By Jo Ann Dollard
Being a Roman Catholic priest was something Jim Hearne, 35, had always wanted.
You could say he had an early calling. The youngest of seven children in an Irish Catholic family raised in Chicago’s south suburbs, Jim started thinking about becoming a priest in second grade. For priestly vestments, he’d throw a blanket around his shoulders. And to serve communion to his brothers and sisters, he’d substitute fruit juice for wine and potato chips for communion wafers. He’d even take collections.
He saw the priests at his parish grammar school and thought, “Maybe I could do that.” In third grade, Jim served as an altar boy and from there, “the spark kept growing,” he said.
When he was in the sixth grade, Jim’s mom died unexpectedly of a cerebral hemorrhage.
“Through that painful time, I felt the presence of God inviting me to serve others,” Jim said.
In junior high, Jim was voted “most likely to become a priest.” After graduating from seminary and being ordained as a priest in 2005, he recalled, “I was very happy.”
“Being a part of people’s lives at baptism, Eucharist, confirmation, marriage and death are all things that I feel God has invited me to participate in and celebrate,” he added. Seeing people get excited about their faith – their “friendship with God” – also got Jim excited.
He served at two suburban Chicago parishes, including St. Giles in Oak Park. In January 2011, it was at the parish school that he met Amy, a substitute teacher.
After a while, Jim and Amy became friends. They saw each other at parish events and communicated via email.
As time went on, Jim’s feelings for Amy deepened. “I thought, ‘Uh-oh. Something’s happening here,’” he said, adding, “[Being a priest] was something I’d trained for, but God brought this woman into my life.”
Amy said, “I just knew [Jim] was the person for me.”
After much thought and prayer, in June, Amy and Jim shared their feelings with each other. Jim met with Cardinal Francis George of the Archdiocese of Chicago to tell him he was leaving the priesthood to marry Amy. It was a monumental decision, but Jim knew it was the right one.
A new church, a new family, a new calling
That fall, Jim and Amy began looking for a new church and found Trinity Lutheran Church, an ELCA congregation in Des Plaines, Ill.
“I like to think of it as providence,” Jim explained. “We felt welcomed. That felt good. We felt at home and started going back.” It didn’t take long before they were involved with life at Trinity.
On July 5, 2013, George Schelter, the congregation’s pastor, married Jim and Amy. But long before they were married, Jim was still feeling called to ministry.
“I don’t think I ever stopped feeling the call to preach and be part of a worshiping community,” said Jim.
Amy told him, “I don’t want to take you away from this, if God’s calling you to minister in a different way.”
So Jim talked to George about how he might enter into ministry with the ELCA.
George said, “It feels very natural that he would do this. I said, ‘You’ve done all this, prepared for all this.’”
Last spring, Jim began his candidacy to become an ELCA minister. Because he was ordained and had served in the Roman Catholic Church, Jim met with a theological review panel, which consists of representatives from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, the ELCA’s Vocation and Education Unit and the Metropolitan Chicago Synod Candidacy Committee, coordinated by Sarah Stumme, assistant to Wayne Miller, bishop of the Metropolitan Chicago Synod. The group reviews the candidate’s formation history, seminary education, competencies, gifts and skills for ministry and then recommends coursework and continued formation goals prior to the approval process in candidacy.
“It’s important for candidates who’ve had formation in other traditions to learn about the ELCA’s history and culture,” Sarah said.
To help Jim get ready for ministry, he’s also focused on getting practical experience. In addition to preaching (and he’s “a good preacher,” George says), he serves on Trinity’s Congregation Council and music and worship committee.
“Being at Trinity and visiting other Lutheran congregations has given me the sense and purpose that God is still inviting me into the vocation of ministry,” Jim explained. “I think the ELCA offers me something very familiar in terms of worship, belief, practice, ecclesiology and theology that I grew up with in the Roman Catholic tradition, while at the same time challenging me to rethink some of the theology I was taught and even preached.”
With a full-time job, Jim finds time to study on his train ride to and from work and during his lunch hour. Amy stays home to care for their 6-month-old daughter, Anna Faith, who was baptized in November. Jim expects to be a part of the call process this fall.
Like Jim, “More and more candidates do come from other faith traditions,” Sarah explained. “At some point in their faith journey, they experienced the openness, the welcome and the proclamation of grace [in the ELCA].”
Jo Ann Dollard is a writer, editor and communications consultant living in Chicago who believes stories are the most powerful way to communicate mission.