Catholic Revert: Tom Ponchak
Tom Ponchak earned a degree in theology and was involved in ministry in the Catholic Church then left the Church for ten years. After spending time as an evangelical pastor he returned to the Church in 2007. Tom is the Director of Adult Faith Formation at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Catholic Church in Carmel, IN, where he lives with his wife Lisa and their six children.
I was born into a strong Catholic home. My family was active in our parish. We attended mass in a church that my great grandfather helped to build. I was an altar boy for ten years. My father was a lector, extraordinary minister of the Eucharist, and parish council president. Every week our family occupied the first pew at the front of the church. I was active in my high school youth group. I spent time during my senior year of high school and freshman year of college discerning whether I was called to the priesthood. I attended the Franciscan University of Steubenville to study theology. My academic advisor was none other than famous Catholic convert, Dr. Scott Hahn. After graduating from college I worked as a parish youth minister and a high school religion teacher.
And then I left the Catholic Church.
Reflecting on that time of my life now I often wonder what I was thinking. At the time I felt so sure about the decision. I didn’t leave over disagreements with doctrine. I wasn’t put off by the moral teachings of the Church; in fact, my wife, Lisa, and I continued practicing Natural Family Planning the whole time we were away from the Church. I think my reasons were much more personal and complex. I’ll admit to some rationalizing and over thinking of certain things.
Franciscan University, for those who may not be familiar with the school, is a dynamically Catholic institution. It is not your typical Catholic college. The large majority of students, faculty and staff fully embrace their Catholic faith. There are three daily masses on campus that are well attended. Perpetual Eucharistic adoration is held in a chapel that is a replica of the one built by St. Francis of Assisi. They hold monthly Festivals of Praise, an evening of charismatic praise and worship, to a packed house. Most of the students participate in households, small Christian communities in the dorms similar to fraternities. To say that attending Franciscan University is an intense spiritual, as well as academic, experience is an understatement.
I married Lisa a week after graduation and we immediately we moved to Maryland after I accepted a position as a youth minister of an affluent suburban parish. It was culture shock. We came from such a nourishing, faith-filled community to a place where we received condescending looks (and comments) for getting pregnant during our first year of marriage because we didn’t have the common sense to use contraception. The associate pastor frequently preached a self-help gospel and shared his views that there was no such thing as personal sin and that we really just need to learn to accept ourselves as we are from the pulpit. Spiritual development of the youth was less important than making sure everyone was having fun and feeling good. Meanwhile, we were being neglected by the very parish we came to serve. Lisa had a very difficult pregnancy and we ended up in the hospital for several multi-day stays to combat preterm labor. Not once did we receive a visit from any of the clergy, nor did anyone at the parish office ask how we were doing. Rather, I received a lecture about the importance of being available for coffee and donuts after Sunday masses - while my wife was hospitalized!
We struggled to find any type of community with Catholics who took their faith seriously and not just something done out of obligation. It was hard and painful. Still we were convinced that ministry was our calling. After a year in Maryland we moved to Michigan. I was hired as one of three new religion teachers at the only Catholic high school in the diocese. The prior religion teachers had been relieved of their duties for not being “Catholic enough.” The diocese was looking for teachers who would teach sound, orthodox doctrine and clearly articulate the Church’s moral teachings. For me it sounded like a great fit, and I truly loved teaching. I was able to continue working with young people and trying to impart to them my own zeal for the faith.
Unfortunately, our experience at the local parishes was not as positive. Once again, Lisa and I were longing for community, for a group of peers we could share our lives with and encourage one another in our faith. This continued to prove to be more difficult than we thought. The parishes we attended in town had few young adults. I ran into stubborn opposition from people in leadership in the parishes when trying to help with youth ministry programs. I was actually told by one parish committee person that the goal for youth ministry should be to “create a fun atmosphere so that after these kids leave the Church when they’re in college maybe they’ll remember that they had fun and come back when it’s time to have their kids baptized.”
After three years of looking, but not finding, community and being frustrated at every turn while trying to do ministry both my wife and I were definitely at a low point. We doubted that we would ever be able to do the kind of ministry we felt so strongly that God was calling us to do. We doubted that we would be able to find other committed Catholics who had a real relationship with Jesus and were truly interested in spiritual growth. We were convinced that we needed to find some way of feeding these needs that were not being met in the Church. In September 1996 we reached out to a local non-denominational church that was part of a national fellowship of charismatic, evangelical churches. We met with the pastor and explained that we weren’t looking to leave the Catholic Church, but wanted to hang out with his community for fellowship. It seemed like the perfect fit, we could still attend mass on Sundays and join a small fellowship group during the week that met at the pastor’s house.
We quickly felt a connection with the people gathering for this small group every week. Some were former Catholics, others had come from mainline Protestant denominations, and some had no prior church background at all. When we gathered we focused on how to apply our faith to our lives. People took their faith seriously and were deeply committed to each other and their church. There was a genuine interest in what was going on in each other’s lives from the joys to the struggles, from blessings to needs. Lisa and I immediately felt welcomed and loved. At last we had found a group of fellow believers who we could relate to on a spiritual level and who accepted and support us.
At the same time things continued to be frustrating at our parish and at my job. I always began my religion classes with prayer and would often go around the room asking the students for any intentions. One day a sophomore cheerleader asked for prayer because she had sprained her knee and wouldn’t be able to practice with her squad. From my podium I offered up a prayer asking that the Lord heal her knee along with some prayers for other needs in the class. The next day she came to class excited to share that her knee had been healed. The swelling and pain was gone and she was able to do all her cheerleading moves without difficulty. I took advantage of this little “miracle” to encourage my students to have faith that God wants to be involved in their lives and that they can turn to Him even for what they may think are trivial concerns. I reminded them that God is a good Father who wants to give his children good things if we ask.
About a week later I was summoned to the diocesan office to meet with the chancellor of the diocese. It seems that word had spread around the school about the cheerleader and some parents were calling the diocese to complain about religion teachers healing kids in their classrooms. I explained what happened and how I didn’t even think much of the prayer at the time I was praying. I respectfully pointed out that I didn’t heal anyone, but that if God wanted to answer a prayer then there wasn’t much I could do about that. After all, what’s the point of praying for something if you don’t expect your prayers to be answered? The chancellor listened and then politely asked that I stop praying for healings in my classroom lest anyone be offended or upset! He did allow for the formation of an after school club for such things, but insisted that this had no place in the classroom. At the same time my new evangelical community was asking me to help their church with forming a youth group to guide their teens in becoming disciples and maturing in their faith. The contrast could not have been more obvious.
Christmas of 1996 would be the last time we attended mass. We weren’t quite ready to fully commit to joining this new faith community, but we had grown so tired of the politics and resistance at our parish that we told ourselves we needed a break. We would read the lectionary readings for the week and share with each other our thoughts on the readings on Sunday mornings and listen to some praise and worship music. We were convinced that God was calling us to doing ministry that was incompatible with the local Catholic community. At first we considered moving, but I couldn’t find a job. Our mid-week small group meetings were a source of encouragement and affirmation. We finally decided to walk away from the Catholic Church on Easter Sunday of 1997 and became members of the evangelical congregation we had been spending time with.
This decision was not taken lightly and was not without cost. I knew I would have to resign as a Catholic religion teacher. I decided to stay on for the final couple months of the school year and then not renew my contract. The last thing we wanted to was cause scandal at the school. No one would need to know why I wasn’t returning. I ended up finding a new job in town as an insurance adjuster. Several of our Catholic friends had found out about our decision and would no longer speak to us. It was as if we were being shunned.
By far the hardest part of that choice was telling my family. There was once a time when I had contemplated becoming a priest and now I was leaving the faith. It was the hardest conversation of my life. There were harsh words exchanged, feelings hurt, and many tears. For years this became a source of division between me and the rest of my family. I had often enjoyed staying up late with my father discussing politics and religion over a cold beer and nice cigar. Now, those conversations were off limits. When we talked it was purely superficial. I could see how much pain it was causing my parents, and yet I was so convinced that we were doing the will of God that it didn’t matter.
Once we got through the initial reactions of our friends and family we began to immerse ourselves into the life of our new faith community. We couldn’t have been happier. We finally felt like we were at home; a supportive community and opportunities for doing ministry without having to fight the system were finally opening up before us. I was immediately entrusted with forming their youth ministry program while Lisa began working at a homeless women’s shelter. I was given the opportunity to preach on Sunday mornings to the entire congregation. We began hosting and leading a young adult small group in our home. In no time I had become one of the leaders of the church.
After a couple of years I was offered a church planting internship in Florida within the same association of churches with which we had been involved. It seemed like perfect, divine timing to move us on to our next stage of ministry. We moved to Florida and joined this new congregation. As an unpaid church planting intern I worked full time as an insurance adjuster, but devoted many hours to helping around the church and learning the responsibilities of being a pastor. Once again Lisa and I were given a great deal of favor and immediately began ministry activities. I was afforded greater opportunities to preach and teach. We started a mid-week alternative worship service that combined praise and worship with discussion and visual arts. I started attending regional and national conferences for this association of churches and writing for an emerging church movement magazine.
It may seem odd, but when we left the Catholic Church we still felt a connection to its theology and liturgy. Although we had become frustrated on a personal level with the people in the Church there was still much that we loved about her. We often found ourselves defending Church teaching against misconceptions and prejudices. I was often drafted into the role of apologist for the Church even as a “former” Catholic. I was able to explain topics like Mary, the saints and infallibility in ways that were disarming and resulted in a better understanding and appreciation of the Catholic Church’s doctrine. We also used some of our Catholic background covertly while doing ministry. We taught lectio divina in our small group and introduced ashes and an Ash Wednesday alternative worship service.
Recently my teenage daughter (who now wants to be a nun) asked me how we could have left the Eucharist during those years. This was obviously a big issue for our Catholic friends and my family as well. It was also one of our biggest hurdles to leaving the Church originally. How we got around that is a lesson in the ability of the human mind to rationalize just about anything. I had a degree in Catholic theology from a doctrinally sound university. I had spent hours in Eucharistic adoration. I taught on the Eucharist as a youth minister and religion teacher. How could I have turned my back on the Eucharistic Lord? I was guilty of idolatry. I had desired ministry as the highest good. I had convinced myself, and my wife, that “doing the stuff” that God was calling us to was the most important thing. At first I told myself that giving up the Eucharist was a necessary sacrifice to be able to reach others with the gospel. Then I started rationalizing away the doctrine of transubstantiation. I told myself that the spiritual is more real than the physical, heaven more real than earth. If I wanted Jesus to be really spiritually present, then all I needed was my faith. I misappropriated Eastern Orthodox theology that emphasized mystery to justify my new found position that Jesus really was present, but we just can’t understand how he is present. All it took was some theological cartwheels backed up by blinded zeal to do the ministry I wanted to do.
After a couple of years of interning and assisting, Lisa and I were commissioned to plant a new church in our current hometown of Lakeland, FL. Finally, we had arrived. Now we could build the kind of church we wanted and do the ministry we wanted without having to answer to anyone but ourselves and our hand-picked leadership team. We named our new church Matthew’s House and intended from the start to be an unconventional church. We wanted to start as a house church and remain as a network of house churches as we grew. We wanted to reach out to people who had been turned off or burned out on traditional church. Our new faith community was soon full of pastors’ kids who had grown up and burnt out in church, faculty and staff from the nearby Assemblies of God affiliated college, and some folks who were ready to give up on church altogether.
We felt more strongly than ever that we needed to incorporate more of what we valued and missed from the Catholic Church. We celebrated communion weekly as I used prayers from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. We followed the liturgical seasons and even liturgical colors for our table cloth and candles. I taught how communion was something more than just a symbol. When our third daughter was born I taught about the sacramental nature of baptism and the validity of infant baptism. To my surprise our ragtag group of burned out evangelicals and Pentecostals fully embraced this teaching. I baptized my daughter and several others in those years secretly using the Catholic Rite of Baptism. We studied the Church Fathers and questioned Sola Fide and Sola Scriptura. We studied the communion of saints. The more we introduced our community to various Catholic and Orthodox theology and practices the more they were interested in it, and the more I began to question what I was doing.
I can remember talking to Lisa one day about the direction we were taking our church. I remember thinking that we were just kidding ourselves, that we really weren’t an evangelical church anymore, at least not by conventional terms. At the same time, we felt a deep responsibility for our community. We couldn’t just walk away from them, but we didn’t know if they would be ready to follow us, or where exactly we were going. We started to look into different denominations that might accept our little faith community. We looked at the Eastern Orthodox, the Evangelical Episcopal Church, and even the Old Catholic Church, a schismatic group that split with Rome after the First Vatican Council. On Easter Sunday 2007 we gathered in our home for our Sunday worship. By now we had grown to two house churches but we gathered together as one for Easter. The newspaper had sent their religion correspondent and a photographer to Matthew’s House the week before and that Sunday’s paper had a full color, above the fold, front page picture and story about us. That was our last Easter away from the Catholic Church.
Lisa and I deeply felt that everything we were trying to do were simply attempts at being Catholic without having the honesty to admit it. More than anything we realized that our rationalizations about Jesus being really present in our communion every week couldn’t have been more untrue. Although everyone in our house church loved our communion service, we knew in our spirits what his sacramental presence was like, and we knew that our attempts at recreating that were woefully inadequate. It was like a light finally went on and we realized our hunger for the Eucharistic presence of the Lord. It became an all-consuming desire; we had to return to the Eucharist. We met with the leadership team of Matthew’s House and told them we were stepping down as pastors and returning to the Catholic Church. No one was surprised to hear the news and they all blessed us and encouraged us. When we told those who were meeting in our home they were likewise very supportive. In fact, one family decided to join the local Orthodox Church saying they couldn’t go back to a Protestant one (they just couldn’t agree to the papacy). A young adult from our group decided to become Catholic and I had the honor of being his sponsor. Finally another family also expressed a desire to join the Church. I was allowed to be their RCIA instructor, but they moved out of town before finishing their formation.
Since coming back to the Church we’ve had our share of ups and downs, but I believe that the time we spent away from the Church has given us a fresh perspective and deeper love for her. We learned many lessons with important applications as individual believers and, I believe, for the Church at large. I think the Church is missing opportunities to keep Catholics, call back those who have left, and attract others who are searching for spiritual meaning. I also believe that too many fall into the trap of believing that following God’s will means trying to find out what God wants you to do, rather than becoming who God wants you to be.
I love sharing my love for Christ in and through his Church with others. I love getting my fellow Catholics excited about their faith. Both my wife and I have become actively involved in our parish. We’ve been blessed to help with a dynamic young adult ministry and a Eucharistic adoration ministry that combines adoration with praise, worship and meditation. We’ve even started our own speaking ministry to share our love for Christ and the Church with others. I only hope my story and the lessons I learned can become a blessing for others and for the Church.
To learn more about the Ponchaks or contact them regarding their speaking ministry you can visit Tom’s blog at www.CasualTheology.com and www.mysteriumdei.com or Lisa’s blog at www.BeautifulThorns.com.