The Convert Clergy Conundrum
Tom was a Methodist minister for 30 years. He pastored a church with thousands of members, managed a large budget and employed 50 people. A married man with three grown children, Tom held a master’s degree in theology and a doctorate in pastoral counseling. He was a leader within his denomination and, through it, could have advanced to the very top of a nationwide religious group. Then he left it all to become a Catholic.
He occupied the pews in the Catholic Church for two years, knowing that he needed to get used to Catholic ways before exploring how he might serve the Church. He decided to apply for the permanent diaconate. His bishop asked him to wait another year until the diaconal program started, then to start the seven-year course from the beginning. No consideration of his educational and vocational experience was recognized.
Tom soon became discouraged because the well-meaning instructors on the Catholic diaconal training course were making mistakes. He wrote to the bishop with his reason for dropping out: “I’m 60 years old. I kept trying to bite my tongue and not correct the instructor the whole time, but he was getting things wrong. I don’t want to sound arrogant, but I used to teach more advanced courses than that all the time. I’ll be nearly 70 before I’m a deacon. I’d better look for other ways to serve the Church.”
“Tom” is not his real name, and his story is a compilation of many such stories I have heard over the years. The simple fact: Most Catholic bishops simply don’t know what to do with convert clergy. The famous English convert Ronald Knox observed, “We’re like a bird who has got into a room where there is a cocktail party. Everyone is delighted we’re there, but no one knows what to do with us.”
A Catholic bishop can be excused for not knowing what to do with a convert clergyman. The range of Protestant denominations and schisms and breakaway sects is bewildering. A Catholic bishop has enough to do just to keep track of all the different Catholic groups, religious orders, lay movements, colleges and seminaries. How can he be expected to know about all the Protestant ones, as well?
Furthermore, each Protestant denomination is a little world of Christianity in itself. There’s no such thing as a Presbyterian or a Baptist or an Episcopalian or a Lutheran. Each denomination has a liberal wing, conservative wing, high-church wing and a low-church wing. In addition, they all have radical breakaway sects (both ultraliberal and ultraconservative) led by men with dubious credentials and questionable views.
So, for example, a man may present himself to a Catholic bishop asking to be ordained as a Catholic deacon or priest. He may call himself the Rev. John Doe, rector of St. Hilda’s Anglican Church. He wears clerical clothes, has a website, a card printed with Olde English lettering and has letters after his name. But it might turn out that he bought his degrees online, was ordained by a vagrant bishop from some other Anglican splinter group, and his fledgling congregation meets in the attic of his home. How is the Catholic bishop to know if he is a “proper” Anglican or not?
Even if the man comes from the mainstream Protestant congregations, there is no guarantee that he has been formed in the Catholic tradition, or that he has even been formed in the Christian tradition. Mainstream Protestant seminaries are so liberal in their doctrine and their views on Christian morality that whatever they call the religion they now follow it is certainly not Catholicism. On the other hand, a conservative Presbyterian or Baptist might be closer to understanding the core principles and worldview of the Catholic Church than a liberal Lutheran or Anglican.
What’s a bishop to do? It seems that what many of them do is hold the convert clergyman at arm’s length rather like a bachelor with a baby.
That doesn’t need to be the case. Another friend, Bill, converted to the Catholic faith from a Protestant denomination called Disciples of Christ. He has a doctorate in biblical studies, and he prayed and read his way into the Church over a number of years. When he went to call on his bishop, he was lucky. The bishop asked what Bill wanted to do. Bill simply wanted to share his love for the Scriptures and the Catholic faith. The bishop recommended him to the diocesan director of education and, before long, Bill was leading Bible studies, retreats and biblical seminars in parishes across the diocese.
It is understandable that a Catholic bishop will be bemused and bewildered when he gets a letter from an enthusiastic former Protestant pastor. It is understandable that he puts it in the “things to be prayed about” tray. I believe what we need is a support system for the bishops. They need someone to consult so they can understand just who this person is, where he comes from and how the Church might use him.
The archbishop of Newark, N.J., John Myers, and his assistant, Msgr. William Stetson, oversee the pastoral provision. This is the process whereby married former Episcopal priests can apply for a dispensation from the vow of celibacy in order to be ordained. This process is good but limited, and it is a final stage toward ordination for many men rather than the first stage.
A resource is needed through which bishops can gather information in confidence from knowledgeable Catholics. The Coming Home Network could be just the answer. Founded by former Presbyterian pastor Marcus Grodi, Coming Home (online at CHNetwork.org) has a nationwide network of former pastors from every imaginable denomination. If a Catholic bishop has a letter on his desk from a former Protestant pastor, the network would be able to help him understand the difference between a Disciple of Christ and a Christian Disciple, the difference between a Southern Baptist and an American Baptist, the difference between the Church of God and the Assemblies of God.
A former Anglican could advise on all the different distinctions within the ever- expanding Anglican Communion. A former Lutheran could soon spot the bona fide from the bogus. A former charismatic could explain the difference between charismatic mainstream and the numerous charismatic sects. A former Methodist could explain the difference between Holiness Wesleyans and Primitive Methodists.
Most former Protestant clergy come into the Catholic Church with extraordinary gifts. They are often fantastic preachers, biblical scholars, pastors, experienced counselors and administrators. Some will be called to the Catholic priesthood or diaconate. Others will be called to serve the Church in other ways. Catholic bishops need to understand that as the Protestant denominations continue to splinter and disintegrate the number of Protestants who want to come home to Rome is going to continue to grow.
We have to be prepared not only to throw a lifeline from the Barque of Peter, but figure out how we can use them on the crew.
Father Dwight Longenecker was an Anglican priest for 10 years before
being ordained as a Catholic priest under the pastoral provision.
He’s online at DwightLongenecker.com.
- October 4-10, 2009