‘God just places the call on your heart’: Theology students aspire to an uncertain future

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From left to right are: Christine Ivy, Tom Hubschmid and Caleb Upton. Photos: Tali Folkins

Note: Ivy, Hubschmid and Upton, none of whom were raised as Anglicans, explain what brought them to Anglicanism in a companion piece to this article. 

Hearing the call in a secular age

Christine Ivy always knew that becoming a priest would mean uncertain career prospects. But she began to experience this uncertainty in a particularly direct way the year before last, when she began her current role as part-time lay pastor at Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Thornhill, Ont.

“I did a lot of soul-searching when I started at this position, because I am in a parish that is probably on average 65 and over, and is shrinking,” she says.

“I was like, ‘Am I signing on to a sinking ship?’”

Ivy, 32, who graduated in May 2018 with a Master of Divinity (MDiv) from the University of Toronto’s Wycliffe College after seven years of combined part-time study and work, says she realizes that many congregations are facing challenges, and that as her career unfolds she may need a backup plan for finding paid work.

But these things don’t bother her, she says.

“I just trust that if God has led me this far, he will continue to show me the way,” she says.

Tom Hubschmid, 27, is finishing his final semester of coursework for a Master of Theological Studies (MTS) degree at Trinity College, also at the University of Toronto. Originally intending on a career as a professor of theology, Hubschmid is now considering the priesthood as well, though he believes job prospects for both are bleak. He says his bishop has told him aspiring priests in the church can no longer necessarily expect full-time positions for the church throughout their working lives.

“I have no certainty about my career,” he says. “I wish I had more. I wish I had more assurance about being able to pay off my loans…I’ve had to be prepared to be poor, essentially.”

But Hubschmid seems undaunted. He says he welcomes the prospect of being a theologian for a church that, though in decline, is seeking renewal and a deepening of its belief.

“I’m trusting that God will provide,” he says.

Like Ivy and Hubschmid, Caleb Upton, now in the second year of his MDiv at Trinity, has several years of university schooling; his includes a Master of Theology (MTh) at the University of Edinburgh. And like Hubshmid, Upton, 27, also faces a combination of student debt and uncertain job prospects. For the last three years, he’s served coffee at Starbucks, sold books at Indigo and worked night shifts to pay the bills despite having a graduate degree from one of the world’s most highly regarded theological schools. Similar experiences are common for people his age nowadays, he says, especially if their background is in the liberal arts.

“When you’ve studied humanities your whole life, you’re either studying or you’re working part-time, and you are drowned in tens of thousands of dollars of debt even if you’re highly skilled. It’s taken much longer for people in my generation to actually come into real sustainable jobs,” he says.

Still, his sense of mission and purpose, Upton says, doesn’t depend on his finding a paid position as a priest.

“It doesn’t actually affect what will happen to me in terms of my role in the world,” he says. “It’s of concern to me because that’s how I hope to make my income, but it’s secondary to my spiritual journey.”

Recent decades have seen many Canadian faith communities facing increasing challenges. According to a 2013 study by Pew Research Center, the proportion of Canadian adults who said they attended religious services at least once a month fell from 43% in 1986 to 27% in 2010. The societal shift has meant church closures in many denominations. In the Anglican Church of Canada the total number of congregations sat above 3,000 through the 1970s and 1980s, according to General Synod statistics; the most recent count shows a total of 2,206 congregations in 2017, says General Synod statistics officer the Rev. Neil Elliot.

With this trend has come a decrease in resources; members of the Council of General Synod last November, for example, were warned that the national church may be facing “turbulent times” in coming years as dioceses find themselves increasingly unable to contribute as much as they have in the past.

At a time when closing churches and diminishing funds raise questions about the ability of the priesthood to provide a lifetime of full-time paid work, the Anglican Journal talked to three current and recent theological students to find out why they aspire to it anyway.

‘It’s the thing I need to be doing’

Ivy says she has always loved studying the Bible, and decided to take courses in theology initially just out of interest, without intending to become a cleric. As she studied, she says, she became increasingly involved in lay ministry and felt a call to priesthood. On the suggestion of her spiritual advisor, she recently took up the practice at the end of each day of reflecting on what she was most thankful for, and found she kept coming back to the worship, teaching and counseling she was doing at Holy Trinity.

“When I was actually doing the things that are the most pastoral, that’s when I was the most fulfilled, and I do believe that God works through our heart and our desires—he’s put those in us to lead us to where we’re supposed to go,” she says. “I don’t think it’ll be easy most of the time, but…it’s the thing I need to be doing.”

The message of the gospels, Ivy says, is needed now more than ever, because the notion that individuals can be spiritually self-reliant—despite its prevalence today—leads ultimately to a dead end.

“When we don’t have a relationship with God, we live in this closed system where the deepest truth is what we can find within ourselves, and then it just kind of stops,” she says. “In my opinion it’s kind of hopeless, because if there is no God, or if there is no Christ who came to be one of us and died on the cross and rose again, then we are just at the mercy of each other, and ourselves…We really do need something transcendent to give us a higher purpose.

“I think the world—especially in 2019—desperately needs to know Jesus Christ,” she says.

Ivy says her sense of being called to the work has overridden her initial concern about serving a shrinking congregation in a faith community facing many challenges.

“Even if I was ordained and sent to a church to essentially close it down, those people, whether they’re 85 or 25, still matter, and God loves them, and helping them worship God and know God is what I’ve been called to do,” she says. “I really don’t know what God has in store for this particular parish in the next few years. But I do feel like he wants me there right now.”

‘A heart for people who struggle with faith’

Asked why teaching and preaching Christian theology is so important to him, Hubschmid seems stumped at first. He concedes that it’s a good question, and pauses for a moment.

“All I can say is that my whole life I’ve been obsessed with Christian belief,” he says, adding, with a laugh, that he believes himself to have an “oddly religious disposition.

“I’ve thought in the past that, Christian or not, I would be obsessed with religious belief and practice,” he says. “But also, I just—I really, really love Jesus Christ. I love the gospels. I love scripture. And the interpretation of scripture, the building of doctrine and disagreements about doctrine. I love prayer. Christian community.”

Hubschmid also says he sees potential for growth in the church, having recently witnessed two especially vibrant and growing Anglican congregations, for example, in his home diocese of Calgary.

Many Canadians today need to hear solid arguments for Christianity, he says, because they’ve grown up in a society that subtly teaches them that religion is outdated. He thinks this ends up leaving them spiritually vulnerable.

“The existential life of our time is difficult—there’s so few sources of satisfying meaning and purpose,” he says. “We’re easily sucked into consumerism, we’re easily made just like pawns in a capitalist market, reduced to buyers, reduced to consumers, and not really regarded as souls.”

At theological school, Hubschmid says, he came to realize that many of the contemporary arguments against Christianity can be effectively countered by some of the church’s oldest—though not widely known or understood—teachings.

He says he’s known many people who grew up with attitudes of skepticism toward religion, and now find that something is missing from their lives, yet are unsure what to do about that. Part of his sense of mission, he says, comes from a sense of compassion he feels for people in that situation.

“I want to be a theologian in my time, which is a time in which either God is being forgotten, or faith is just a real struggle for people,” he says. “They just don’t have the knowledge or resources to even really approach the church—it’s just so foreign and strange to them, and suspect.

“I guess I could put it this way: It doesn’t really sound that academic, but I have a heart for people who struggle with faith…I just love these people.”

‘Cut off from our source’

Upton, too, entered university with the goal of getting a PhD. He wanted to eventually make use of his learning and his credentials to speak publicly in defence of Christianity, both in the university and beyond, to a wider, secular audience. But while pursuing his MTh, he says, academic life began to seem “stale” in comparison to the lay ministry he had been doing for a number of churches.

“I looked over the course of my life thus far and I saw that…I wanted to work in the church and become actually a minister of the gospel—that I actually wanted to preach and not lecture; I wanted to counsel people and not grade papers,” he says.

Upton says the world needs to hear the gospel because its problems—political polarization in the United States, for example, or troubled relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada—will never be solved as long as they are explained in purely secular terms.

“Any big complicated political or social issue can ultimately boil down to the problem that people have spiritually within themselves and between each other,” he says. “The problem is fundamentally in humanity itself…We’re actually deeply cut off from our source of who we’re supposed to be as human beings, and that [source] is God.”

Christianity, he says, offers the ultimate remedy for a troubled humanity, “because it seeks to unite human life and divine life together, to transform human life by having the divine life of Christ lived in us.”

Upton says he believes everyone eventually has to give themselves to something unconditionally, and for him this something was Christianity. That, he says, is why he’s pursuing ordination, and he says if he is ordained, he will always see himself as a priest doing ministry regardless of the prospects of the church as an institution.

“In some sense whether there’s any [church] buildings around is important to me; but in another way it doesn’t actually affect…what my role in the world will be,” he says.

‘People don’t get into ministry for the paycheque’

Helping young people understand God’s call was the focus of a retreat organized this past February 2 by the University of Guelph’s Ecumenical Campus Ministry, a university chaplaincy supported by the Anglican Church of Canada, the Presbyterian Church of Canada and the United Church of Canada. A small handful of students gathered at a Guelph-area retreat and conference centre for a day of exercises dealing with vocations in a broad sense, not only to paid positions, says Andrew Hyde, a lay minister with the United Church and chaplain of the campus ministry.

Hyde says that when he meets someone interested in a career as an ordained minister or priest, he’s often struck by the unique personal history behind each vocation.

“There’s always a really interesting and compelling story behind all of those trajectories,” he says. Often, he says, students are interested in exploring the possibility of settings other than congregational ministry—chaplaincies, for example—at least partly out of a desire to find work in areas where the church is growing.

“I think part of it is trying to figure out where there’s life in the church,” he says. “It’s like, ‘Do I want to commit my entire vocation to closing down churches?’ And that’s kind of depressing. But there are pockets of the church where there’s life and we experience energy and momentum, and it’s not always in a congregation.”

Some students, he says, seem drawn to the work even if it means working with parishes facing the end of their existence, simply because they feel called to it.

“Sometimes God puts it on your heart that you need to walk with a congregation, even if they’re closing,” he says. “People don’t get into ministry for the paycheque, and they don’t necessarily get into it for a glamourous lifestyle, or anything like that. Sometimes God just places the call on your heart, and you feel bound to respond to it.”

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Tali Folkins
Tali Folkins has worked as a staff reporter for the Law Times and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. His writing has appeared in The Globe and Mail and The United Church Observer.

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