A leap of faith

Jason Stellman gave up a lot to become Catholic — but gained even more

By Kevin Birnbaum

 Jason Stellman
Jason Stellman. Photo: Stephen Brashear

 

Father Kurt Nagel didn’t wear his clerical collar when he first met Jason Stellman, over lunch, in the spring of 2012. It was a bit of a sensitive situation. Stellman was the pastor of a nearby Presbyterian church, and he didn’t want to risk anyone from his congregation seeing him fraternizing with a Catholic priest. He wasn’t quite ready to tell them about the difficult journey he’d been on for the last four years.

Stellman had grown up in a nominally Christian home in Orange County, attending church a couple of times a year. He was baptized at 12, but never cared much about Christianity until he started attending the evangelical Calvary Chapel High School and met kids who were serious about their faith.

“That’s when Christianity became something real and sincere and profound for me,” he said. “I started studying the Bible and praying.”

After graduation, Stellman spent most of the ’90s as a missionary for Calvary Chapel — for eight months in Uganda and six years in Hungary (where he met and married Alida, another American missionary) — before being unceremoniously booted from the church in 2000 for becoming a staunch Calvinist, subscribing to the theology of the 16th-century Protestant reformer John Calvin. From Calvary Chapel’s perspective, he explained, “Calvinist is one of the worst things you could be — just above Satan-worshiper.”

Stellman returned to California and enrolled in seminary. In 2004 he was ordained for the Presbyterian Church in America and moved to Woodinville to “plant” Exile Presbyterian Church. After two years of preparation, the new church started holding public worship services, and life was looking very good for Stellman.

“I kind of felt like, here I am — I’m comfortable in my own skin now. I’ve hit my stride. I’ve figured out who I am and things are going great and the church is growing and we’re financially healthy. So it was just perfect,” he said.

“I would have been the last person to ever believe that I wouldn’t be doing that forever.”

An unwelcome surprise
But in July of 2008, an email from an old seminary classmate set Stellman on a detour from the straight, sunny path he had seen stretching out before him. The email linked to an article that compared and contrasted the Calvinist and Catholic understandings of Scripture, the church and authority — and argued for the Catholic position.

Before receiving that email, Stellman said, “I didn’t think much about the Catholic Church, because in my mind it was just so obviously wrong that it wasn’t really worth freaking out about.”

The article, written by a former Presbyterian, forced him to rethink his smug dismissal of the Catholic faith.

“I really hadn’t considered the things that he was saying, and it was really upsetting because I’m not the kind of person who can just let there be loose ends and question marks in my thinking,” Stellman said. “Because it’s not like I’m a plumber who happens to be a Calvinist — my whole job and my whole calling is wrapped up in the truths of these Reformed theological ideas, and so if they might be wrong I need to figure that out.”

So Stellman started studying the differences between Catholic and Calvinist theology, and two important distinctions emerged.

The first, he said, was “the issue of Sola Scriptura, the Protestant idea that Scripture is our only infallible source of divine revelation — as opposed to the Catholic view that revelation comes to us by means of Scripture and the tradition and the magisterium,” or teaching office of the church.

“The second one, which is just as huge, is Sola Fide, the [Protestant] idea that we’re justified by faith alone, and that no works that we do, even if they’re wrought in our hearts by the Spirit, can contribute anything to our final salvation” — as opposed to the Catholic understanding that salvation requires “faith working through love.”

The more he read, the more he came to be convinced that “the Catholic paradigm made so much more sense out of so much more of the biblical data than the Calvinistic one did.”

‘A dark, depressing time’
For years, Stellman struggled in secret with this theology that threatened to turn his life upside down.

“I don’t think a lot of people understand, but if you’re a Protestant pastor struggling with these things, you can’t talk about it with anybody because of the danger of sort of losing your credibility,” he explained. “It was very isolating.”

Stellman had absolutely no desire to become Catholic, but as time went on it felt increasingly unavoidable. In early 2012, he took a sabbatical from Exile Presbyterian and traveled the country to meet with theological experts, hoping they would provide arguments to talk him down off the ledge. They didn’t.

So that spring, he met with Father Nagel, pastor of Holy Family Parish in Kirkland, and started preparing to be received into the Catholic Church. On May 31, 2012, he submitted his resignation from ministry in the Presbyterian Church in America.

Jason Stellman
Photo: Stephen Brashear

“It was incredibly scary,” he said. “Almost every relationship I had was connected in some way with the Presbyterian Church and with my own congregation … and I’m thinking: Now I get to just, like, betray everybody and join the ‘Synagogue of Satan.’ So it was awful. It was just a dark, depressing time.”

Adding to the stress was the question of how to provide for his wife and their three young children. Since graduating high school, he’d only ever worked in Protestant ministry. Being a pastor was not just his life, but his livelihood. He didn’t know how to do anything else. “It’s not like I have some background in the corporate world I could just go fall back on,” he said.

But he took the leap — becoming a Catholic on Sept. 23, 2012 — and God provided. The elders of Exile Presbyterian graciously gave him several months’ salary after he resigned. An unexpected donation from a parishioner meant Father Nagel could pay him to teach a series of Bible classes at Holy Family. And now he’s found a full-time job where he can put his theological background to use, developing adult education resources for Verbum, the Catholic division of Logos Bible Software in Bellingham.

‘I wouldn’t change anything’
Don’t get the wrong idea — the transition has not been smooth or painless. Several of Stellman’s old friends don’t speak to him anymore, and he comes under regular attack in the Calvinist blogosphere, where he’s been accused of hating the truth, hating the Gospel and hating Jesus.

In the past, Stellman’s instinct would have been to fire back and launch into  a heated debate, but “Catholicism has  sort of mellowed me out,” he said. “The self-understanding of the Catholic Church doesn’t lend itself to being threatened by other churches as if we’re rival siblings competing for a spot at the table or something. The Catholic Church believes that she is the mother of all Christians, and once that identity sinks in, for me anyways, it’s made me less prone to fight.”

Stellman’s wife and kids still attend Exile Presbyterian. Alida doesn’t buy the arguments that led him to the Catholic Church, but she’s been a “saint” about his conversion, he said.

“As hard as it was for her to all the sudden go from being the pastor’s wife to being the wife of the guy who abandoned everybody, she totally gets it,” he said. “She’s at peace with where things are, and she respects me for what I did even if she may not agree with it herself.”

And even though they attend different churches, the family is still united in their love for Jesus Christ. “We still read the Bible together at night and we pray together every night” with the kids, Stellman said.

Stellman gave up a lot to become a Catholic, but he gained the sacraments, which have hit him with surprising power — especially the sacrament of reconciliation.

“I don’t think I’ve successfully given an act of contrition in confession without breaking down,” he said. “It’s weird. It wasn’t like I was this weepy person before and now I’m just weepy as a Catholic, but there’s something about the sacramental nature of it, where it’s not just some invisible transaction between me and Jesus way up in the sky, but it’s Jesus right in front of me in the person of this priest.”

Six years ago, Stellman couldn’t have imagined he would ever be a Catholic, but despite all the challenges, he’s grateful for the surprise.

“It’s been hard and it’s been different,” he said, “but I wouldn’t change anything at all.” 

NORTHWEST CATHOLIC - May 2014