Second-career pastors bring unique gifts to their callings.
In a vicious and bloody civil war, tomorrow is promised to no one. But a young Carlos Cortez ’23 M.Div. found a way to imagine a future.
“I grew up in El Salvador … in the middle of violence. I saw a lot of death, saw how people can hate each other. I lived in fear, because of the war,” Cortez said.
He survived the killings that claimed many people he loved, and in 1992, at age 15, he made his way to California, not knowing English or what to expect in his new home.
But Cortez had a dream, and he worked hard for it. “Within two years of arriving, I had graduated (from high school) and was going to college. No one in my family had ever gone to college,” he said.
To figure out his next step, Cortez had to do some digging.
“I went to the public library to look at an encyclopedia that had careers in it. I saw a picture of two guys with ties under ‘business careers.’ … That’s what I wanted: to graduate from college, make good money, wear a tie and a suit. That was my view of success,” he said.
Cortez finished a business degree and moved into administrative roles in hospital and school systems. He loved the work, especially coaching and encouraging his employees to seek out greater opportunities.
But something wasn’t quite right.
“I came to learn I really hated wearing a tie,” he said, a smile stretching to his eyes.
Around the same time, Cortez and his wife were spending more time at a local church, seeking solace after suffering a miscarriage. The couple also wanted to find more ways to serve their community.
“We come from marginalized neighborhoods. We’re the only ones in our families with college degrees,” Cortez said. “We ended up working with the youth in Inglewood, California, in our high schools and junior high schools.”
Cortez soon gave up his tie-wearing days when he took over the food services division of a large homeless shelter. The work was as much about feeding spirits as it was bodies, and after his wife finished her master’s degree in social work, it was Cortez’s turn to continue his education.
The logical choice, he said, was a Master of Business Administration.
“But here was a little voice inside my head that said, ‘An M.B.A. isn’t the right thing for you,’” he said.
The desire for more education hadn’t abated, however.
“The CEO of the shelter encouraged me to get my master’s in social work. I looked into it, and I thought, ‘We already have a social worker at home,’” he said. “Then one day, my pastor said, ‘You can be a pastor,’ and I thought he must be joking. I can’t be a pastor; I sin too much.
“I said to one of my coworkers, ‘My pastor is crazy, he thinks I can be a pastor.’ And my coworker said, ‘You already are one— look at all the pastoral work you already do here at the shelter.”
Today, Cortez is among the majority of pastors who had another career before starting work in the church. A study on vocation released in 2019 by the Barna Group and Abilene Christian University found that 55% of pastors enter ministry as a second act.
“Be careful what you ask for,” Cortez said, laughing. “What I’m finding out is it’s not always your way, it’s God’s way.”
God will generously provide
Cortez didn’t grow up in the church, per se. His grandfather taught him Catholic traditions and practices—but they didn’t stick.
“After everything that I had seen, I didn’t really buy this God thing,” Cortez said. “We were just told, ‘You have to believe, or else you’ll go to hell,’ but I didn’t buy that. It was not for me. I still believed in God, but not from a religion sense.
“I didn’t have anything against God; I didn’t blame him for anything, but I didn’t see the necessity of going to church,” he said.
Even today, Cortez said he doesn’t immediately alight on a particular Bible verse that he turns to for guidance or support.
And yet, he easily paraphrases Scripture when it comes to explaining how he ended up as a second-career pastor, preparing to finish his education at Luther Seminary and begin the next phase of his call.
At first, he didn’t know anything about seminary and the calling process—but he did know he couldn’t pursue an education that would negatively affect his and his wife’s financial future.
“I worked so hard to get out of student loan debt—I swore, never again,” he said.
Cortez had thought that stipulation would be the end of his church leader exploration. Then, he found Luther Seminary.
“Here, I find a fully funded program,” he said. “God was like, ‘OK, son, what other excuses do you want to give me?’”
Cortez was part of the third and final cohort of students in the MDivX pilot, an accelerated M.Div. program that was funded by a generous gift to the seminary. All other students in the seminary’s Master of Divinity and Master of Arts programs are able to access fully funded education through the Jubilee Scholarship.
Though he’s not sure what comes next, Cortez isn’t worried.
He hopes he’ll be able to fill an opening that is coming up at the little church where he first dared to consider the radical notion of being a faith leader.
“I have a strange feeling that something will work out, and that’s not like me. I plan, I work for things, there has to be a Plan A, B, and C,” he said. “I just feel like something is going to happen.”
His journey and destination have been different from others’, but that doesn’t worry him either.
“Something about me, I don’t really act like a pastor. Even today, you won’t hear God’s name coming from my mouth all the time, but you’ll see me care for my neighbor,” Cortez said. “I’m going to care for you, help you, walk with you. I’m going to notice when you’re not you, make a connection with you. You’ll get that energy from me to get things going— that’s what I’m bringing to the church. It’s my connection with the people.
“Instead of concentrating so much on what’s said, I’m doing— God help me—seize the day and do for others.”
The church lady
While Cortez was initially leaning away from a call, Tina Bigelow ’23 M.Div. was, unknowingly, leaning in.
Bigelow spent most of her adult life accepting orders and executing plans during 25 years of military duty, retiring as a commander in 2005 from the U.S. Navy. She said those decades spent identifying a task, completing it, and then moving on to a new task paved the way for her second career.
“In the military, it’s the mission—that thing we can’t do by ourselves. It’s the same in the church. The mission is what we can’t do by ourselves, or without Jesus in our life,” she said. “The military has given me
insight into many cultures, many agendas. It’s amazing to me to see the certain dynamics that everyone shares: No one wants to be alone, everyone wants a mission.”
After she and her husband retired from active military duty, the couple moved their family from Hawaii to Washington state, and Bigelow settled into being a stay-at-home mom and a full-time volunteer.
“Volunteering in the church and the school, that was the plan. I was part of the Women of the ELCA, did some of the altar care—just typical church lady stuff,” she said.
The more she did in the church, the more she wanted to learn. And the more she learned after becoming a student at Luther Seminary, the more she felt there was something greater happening.
“I’ve always had a sense of agency in the work of God—the priesthood of all believers. Vocation is not about a job, it’s how we function in our community, show our reverence to God, and how we give back to our community,” Bigelow said.
“I was asking myself, ‘How do I open myself to God’s agenda instead of my agenda?’” she said. “I’m one of those people who processes out loud, who processes in the moment. Stewardship and discipleship aren’t something
to use just once a year, but something I could see in myself every day. How can I be a good steward to God every day?”
Bigelow said she’s guided by “the theory of being called and named.
“I feel like I have been called into this and feel like I will be named as a minister,” she said.
“Called—you are given the responsibility. And named—you are it, you’re doing it. In ministry, in faith, it’s how we are fitting into God’s family.”
Randall Nichols, D.Min., who studied second-career pastorships at George Fox University, found that 21st-century congregations are often more interested in the life experiences and background that pastors bring to a faith community,rather than in seminary experience. That’s especially true, Nichols found, in rural areas that are often already lacking faith leaders. “Many such second-career pastors, having
retired from other employment, have other means of financial support such a pension or other retirement income. These individuals are physically able to serve full time in a church and provide spiritual leadership and guidance for several years before fully retiring,” Nichols said.
What’s more, second-career pastors can dip into their past experiences to bring a new approach to solving problems or unique ideas to revive a lagging congregation.
Bigelow is a great example of that concept.
“I’m an old, short, disabled, female, biracial veteran—and many times I’m overlooked by the power structures of the day,” she said. “What is it that I bring to the table that will further where this organization wants to be? I bring an agency and a voice to things that people don’t want to name. Change is hard. If you don’t do anything differently, you can’t get a different outcome.”
Is it the right time?
Back in 2015, when Julie Radeke ’23 M.A. and Elliot Radeke ’23 M.Div. were newly married, Julie felt that God was calling her to pastoral ministry. But she wanted to take some time to pray and discern the next steps.
“I grew up in the church, but working vocationally in ministry was never my plan,” she said. Her professional background was in hospitality and operations.
Still, Julie listened to her call, and by 2018, she was working full time in children’s ministry. She and Elliot were active volunteers in their church and community as well.
Yet, the idea of seminary still didn’t seem realistic. In addition to working and volunteering, the couple was busy raising their two young children. The timing just seemed off. “I was wrestling with God in the busyness of being a mom and working in ministry,” Julie explained. “I said ‘no, God,’ with so many reasons why it wasn’t a good time I would wrestle, saying, ‘I am not the girl.’”
In 2021, Julie again felt a nudge toward seminary. At about the same time, Elliot, who was teaching fifth grade, also began to discern a call.
“I was loving (my work),” he said. “But then I started to feel like there could be more I got this reoccurring call to pursue seminary, but without really knowing what’s next.”
Elliot confesses he was a little confused at first. “For me it was like, ‘What the heck, God? Why did you have me do this (education degree) just so I could leave that work?’ But then I was like, ‘No. God had me do these things to prepare me.’”
Eventually, both Julie and Elliot took a leap of faith and enrolled at Luther Seminary. While this decision came amid some confusion and uncertainty, it has brought them peace to know they are each following their call.
“It was also an opportunity for us as a couple to live out our faith,” Elliot said, “to show our children that we stepped into this really challenging thing and we didn’t know the end of it, but we have this peace.”
Still, Julie admitted, “In some ways, it was terrifying. … There were definitely questions of why now? Why together? But this burden, this responsibility that I feel, I believe it is the Holy Spirit. When you experience that call, it’s not something you can just ignore. You might try, but it will continue to pursue you—God will continue to pursue you.”
Elliot added, “For me, it goes back to that peace. Deciding to stop teaching and to trust this process and that God will continue to show up. Holding onto that peace and reminding myself of how God has shown up before. We often forget what he’s done in our lives.
“We are reminding ourselves that God has been with us on this whole journey.”