How My Baptist Upbringing Influenced My Conversion (Part I)
If you’ve been reading the blog or following along on Instagram for any length of time now, you probably know that before I converted to Catholicism as an adult, I was Southern Baptist. In fact, my father was a Southern Baptist minister.
I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where my father served as head pastor at a small church. When I was two, we moved to Houma, Louisiana, then Murray, Kentucky, then finally Mobile, Alabama, when I was in 6th grade. My parents eventually moved back to Baton Rouge when I was in law school. Each move was precipitated by a “call,” as Dad described it.
Southern Baptist Churches, lacking the same organizational structure as many other denominations operate almost entirely independently. Any given church may (or may not) belong to an overarching association, such as the Cooperative Baptist Foundation or the Southern Baptist Convention, but notwithstanding such membership, each individual Southern Baptist Church operates autonomously. Typically, a church in need of a pastor would reach out to my father to gauge his interest. Dad spent time in prayer discerning whether it was a call from God to move on to a new pastorate, and if it was, we moved.
As a preacher’s kid (or PK as we are often called), my life revolved almost entirely around whatever church my father pastored. Not only did it determine what city or state we lived in, but the nature of the pastorate meant we, as a family, spent a great deal of time physically at church or with other church members. We didn’t travel much, as Dad always had to be available to preach on Sunday mornings and evenings and Wednesday evenings and to officiate weddings and funerals as needed. Most of our social activities were church related: hosting or attending parties for various church groups, youth group activities, mission trips, handbells and choir practices, summer overnight church camps, and Vacation Bible School were all regular staples.
It was a good life and provided me with a solid theological foundation in many ways. It was certainly no fault of my parents or the Southern Baptist Church generally that I wandered away from the faith of my childhood as a young adult. For me, the world was simply too loud, and God seemed too quiet.
With this background, then, it’s only natural that one of the first questions people consistently ask about my conversion to Catholicism is some variation of “how did your parents react?” In light of this question, as well as in a spirit of ecumenism, I’ve invited my father, Dr. Terry Ellis (who also writes on his own blog, Gracewaves), to join me in this series of posts reflecting on how my Baptist upbringing influenced my conversion.
Lauren: So, how did you react when you learned of my interest in converting?
Terry: First, thank you Lauren for this wonderful opportunity to “dialogue” with you on your blog, and to perhaps help your readers in ways that neither of us can imagine.
I begin with a story of when you were about 4 or 5. You and I were alone in the car driving home from church. I’d mentioned you in the sermon that morning and wondered if that made you feel uncomfortable. I asked you how you felt about that. Very seriously you told me that it was perfectly fine because you had usually fallen asleep by then anyway. So, at the very least I’m gratified that some of the things I said across the years found a home in your heart and helped you find your home in God.
Your readers are probably most interested in how a Baptist preacher’s daughter became a dedicated Catholic convert. The short and most accurate answer is that you followed the leading of God. But I also recognize what Aquinas called “dual agency,” where God works in and through us and our free will to bring about His will. In a similar vein, Paul Tillich, an important 20th century Protestant theologian, spoke of the interplay of destiny (what God gives us) and freedom (what we do with what God gives us). God gave you to me, and vice versa. My role in your conversion lies in the things you heard me say and the faith I modeled as you grew up.
We’ll have a chance to hit on a number of these things throughout this series, but here I’d say that I always preached that children cannot live as adults with an inherited faith. They must make it their own. That includes my children. I urged and expected you to explore the Christian faith with an openness to God. I was always perfectly comfortable with the idea that you would find a church home other than Baptist. I was genuinely pleased and grateful to God when you followed His lead to be a Christian in the Catholic Church. You studied and learned and prayed. You did what I taught you to do.
Lauren: I’ve heard it said (from you, no less) that for better or worse, we get our first theology from our parents. Because you were both my parent and my pastor, I suppose in some ways you were even more responsible for my faith formation than is typical.
Grace has always been a major theme not only of your preaching, but also your parenting. Because of the way you studied, approached, and taught me about Christianity (and Iife) generally, I never experienced any hint of anti-Catholic sentiment growing up, either from my own family or any church members. In fact, it wasn’t until I became Catholic that I even knew there were Protestants who don’t consider Catholics to be true Christians and vice versa. Can you speak a little to your experience with the Catholic community as a Baptist minister?
Terry: You’ve heard me tell the following story many times, and I think it best sums up my approach to the whole anti-Catholic/anti-Baptist sentiments that are out there. When we first moved to Houma, LA (southwest of New Orleans and about 90% Catholic) I wrote a letter to Bishop Warren Boudreaux of the local diocese. I wanted to introduce myself and express my anticipation of working with him in any way he desired for the cause of Christ in the area. I closed by saying that in exchange for showing me a good restaurant in town I’d enjoy taking him to lunch.
A few days later my secretary rang me to say “Bishop Boudreaux is on line 1.” Here I was, a 29-year-old Baptist pastor getting a call from the Bishop! I straightened up in my chair and answered the call. “Rev. Ellis,” he said in a wonderful south Louisiana accent, “I want to thank you for your wonderful letter.” I responded that it was sincere. He then continued, “But Rev. Ellis I am the bishop of this area.” He paused only long enough for me to nervously wonder what protocol or custom I’d violated. He then added, “I will take YOU to lunch.”
I met a delightful Christian man at lunch later that week, and I’ll never forget some of the things he said. “The way the Catholics used to treat the Baptists was terrible,” he said. He was referring to the difficulty of some small Baptist congregations encountered in decades past when they tried to buy property to build a church. I had no idea. I responded, “Well, the way I hear some Baptists treat Catholics is equally terrible.” He said “Christians have been arguing since Peter and Paul. And it has never honored Christ.”
You always heard me speak respectfully and even admiringly of our Catholic neighbors in private and from the pulpit. I thought that was important because it honored Christ who we all are following, sometimes smoothly and often with a limp. You grew up in Baton Rouge, Houma, and Mobile, all heavily Catholic cities. I was determined that you would understand the importance of love and grace in our dealings with all people, but especially our Christian brothers and sisters whose faith and practice had some differences from ours. Christ is always The Point. We never honor Christ by speaking despairingly of other sheep in His flock.
Lauren: Continuing in this vein, I think one of the (many) things I took for granted growing up was your commitment to providing me with a solid history of Christianity. For example, I remember Wednesday night Bible study sessions that you led on the history of where we got the Bible and the Catholic Church’s development of core doctrines nearly all Christian denominations subscribe to (such as the Trinity). I truly did not realize until after I converted that there are Protestant Christians who do not know that the Catholic Church is responsible for these treasures of our shared faith.
Terry: You often heard me refer to the Catholic Church as “our mother.” This was common sense. Baptists didn’t appear on the scene until about 1500 years after Jesus. Someone had to be carrying this whole thing along! The Catholic Church is where we all came from, and every Christian owes a deep debt of gratitude to the apostles, witnesses, martyrs, and disciples for carrying the message for fifteen centuries. And we all should continue to be grateful for work and witness of the Catholic Church. This honors Christ.
In spite of what anyone says about the human failings of the Catholic Church both ancient and modern, the heart of the Church never wavered. It’s a human institution, so you can count on humans to really mess things up on a regular basis, and sometimes terribly so. But the heart of the Church was always Christ, and He has never failed nor faded. Focus only on the failings and you miss the marvelous Providence that gave birth to us all, but initially, and for a very long time, through the Catholic Church alone.
I actually kind of enjoyed saying things to my congregations like, “If you love your Bible then thank a Catholic. They preserved it for all of us for 1500 years.” It was always a little shocking to some Bible-loving Baptists to learn about the process of copying manuscripts and discerning the canon that was carried on by the Catholic Church through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. All of the major doctrines we Christians cherish were hashed out by Catholic theologians and debated in Catholic councils. Of course, Protestantism added nuances and new thoughts, but we mustn’t forget our origin.
I often added that I didn’t always agree with my own mother, but I always loved her and was grateful for what she gave me. The same applied to the Roman Catholic Church. You grew up with that sentiment, and I’m sure God used that to make your conversion to Catholicism seem like going home.
Now I would add here that not all Baptists had the same attitude or sentiments. A Catholic Christian would not have to search long to find a Baptist Christian who says unkind, distorted, and untrue things about them. I suspect it works the other way around too, but you definitely find less uniformity among Baptists. Baptists can be a fractious and fiercely independent lot. We lack a central structure that settles disputes and provides a uniform response to questions of doctrine and teaching. This can prove confusing to other Christians.
As you mentioned earlier, you grew up hearing me talk a lot about grace. I learned that grace perspective under the ministry of a good Baptist pastor growing up. I focused on grace in both my Masters and Doctoral level studies under the tutelage of Baptist professors who taught grace. Grace is the reigning principle that undergirds all true spiritual physics. It’s the way the spiritual world works. God is love, and grace is His means of showing that love and changing us.
I endeavored to model for you a grace that enabled people to discuss and learn from one another. Through grace we find and guard the common themes that bind us together. Through grace we humbly listen and genuinely think about ideas that differ from ours. Through grace we show love for one another. And that does honor Christ.
This post is a series of posts entitled "How my Baptist Upbringing Influenced my Conversion." To make sure you don’t miss Part II, hit the subscribe button, below!