Students answer the call to serve churches
If you met someone who had attained a graduate level theological degree, you'd probably assume they work at a church. Right?
Here's someone who plans to break that mold.
Jennifer Souders, a youth group leader and deacon at Springwater Presbyterian Church, enrolled this fall at Fuller Theological Seminary, but upon graduation she hopes for employment with a nonprofit organization that works with children.
"I want to work with families and help them find the peace that they need, and for them to know that they're cared for and loved," she said. "I eventually might want to do pastoral work. I have a long path ahead of me, and that might be down the road."
Meanwhile, at Estacada First Baptist Church, Pastor of Marriage and Family Ministries Scott Rotrock appreciates his studies at Western Seminary because he learns how to better connect members of the church's youth group with the Bible.
"I can make it come alive for students, and help them understand it better," he said.
Across the United States, many Christian faiths report having fewer people choose the path of a minister — the Presbyterian Church reported having 12,183 active ministers in 2014, compared to 13,693 active ministers in 2006, according to an article published by the Presbyterian Outlook. Across the theological aisle, the number of Catholic priests has fallen from 49,054 in 1995 to 37,192 in 2016, according to statistics from Georgetown University.
In spite of these larger trends, both Rotrock and Souders express confidence in their callings.
"It feels amazing to have a sense of clarity that I've never had before in my life," Souders said. "I have peace that I can hold onto, (that) this is where my life is going."
Growing up, Rotrock never expected to become involved in religious leadership.
"I didn't grow up Christian," he said. "Being a pastor was not on my radar. It never crossed my mind. I thought I had a plan. I was going to be a P.E. teacher, and then God laughed at me."
Rotrock's first significant experience with religion was when a friend invited him to a youth retreat at Estacada First Baptist Church.
Rotrock went on to attend Portland State University on a track scholarship and earned a degree in health education. However, he later decided that this path was not for him.
Because he was still drawn to working with people, Rotrock took a position with Northwest Family Services and taught classes about families and relationships.
After Rotrock had been in that role for several years, Estacada First Baptist Church Pastor Brent Dodrill asked him if he would be interested in teaching these courses at the church.
"Brent was definitely the outward call (to the church)," Rotrock said.
Today, Rotrock oversees the youth group at Estacada First Baptist and is pastor of marriage and family ministries, a position he has held for several years.
At the encouragement of the church elders, he enrolled in Western Seminary last fall. Since starting the program, he's found a lot of meaning in his studies — often, more than he had in the past.
"I'm constantly being challenged with God's word, and everything has a purpose," he said. "There's eternal value, and it's worthwhile."
Serving and connecting with others
Souders' desire to work with people is one element that inspired her decision to attend Fuller Theological Seminary. This fall she began a year of online courses, followed by a year of study at the school's campus in Pasadena, Calif.
Souders has been a member of Springwater Presbyterian Church since she was a baby, and she had been considering attending seminary "off and on" for awhile.
After a period of uncertainty over whether she would continue teaching or pursue a different path, she had a moment of clarity during the church's recent mission trip to West Virginia.
"(During a worship time), we were singing, and God intervened," she said.
In that moment, she arrived at a decision to teach for one more year, attend Fuller and then work with children through a nonprofit organization. "It had always been bubbling, and I felt a boiling point this summer."
After completing her studies at Fuller, she hopes to work with at-risk children.
"I want to help them know that they matter," she said. "So many of them don't feel that way."
Among other possibilities, she's interested in becoming involved with child advocacy or working with an after-school theater program.
Souders is not alone in using her seminary degree for work outside a church setting. In 2006, more than a quarter of active ministers in the Presbyterian Church were working in positions other than pastoral roles.
Souders sees her path as a valuable opportunity to connect with others, both inside and outside a church setting.
"I'm a people person, and I've always wanted to be with people," she said. "I want to (establish) relationships with them, and be that loving person."
Rotrock appreciates being able to work with others in his position, as well.
"I love the people aspect. I love that we can sit and talk," he said. "I never want to trade that."