Second-career pastors build on past experiences

THE REV. CINDY RITTER, pastor at St. John’s Lutheran Church, was a CT technologist at a hospital for 32 years before attending seminary. She finds her experiences working with patients gave her skills which she now uses to minister to her congregation. Life experiences, too, have shaped her. “I know what it’s like to pray when you’re afraid, because I too was afraid,” she said. (Photo by Sara Arthurs)

THE REV. CINDY RITTER, pastor at St. John’s Lutheran Church, was a CT technologist at a hospital for 32 years before attending seminary. She finds her experiences working with patients gave her skills which she now uses to minister to her congregation. Life experiences, too, have shaped her. “I know what it’s like to pray when you’re afraid, because I too was afraid,” she said. (Photo by Sara Arthurs)

Staff Writer
At first glance, working at a hospital or a bookstore might not seem ideal training for serving as a pastor. But area second-career pastors say their first careers provided them with skills and experience that have been an asset.
Many pastors enter seminary as a second career, having already done something else for a living for many years. The Rev. Cindy Ritter, the new pastor at St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, worked as a CT technologist at Toledo Hospital for 32 years. When Ritter entered seminary in her late 40s, she found she was studying alongside students of all ages.
“A lot of second-career folks feel the call to be a pastor,” she said.
The Rev. Bob Cochran, pastor at Findlay’s First Lutheran Church, was a bookstore manager and English teacher. He said both of these roles taught him skills that have helped him as a pastor.
When Cochran was ordained, the pastor who ordained him mentioned the story of Jonah, someone who wanted to go in one direction and yet God kept spitting him up on the shore.
Cochran’s original degree was in social studies education, but he later returned to school and got a master’s degree in English and taught the subject, feeling like he “finally figured I knew where I was going. … I loved it. I loved teaching.”
He was working on a Ph.D. in English but said the dissertation fell apart. Eventually he stopped and went to seminary.
“I knew that’s what God wanted me to do,” he said.
He had just turned 40 when he entered Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus. He said he’d had a feeling as a teenager that he was called to ministry.
“What I am, deep inside, is a teacher. … As a pastor, I’m a teacher,” Cochran said. “I think God just called a teacher into the ministry.”
He said there are similarities as well as differences between a pastor and a teacher.
Cochran previously served as campus pastor at Western Michigan University, which he said included “a little bit of both” fields.
“I spent a lot of time counseling students as a teacher,” he said.
Ritter is also a graduate of Trinity Lutheran Seminary. She is excited about her new career but feels lucky to have learned a lot in her previous one.
“For 32 years, I was able to care for patients … help them through difficult procedures,” she said.
She said patients were sometimes crying or angry.
When a patient walked through the door Ritter would ask questions about their symptoms, other tests they might have had and whether they had any allergies.
She would take a patient into the room and explain the procedure and give them an injection.
“You’re the one who really calms them down when they’re fearful,” she said.
A patient might be coming in because of pain after a surgery, or to follow up after a bout of cancer.
Her job also involved a lot of record keeping, necessary skills to operate the equipment, and being aware of privacy regulations and the “checks and balances” such as keeping track of doctors’ orders.
Working in a hospital meant always being social and interacting with patients and making conversation with a lot of people, teaching her communication skills that are helping her as a pastor.
Ritter had felt the call to ministry earlier but it became particularly pronounced when her father was ill in the last years of his life. She met hospital chaplains and realized she wanted to be with patients and their families in a “more spiritual fashion” than her work allowed.
While a CT technologist, she found herself wanting to pray for patients and offer “spiritual support.” Ritter had long volunteered at her church, St. Mark Lutheran Church in Toledo. She helped with meals, vacation Bible school and “loved all the volunteering things with the church.”
Ritter was raised Lutheran but stepped away from the faith during her first marriage. Returning to Lutheranism was like “coming home,” she said.
After her children were grown, Ritter went back to school to finish a bachelor’s degree in theological studies, then applied to Trinity Lutheran Seminary. She kept working part-time at the hospital until her third year in the seminary. She would travel to Columbus and live in the dormitory with other students. She said it’s with the support of her family that she made it through seminary. Her husband endured her frequent absences and Ritter would stay with her married daughter in Worthington.
Ritter said it was a challenge to give up a good career at a point in her life when she had many financial responsibilities. She trusted in God, she said, and had faith everything would be OK.
She was diligent about applying for scholarships and her tuition to seminary was completely paid for through a fund from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
“My tuition was 100 percent paid for all through seminary. … God has just paved the way,” she said.
She found other grants and scholarships to pay for books, dormitory fees and a summer Greek class. She said it was important not to have debt from her degree follow her for years afterward and so she applied for every grant and scholarship she could, while continuing to work part-time at the hospital for much of her time in seminary.
Seminary was a long journey with many steps.
“I always just took one step at a time. … And I just never once thought of turning back,” Ritter said.
Just three weeks after completing internships in Toledo and Lima she was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a bilateral mastectomy.
Ritter said having worked at a hospital made her more fearful, not less, when dealing with breast cancer.
But it’s part of what she brings in terms of life experience, along with her divorce from her first marriage, her experiences raising her children and grandchildren and many deaths in the family — six significant family deaths since she started seminary.
“I know what it’s like to pray when you’re afraid because I too was afraid,” she said.
Going through having cancer “just turned me toward God” even more strongly, she said.
“It changes you as a person,” she said. “It changes your ministry. It really does.”
Cochran, too, said having real-world experience can help a pastor.
“It’s easier to walk with people if you’ve had some real-life experience,” he said.
For him, managing a bookstore taught him administrative skills that have helped him as a pastor.
“I had to manage people and manage things,” and that too is a part of a pastor’s job, Cochran said.
But he found he didn’t want to move into administration at bookstores. That realization led to his getting a master’s degree and pursuing a teaching career.
“I love the students. … They’re eager to learn,” he said. “And there’s always at least a few of them that are just really excited. And I found I was good at it.”
He taught at the University of Toledo, Ohio University and Capital University. He’s currently teaching a class in English for non-native speakers at the University of Findlay.
While it used to be that someone went to college, graduated and then went to seminary, more and more people enter seminary as a second career today, Cochran said.
“It’s a real mix nowadays,” he said.
And it’s more common than people realize that someone feels called to ministry later in life.
“It takes people a while sometimes to figure out where they’re going to go,” he said.
For Ritter, working as a pastor “doesn’t feel like work.” She is excited about starting at St. John’s. A small church with about 50 to 70 worshippers each weekend, it’s nonetheless a congregation that is active in community service.
She is looking forward to getting to better know members of the congregation.
“I just am very happy here,” she said.
She advises others who feel the call not to be impulsive but to “listen to where your heart is calling you. Pray about it. Trust that God is with you, is never going to leave your side.”
Asked whether he would recommend seminary to others, Cochran said it’s a case-by-case question.
“The truth is … people who go to ministry have no choice,” he said. “I mean, it really comes down to that in the end, that you know that you have no choice. And it’s kind of painfully obvious. … For people who are called to the ministry and are working in other jobs, there is just a God-sized hole inside of you that needs to be filled.”
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