this because I associated with many pastors who were bi-vocational and had no problems finding employment. But that was then. This is now, where people with training and education for a particular job are having difficulty finding employment. How less a person whose resume says 'former religious guy with religious degree from religious school.'
Hence our problem. So I've wondered, as I watch the funds fade away and see the inevitable cardboard box under an overpass looming before me, if I had chosen a different path if things would be better now. Had I stayed in school, and not fled into the trenches of pastoral ministry to sort out my problems, if things would look different than they do today. I wonder if I would have stayed, received the doctorate, and come into the Church, would I be teaching at some Catholic university, providing direction and stability for my family, and showing my children all that the world holds through communion with the Catholic Church. I don't know. It's a dream I have. But alas, at this point in where we are, I'm afraid a dream is what it must remain.
Prayers will be appreciated. And if anyone knows anyone who is itching to hire a former Protestant minister, please send me a note. Pax.