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Clergy often choose ministry after working in different fields

Wednesday, September 3, 2003

By KRISTEN HOLLAND

The Dallas Morning News

DALLAS -- In his first professional life, Charlie Tucker thought a lot about the skies.

Now, he's more concerned with the heavens.

In September 1992, Tucker retired as a colonel in the U.S. Air Force, where he specialized in public affairs, running multimillion-dollar ad accounts and writing speeches.

Now, he and his wife, Suzanne, travel worldwide for Tree of Life Ministries International, a nonprofit organization he founded that's primarily a teaching ministry for pastors.

"I moved from the world of cockpits to pulpits," said the 59-year-old Collin County resident.

Tucker is one of many North Texans who entered the ministry after working in an entirely different field. Many traded successful careers in law, medicine or education for the cloth.

They are hardly alone. According to Pulpit & Pew, an ongoing research project at Duke University's Divinity School, the number of clergy members who came to that calling as a second career has been on the rise over the last quarter century or so.

The project found that nationwide, 56 percent of senior or sole pastors of congregations are in their second careers.

The Rev. George Mason, pastor of Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, said many young adults today try something besides ministry first because they feel pressure to make money.

"Historically, colleges were more focused on liberal arts ... on shaping human beings," he said. But now, "there's a lot of cultural pressure to get a degree and to start work that is for-profit. Most of our education, from family to school, is oriented toward economic productivity."

Mother Barbara Sajna, a curate, or assistant priest, at the Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration in North Dallas, came to the ministry from a career in the law. She entered Perkins School of Theology in 1993, after working as a general-practice attorney for several years. Before that, she was a stay-at-home mom to four children.

The 63-year-old grandmother said working in the legal system taught her lessons about interpersonal dynamics that helped prepare her for her current role.

"I do think that law practice can be ministry, just as everything in life can be, " she said. "When the bishop said he would ordain me, I really did feel like this was something I was coming to all my life."

Jeb Airey packed up his family and moved from Beaumont to Arlington when he felt God calling him to start a church.

The former accountant graduated from Lamar University in 1988 and worked in the audit division of the state comptroller's office in Beaumont for nine years before starting Freedom Assembly of God Church.

Like Mother Sajna, he said his earlier career has been helpful in his ministering career. In his case, he said, knowing his way around a balance sheet has helped him prepare for a building campaign and for administering his church's daily finances.

"I'm glad that I had that experience," he said.

The Rev. Orren Evans prefers to stick to spiritual research and writing. A former aeronautical engineer for the Air Force and a manager of systems engineers at IBM, the 76-year-old Coppell resident completed the Unity Church's ministerial education program in 1990.

After originally thinking he would pastor a church, he's settled in as a writer of religious books and is, according to the church's Web site, "the foremost authority on the thought of Charles and Myrtle Fillmore," the co-founders of the Unity Church.

"I've had the call since I was about 5 or 6 years old," Evans said.

The Rev. Sue Churchill Krayer of Duncanville divides her time between working as a contract chaplain at Parkland Health and Hospital System, volunteering with the Duncanville Fire and Police Department and, on occasion, preaching.

After spending 27 years managing medical and dental offices, the 51-year-old said she feels at home working with hospital patients and their relatives.

"My heart is so much for chaplaincy," she said. "I'm kind of like the extra support for the family."

Krayer, a graduate of Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University, said knowing medical terminology makes her job easier.

"I kind of bring a very serene, these-are-the-things-that-are-going-to-happen" mentality, she said.

Rabbi Geoffrey Dennis of Congregation Kol Ami in Flower Mound also came from the health care arena. He worked as an alcoholism counselor for teenagers for several years and then as a registered nurse in cardiac and critical care and a hospice.

"There was this very powerful sense of direct help" that came from being a nurse, he said. Though he was active in his synagogue, he said he didn't consider rabbinical studies until his own rabbi suggested it.

"Once he put the bug in me, I couldn't let it go," he said. "I would describe it as kind of a calling. I went from something I enjoyed to something I enjoyed even more."

Rabbi Dennis added that the advantages of working in another field before becoming a rabbi more than outweighed the disadvantages of beginning rabbinical studies later in life.

"It allowed me to be more effective and more functional," he said. "And the fact that I'd also been a Jew in the pews as an adult gave me the perspective of what the synagogue looks like form the congregational sense."

Tucker of Tree of Life Ministries said that as he looks back on his first career, he sees it as having laid a foundation for his present one traveling and sharing the Gospel.

"So much of what I did in the Air Force was preparing for what we're doing now," Tucker said. "We've always believed that God saved the best for last."

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Distributed By The Associated Press

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