[caption id="attachment_425" align="alignright" width="200" caption="The Cooper Family"]
"Let not your heart be troubled....God will provide a way and a means when you are truly called into ministry...."
Jay Cooper, age 35, is married to his wife, Susan, and is the proud father of two daughters: Caroline (16) and Ella Cate (11). He is in his third year of seminary studies at Candler School of Theology. Currently serving as the Minister of Discipleship at First United Methodist Church of Montgomery, Ala., Jay tells of his call to ministry and the impact the Stegall Foundation is having on his seminary experience.
"My wife and I married at a young age, at which time I joined the United Methodist Church and began discerning ways to live out my membership vows and for us to pour ourselves into a community of faith who surrounded us with love and care. Susan and I began working with the youth group----she with the youth choir and I with the United Methodist Youth Fellowship (UMYF) program.
Two aspects to our involvement with the church, however, led to me exploring the idea of ministry as career: First, the associate at the church asked me if I had ever considered attending seminary and pursuing the gifts he and the church had affirmed in my life. Secondly, on one particular night of teaching the youth (having led mission trips and small groups, as well) I found myself in a conundrum. I realized I could not honestly encourage my girls to remain open to God's call knowing that God was in fact working on my heart and I was not open to the direction I was being led. This moment of realization was both profound and confounding. How could one teach others to listen for God's call, tell one's children to remain open to God's call, yet not answer the call for one's self?
Giving up my secular career to pursue full time ministry was both liberating and constraining. It was liberating because I felt a sense of joy and peace in finally answering God's call after 10-11 years of wrestling with it. It was constraining because of the demands and the stress it placed on my family and our finances.
I was also nervous about returning to the academic world after being 10 years removed from undergraduate work. I also hoped my children would begin to value higher education by pursuing their own dreams after witnessing the sacrifices Susan and I have made. My hope is that they will pursue their own dreams after witnessing the sacrifices Susan and I have made.
All of this is, of course, held in tension with the fact that i 'gave up' an extremely healthy salary with my in-laws to
[caption id="attachment_515" align="alignright" width="300" caption="Jay during a recent mission experience"]
pursue the educational requirements for ordination. One of the unknown elements to entering seminary is that for the most part donors, congregations, and others assume that most students cannot afford the costs of seminary and this is a correct assumption. Typically, the hidden costs of seminary, however, are not addressed as part of the overhead for attending school.
For instance, it costs me $200/week to attend Candler. This cost is strictly gasoline and food for two days of commuting, but does not include the other five days of the week where I must support my family and manage the daily schedule of ministry. In other words, many folks tend to only consider tuition as the primary cost and it is indeed one of significant concern. Yet, the out-of-pocket expenses may also be demanding on a family. The cost of books, parking passes, car maintenance, children's needs, school supplies, groceries, etc. are also part of functioning throughout the semester.
All if this to say that without the Stegall Foundation I could not attend seminary! Despite the many challenges of entering seminary I have embraced a sense of peace knowing that I am supported by faithful members of the Body of Christ from our Annual Conference.
[caption id="attachment_431" align="alignright" width="200" caption="The Cooper Family having a little fun!"]
The financial strains were initially not as noticeable because I was so overjoyed to be attending Candler School of Theology. It was not until my third semester that the costs began sinking into my daily life. Susan was working part-time and I was earning a decent salary, but the weekly costs of commuting began mounting. No one ever imagined gasoline would near $4/gallon as it did nor were the effects of the 2008 recession ever felt more strongly than when I began commuting in the Fall of 2009 and realized money in savings was depleting rapidly as were the collections across the board for charitable agencies.
My family made several adjustment when I entered school: we ate out less, we worked at receiving hand-me-down school uniforms for the girls, we did not do much on the weekends because money became scarce. Life halted in many ways, some of which I can never revisit such as opportunities for trips or other ventures as a family. During the prime of our lives we were unable to experience vacations, weekend getaways, so forth because money was in short demand due to a drastic career change. I never considered quitting seminary or pursuing some other means for ministry. I remained focus on the tasks to which God has called me.
Simply stated, acceptance in the Stegall Foundation allowed me to feel a sense of peace and assurance as if a net had been placed underneath this tightrope act in which I was engaged. Susan, Caroline, Ella Cate and I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Karl and Brenda for helping make this call a reality. Our only way to return their generosity is to serve this Annual Conference faithfully and wholeheartedly, to help others discern their own calls into ministry, and to give as much to the foundation as I am able when I graduate seminary. In fact, I often tell Dr. Stegall what a joy it will be when the day arrives for me (one of his students) to begin supporting other students financially. I long for that opportunity.
Words fail all efforts to express any level of appreciation to the donors of the Stegall Foundation. We have difficulty defining in human language God and the way God works, but I have difficulty defining ways to adequately express a word of gratitude to the donors for similar reasons--perhaps it is because this Foundation is so closely connected with self-sacrifice, courage, agape, and grace. These attributes define the God we serve as well as the spirit of this Foundation as it supports so many of us who are not able to otherwise attend seminary. Thanks be to God for the donors who 'hold all things in common' with and for us.
[caption id="attachment_432" align="alignright" width="200" caption="Jay in service at FUMC, alongside Mrs. Sherrill Bryan"]
My words to a potential donor would be simple: If you want to give to a cause where tangible fruits are realized from the seeds you plant then please support a seminary student! Secondly, if you want to experience God's Kingdom on earth then give to an organization that helps others in need. This is why every penny is so important to us. Our donors change our lives!
My advice to one wrestling with the call is not to allow cost to be a determining factor. Stepping out on faith means stepping out in a number of ways, not the least of which is financially. There will be burdens but there are burdens everywhere, There will be times of doubt, but doubt exists regularly in the lives of God's people who claim a faith in One who has come but will come again. There is never a good time to enter seminary; there is only God's time and when God calls a person God bids them come and die (to paraphrase Bonhoeffer). In other words, financial concerns should not be a deterrent to seminary since the Stegall Foundation works tirelessly to provide resources for the student, the parent, the spouse, the commuter, and the local pastor. Let not your heart be troubled....God will provide a way and a means when you are truly called into ministry."