Theology students Heather Fraser Fawcett, Douglas Painter, Kathryn McIntosh, Duncan Robertson and Irene Smolik


Heeding the call

DANIEL McCABE | McGill's divinity students have opted to prepare themselves for careers involving low pay, high stress and irregular hours. What in heaven's name were they thinking?

Darla Sloan says she and her fellow ministers-in-training didn't have much of a choice. "God just gets a hold of you."

Not that long ago, Sloan was working towards a PhD in linguistics at Université Laval. A solid academic career was well within her grasp. Then one day, seized by an overwhelming notion that she was on the wrong path in her life, she shifted gears dramatically.

"It was like a lightning bolt," says Sloan, who is currently preparing herself to be a minister with the United Church. "That's the best way I could describe it.

"I had actually been away from the church for 17 years," says Sloan. Once she began attending again, she was surprised by how intensely she was drawn to religious service. "It began to take up more and more space in my life. It got to the point where I found it very difficult to separate the secular and the sacred in my life. It's not something I can only do on Sundays or in my spare time. My faith is my life."

"It wasn't a lightning bolt for me, but I did come to the decision suddenly," says Irene Smolik, who is looking forward to a career as an Anglican minister. Smolik was in Calgary, finishing her MA in sociology and contemplating doing a PhD. As a youngster she had gone to Mennonite and Pentecostal churches and was then attending an Anglican parish.

Friends used to tell her she would make a good minister and she liked the idea of a career where she could help people. After becoming ill during the Christmas period, Smolik found herself doing some serious thinking. "I came to the conclusion that I wasn't going to do a PhD. I would study theology instead."

So Smolik ventured where no saint or apostle has ever gone -- she turned to the World Wide Web. "I really wanted to go to Montreal and I was interested in McGill." After discovering that McGill had a theology program that was affiliated with the Anglican church, her course was set.

Heather Fraser Fawcett grew up as a Presbyterian near St-Jean-sur-Richelieu. "Like a lot of young people, I left the church in my late teens and I didn't come back until I was in my 30s." She studied Zen Buddhism and did a degree in history and Canadian studies. She started attending a Unitarian Universalist Church and in 1994 became a chaplain, a position of spiritual leadership that requires formal training. She wants to hold a more senior position in her church now as a minister.

She is drawn to interfaith work -- counselling couples from different religious backgrounds, for instance. Influenced by a particular Anglican minister she greatly respects, Fraser Fawcett also wants to be a hospital chaplain. As part of her current training to become a minister, she works as a chaplain at the Royal Victoria Hospital.

In their 30s, trained in other disciplines, often having experienced a period in their lives where they drifted away from religion, Sloan, Smolik and Fraser Fawcett are typical of students in the master's program in divinity according to religious studies professor Ian Henderson.

"In fact, they're quite typical of ordinands [candidates for ordination] in North America. Ordinands are not only generally older than they used to be, they tend to be into their second careers. They've often had some kind of big life change that's cut them loose to think about this path. That life change is often tied to some sort of religious experience."

Henderson adds that's it not unusual for divinity students to have "attended church A when they were young, moved away from that life and then start attending church B."

The problem with that, says Henderson, is that it makes their training all the more difficult.

"They often don't have deep roots in the tradition they're trying to live in."

Still, Henderson believes this generation of budding church leaders has an advantage over their predecessors in terms of their ability to reach out to the sceptical members of their faith.

"They know very well what it's like not to be interested in the church, because at one point, they weren't interested in church themselves."

Henderson is the advisor for McGill's bachelor's program in theology as well as the divinity program. Some students pursue theology degrees out of an academic interest in the subject matter, but those who want to become ministers do both the theology and divinity degrees, almost always in affiliation with one of the three theological colleges which serve as McGill's partners in the training process: the Montreal Diocesan Theological College, the Presbyterian College and the United Theological College.

Divinity students -- who number about 12 per year -- have to master a variety of courses dealing with the New Testament, the Old Testament, the philosophy of religion and church history, as well as electives that focus on other faiths. They have to master either Greek or Hebrew, and do religious community work in a variety of settings. They also have responsibilities to their own parishes and to the theological colleges with which they're affiliated. Their academic ability is scrutinized, as are their leadership and counselling skills. Psychologists probe their psyche to determine their mental fitness for the ministerships they seek.

"One of the things you're judged on is how well you integrate all those aspects," says Kathryn McIntosh, a candidate for ministry in the United Church. "You can't get away with compartmentalizing. You can do extremely well in the academic aspects of your training and still be refused in the end."

It can be a difficult journey sometimes. "You don't come here and get the fuzzies," says Smolik. "You know how people talk about throwing babies into the water so they'll learn how to swim? That's the way it feels sometimes."

The ordinands like the fact that the Faculty of Religious Studies is part of a greater, very diverse McGill community.

"It's more representative of the milieu in which we'll be working -- society tends to be secular," says Sloan. "You learn to be respectful of other people's views."

Fraser Fawcett agrees. "The people here have the ability to speak and listen to each other in a respectful way. This isn't a typical Bible school and I like that about McGill." Constant contact with individuals who hold different views about religion "makes the experience more challenging. And faith needs to be challenged."

With a Jewish studies scholar as dean, professors specializing in Hinduism and Buddhism on faculty, and a large number of arts students from a variety of backgrounds as classmates, Douglas Painter, another ordinand, says the faculty is an appealing location to study theology. "That's the most exciting thing about McGill -- you're exposed to so many different ways of approaching God."

Young people tend to regard organized religion with a sceptical eye, says Henderson. According to polls, this is especially true in Quebec. "In terms of their views of organized religion, it ranges from mild hostility to just not having any interest at all."

Henderson says that once young, wary arts students find themselves in a class with the ordinands, their opinions towards organized religion tend to soften. The ministers-in-training "serve as wonderful icons for organized religion. These are nice, approachable, open-minded, thoroughly decent people to know. They don't fit the stereotypes of organized religion -- they aren't monsters of manipulation and authoritarianism. I enjoy watching that interaction."

Although the students receive some financial support for their studies from the theological colleges, money can be an issue. "They're receiving training for a profession where they'll never get rich," explains Henderson. "They simply cannot afford to incur debts. Someone studying medicine or law can make a cost/benefit analysis and decide that maybe it's worthwhile to incur debt. Our people will simply never be on the affluent side of society. And they already often have commitments. Many of them have children, for instance."

"This is a very small community," says McIntosh. "We know each other at a deeper level than do the students in other parts of the University. The kind of exchange we engage in about spirituality tends to be more self-revelatory by its very nature."

Painter is thinking of a life as a rural minister -- in the Gaspé or Eastern Townships, perhaps. "Anglophones tend to rely more on church organizations in rural settings. You tend to become more of a community leader in those settings."

"I don't see myself as a conventional parish priest," says Smolik. "The church has to be ready to meet other needs in society. I see myself as having a public role. We are here to serve as well as to preach."

For her part, the bilingual Sloan hopes to help "develop the French side of the United Church in Canada. In the town I grew up in in British Columbia, there was a United Church on practically every street corner. That's certainly not the case in Quebec.

"My friends used to ask me, 'What on earth could have possessed you to give up a promising career in academia?'" recalls Sloan. "It's not a career choice I've made in any kind of conventional way. I really feel that I've been called to this life.

"If this is nuts, leave me here," adds Sloan. "I'm quite happy to be crazy if this is what it means to be crazy."