Four Partnership Priests Blend Ministry in Church and on Campus

by Melodie Woerman

The season when congregations ramp up their program schedules and students head back to school is an especially meaningful time of year for the four priests in the Dioceses of Western New York and Northwestern Pennsylvania who teach, or have taught, at local universities.

(clockwise from top left) Fulford, Ihiasota, Pinti and Clerkin

The four are:

  • The Rev. Shawn Clerkin, vicar of St. Stephen’s, Fairview, co-director and associate professor of the School of Communication and the Arts at Gannon University in Erie.
  • The Rev. David Fulford, vicar of St. Augustine of Canterbury, Edinboro, and professor of biology and health sciences at Edinboro University.
  • The Rev. Daniel Pinti, priest-in-charge at St. Peter’s, Eggertsville, and professor of English at Niagara University, Niagara Falls, N.Y.
  • The Rev. Isaac Ihiasota, priest-in-charge of St. Stephen’s, Niagara Falls, professor of political science, Niagara University until 2016.

The four all work part-time, leading churches with Sunday attendance of fewer than 100 people, and they teach, or taught, in smaller liberal arts universities. They also share a strong sense of commitment to both of their vocations and a reliance on careful scheduling.

Doing both jobs “takes a lot of advance planning and calendaring,” Fulford said, and members of his congregation know they have to take on some of the work he might do because of his hours on campus. Some days, however, it is difficult to change gears between the two places, he says, “like when there is an 11 a.m. funeral and I then race to campus.”

Ihiasota said that when he was teaching, he would make hospital visits on his way to or from campus. And he said funeral directors were a big help when planning funerals. “They knew I taught at the university, so they helped prevent conflicts.”

As a tenured professor with 32 years at Gannon, Clerkin has flexibility other clergy may not. “I usually teach late morning and early afternoon,” he said, leaving other times for church needs. “The congregation knows my full-time job is as a professor, and they respect that space. My mantra is, ‘I am the priest, but you are the church,’ and we have strong parish leaders exercising the ministry of presence.”

Clerkin, Fulford and Pinti were all faculty members before they became priests. Ihiasota was ordained a priest in his native Nigeria before coming to the United States in 1983 to get his Ph.D. He has since become a United States citizen with the assistance of a former student-turned-attorney who helped him with the paperwork for his green card and later assisted with the citizenship process for him, his wife and his son.

When Pinti first felt a call to the priesthood, he told his bishop that he did not feel called to give up teaching. “The bishop told me that the church needs scholar priests,” he said. “That was very affirming.”

Students at Niagara sometimes stop by to talk with him because they know he is a priest. “My sense is that ministry is taking place both places—at church and on campus,” he said. “That is palpable and important to me.”

Fulford sees a distinction in his roles as priest and professor. “Being a priest is a vocation, not a job,” he said. “I am a priest both places, and sometimes I’m a professor at church, when people ask me science questions.”

Because he also spends time at Edinboro’s campus ministry center each week, Fulford usually wears his clergy collar to class, which sometimes leads students to want to talk. “Once a guy came in, about to be deployed, and he asked that I pray with him,” he said. “Sometimes people in bad relationships come in to talk, but I do tell them that before they go any farther, I’m required to report any abuse.”

Ihiasota found teaching so important that he had it written into his letters of agreement with the parishes he served. “Being a professor made my life interesting,” he said. “I was always reading, and in my homilies, I could bring in something from the university.” He also said his parishioners and wardens “felt pride that their rector was a professor.”

Clerkin also finds academic life central to his vocation as a pastor, preacher and teacher. “It allows me to use all the gifts I have identified God has given me,” he said. At Gannon, Clerkin has offered retreats on work/life balance. In the diocese, he previously chaired the Commission on Ministry. “It’s nice when the two can cross-pollinate,” he said.

Ihiasota said he wishes the church had more bivocational clergy, because “you are out in the community, known in the community.” But Fulford said priests have to find themselves in the right setting for the arrangement to succeed. “It works for me because I’m in a small community with a small church, not teaching at a larger research university,” he said.

Pinti has found just such a setting. “I am not a part-time priest, but my hours in the church are part-time,” he said. “I am bivocational, but not bifurcated. I walk two paths at the same time. But it’s really one path that is interconnected.”

image: (clockwise from top left) Fulford, Ihiasota, Pinti and Clerkin