'God's timing': Lowcountry pastors discuss being called to ministry after professional careers

loberle@islandpacket.comSeptember 14, 2013 

Senior Pastor Len Stubbs is photographed at Resurrection Christian Community Church on Thursday.

JAY KARR — Jay Karr Buy Photo

The president of an insurance company, an accountant and a doctor might not seem like they have a lot in common.

But all are pastors of churches in Beaufort County.

Len Stubbs, now the senior pastor at Resurrection Christian Community Church on Hilton Head Island, was the president of Companion Life Insurance. Becky Albright, the associate pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Beaufort, had an accounting business on Hilton Head. Elijah Washington, the pastor of First African Baptist Church on St. Helena Island, delivered more than 10,000 babies as an OB/GYN before retiring from medicine and focusing on ministry full-time.

Mid-life, they each felt called to leave their professional careers to become ordained ministers.

They are not alone.

According to the Association of Theological Schools, almost 70 percent of students enrolled in seminary this fall were older than 30.

These three Lowcountry ministers brought to the pulpit decades of experience, both personally and professionally, and a maturity and wisdom that can only come from living life.

It's a job no one does for the money, one that puts your life under a microscope and requires a 24/7 commitment. It is a job founded on loving your critics.

A job each described as a not career choice, but a calling.

LEN STUBBS

Coming out of college, Len Stubbs quickly climbed the corporate ladder.

His journey started as a pension consultant at an insurance company, and he was a senior vice president by age 26. He first felt called to ministry in 1979, but had some work to do first.

"What I didn't realize at the time is that it's not just a calling to ministry, but there's an equipping and release to ministry," Stubbs said. "What God was really saying was, 'I think I can use you, just not yet. I think you need a little work.'"

Stubbs first felt called to be the best father and husband he could be and knew he wouldn't be able to balance the demands of raising a family with leading a church. So for the next 20 years, he continued to work and in 1987 was hired as the president of Companion Life Insurance.

Five years later, with his children fully grown, Stubbs left corporate America and earned a master's in divinity degree from Newburgh Theological Seminary in Indiana. He became the executive pastor at Harbor Christian Community Church in Bluffton, which since closed, before starting Resurrection Christian Community Church where he is now the senior pastor.

"Coming to be a pastor later in life, you're able to bring experiences that you can't have when it's an academic pursuit when you're in your 20s," Stubbs said. "In your 20s, it's kind of a job. In your 50s, it's more of an elective choice."

Stubbs said he also brought with him a business mind from the corporate world: how to market and advertise, to work with a team, an understanding that dotting I's and crossing T's is important.

"A church is a small business," he said.

He also had maturity that comes only from living life, and at age 50 felt like he was a more stable and balanced person.

"However balanced you are at 26, you're going to be more balanced at 56 because of your life experience," Stubbs said.

Before going into ministry as a profession, Stubbs was active in the church serving as a deacon and elder, sitting on boards of trustees, leading men's ministries and prayer groups. With his financial wealth, Stubbs also was able to bypass many of the personal financial struggles that accompany full-time ministry.

"We were blessed to be high earners in corporate America," he said. "That allowed us to utilize those resources to concentrate fully on doing the vision which (God) had given us to do here at Resurrection Church without wondering where the next meal was going to come from. But by the time we got to ministry, we'd already been blessed, which meant when or if the church couldn't afford us in the beginning, it didn't matter all that much. The money could be placed back in the ministry."

But leaving an executive management position still meant scaling back their lifestyle, a trade-off Stubbs and his wife, Linda, were ready to make.

"What I found when I was in corporate America is I was never quite fulfilled because while I was making a difference in the lives of a few people, I didn't feel like I was making enough impact," Stubbs said. "The lord finally released me to be in full-time ministry. I don't consider it a profession. I consider it a passion."

Resurrection Church prides itself on its outreach, and Stubbs says being a father prepared him for the challenges of his culturally and economically diverse congregation.

"That's kind of like a family, everyone's a little different," Stubbs said. "Raising a family has allowed me to learn that everyone is a little bit different and in our differences, that's where real strength comes from."

Stubbs' children are grown and married, and he loves being a grandfather. He counts his blessings.

"My first ministry was my family," he said. "The needs of your family and the needs of your congregation often come about at the very same time. Then you're going to have to make choices. Having the Lord allow me to wait until I was older in life gave me the opportunity to be the kind of father he wanted me to be, and now be the senior pastor he wants me to be."

BECKY ALBRIGHT

Becky Albright doesn't know why, after 25 years of accounting, she was called to become a pastor.

She hadn't planned on selling her Hilton Head Island business in 2007.

"I was just approached by the right people at the right time," Albright said.

With that, she then took time to listen and reflect on what was next.

Albright had been involved in the church for years, having served as elder in the Presbyterian church, on the finance committee and substituting on the organ during services. During her sabbatical, she was led to make some phone calls, which led to her enrolling in Union Presbyterian Seminary in Charlotte. After five years of traveling to Charlotte for weekend classes, Albright earned her master's in divinity degree.

"It was not something I ever planned to do, but I was called to ministry," she said. "It was God's timing, not mine. It was a time when I was open to other opportunities and was guided right through it."

But going into seminary, the education and learning proved to be more difficult than when she had studied accounting in her 20s.

"Learning doesn't come as easily at old age," Albright said. "Memory isn't as good. Study habits have to come back."

Albright thinks that at her age, she has the patience necessary to be a pastor.

"Even in church life, decisions have to be made, and it can become very easy to not be kind and pastoral," Albright said. "My personality is certainly now more pastoral than it was in my earlier ages."

While interning at First Presbyterian Church in Beaufort, the associate pastor position opened up, which Albright filled upon graduation in April.

"It's a calling," she said. "It has to be a calling. It's God's work, and God's hand is all over this and throughout."

She's still not sure why she was called to ministry, why her, why now. But caring for people in her congregation and preaching the gospel, she finds fulfillment she couldn't in her work as an accountant.

"Maybe this isn't about a big career," Albright said. "Maybe that's not what it's about. It's about following Christ. And this is what that looks like for me."

ELIJAH WASHINGTON

At age 8, Dr. Elijah Washington stood on top of a 5 gallon bucket, peeping into a neighbor's window to see a child being born.

"That cry that I heard, I've never heard anything that sweet since," Washington said.

Growing up in Beaufort County's rural community in Sheldon, Washington was in the church every time the doors were open, he and his sisters making the 3-mile walk to Sunday school each week. At a young age, he knew there were two things he wanted to do: medicine and ministry. But he knew the latter would come later in life.

"Early on, I wanted to make sure I was ready for the commitment," he said.

Graduating from high school in 1959, he went on to study at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Meharry Medical College in Nashville and obstetrics at the College of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey in Newark.

In his 50s, Washington earned his doctorate in divinity in 1992 from Bethany Theological Seminary in Dothan, Ala.

"I had matured to the point that I could do what really needed to be done in the church," Washington said. "Had I done that right when I got out of college, I'm not sure I'd have been able to withstand all the temptations that are out there, things you know you shouldn't do."

For the next 13 years he juggled being a doctor and pastor, having other doctors cover his shifts if he was on-call Sunday morning.

"They complemented each other," Washington said. "In ministry, I got so much from it that helped me deal with the stress of being a doctor."

Washington has been the pastor at First African Church on St. Helena Island for the past 12 years. He retired from medicine in 2005, and plans on spending the rest of his life focusing on his ministry.

"I had the chance to experience myself and see the results of what somebody else had gone through," Washington said. "Nobody's perfect, and I would never try to say that I am. I'm not, I'm definitely not. I'm far from it. But at least the way I did it gave me a chance to try and do the right thing."

Follow reporter Laura Oberle at twitter.com/IPBG_Laura.

OTHER FAITH AND VALUES STORIES BY LAURA OBERLE "Beaufort resident Charlie Frost helps choose music for national Presbyterian hymnal, 'Glory to God'" "Chaplains help bring solace, compassion to police officers, bridge gap in community" "After more than 20 years, Beaufort County church seeks more permanent home"

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