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A winding path leads a Mormon back to Salt Lake - as a Presbyterian minister

Published April 28, 2007 12:00 am

The newly ordained pastor is the first "homegrown" minister in Utah's Presbyterian Church in America
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2007, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Jonathan Hays, being ordained to the Christian ministry last month was like getting married.

You make a lot of promises to love, honor and respect the church members you will serve, and they reciprocate. But you never really know what you're getting into.

And, like any new bridegroom, Hays, who now serves as associate pastor at New Song Presbyterian Church in Salt Lake City, was both awestruck and humbled.

"These are the people I have known and loved for years. They have seen me at my most sinful, yet they want me to be their pastor," he thought while surveying the congregation from behind the Lord's Table for the first time.

It was a grace-filled moment, he says, which was exactly what attracted him to traditional Christianity in the first place.

The Rev. Samuel Wheatley, New Song's pastor, was delighted to play matchmaker for Hays and his congregation.

"Jonathan knows how to be sensitive to where people are coming from," Wheatley says, "but can communicate to them the essence of Christianity."

Hays works with college kids at New Song, oversees the music program and helps with Christian education for adults.

Perhaps the most important service, Wheatley says, is that Hays knows Utah culture, and that is key to helping New Song fulfill its mission of spreading the traditional Christian gospel.

The newly ordained pastor is the first "homegrown" minister in Utah's Presbyterian Church in America, a historic denomination with five congregations in the state. It is distinct from the larger Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which is more liberal in its interpretations of Christian beliefs and practices.

"All the other pastors have moved from other places," Wheatley says. "We need insiders [like Hays] who automatically understand the challenges of Protestant ministry in a predominantly Mormon culture. They know the true points of difference and true points of similarity between the two and what needs to be articulated much more clearly."

On that score, Hays is the perfect candidate.

He was born into a multigenerational Mormon family and raised in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He went to elementary school in South Jordan, but his father was in the Air Force, so the family moved a lot. During high school in Washington state, Hays was the president of his LDS seminary class.

"I was in the church whenever it was open," Hays says. "I was very involved in it."

He graduated from high school at 15 and went to Snow College in Ephraim at 16 - mostly because he didn't get into LDS-owned Brigham Young University.

That's where his spiritual journey took a turn.

Hays began to study the LDS Church's history and was troubled by some of what he read, particularly the practice of polygamy, which the LDS Church abandoned in 1890. He could no longer reconcile what he read with what he heard from contemporary Mormon leaders.

"I left the LDS Church, not to become something else, but because I didn't think I could be LDS anymore," he says. "I kinda had a phase of rebellion. I was upset that God would let me be part of something that wasn't true."

Hays left college in 1999 after only three years and moved to Pennsylvania to work and live with his mom. Yearning for spirituality, he was impressed by co-workers who talked about Jesus but never forced their faith on him.

One night, Hays says, he was driving home from work and spotted a Christian bookstore. He thought to himself, "I know my friends have a real relationship with Jesus. I need to talk to someone. There's going to be Christians in there."

He went into the store and began to weep.

A kindly clerk urged him to go to church, any church, on Sunday, so he just picked the closest to his mother's house. It was Presbyterian.

"What I experienced there was amazing," he says. "I heard grace and I saw grace and it blew me away because I had never seen or heard it before. I knew going in there that I wasn't good enough. I had seen it throughout my life as I tried to be a good Mormon; I knew I couldn't do it."

That night he prayed his own version of the "sinner's prayer" - that his life was "screwed up" and he needed help.

"I didn't know the right way to pray, but I saw Jesus and so I leapt for him," he says.

Within a few months, Hays returned to Salt Lake City and delved into the dot-com industry. His first day back, he met his future mother-in-law, who urged him to attend her Sandy church and meet her "two cute daughters." A year later, he married Sarah TK Hays. They now have a 1-year-old daughter, Stella.

The two found their way to New Song in Salt Lake City, a small congregation that tries to mix contemporary style with historic rhythms, finding creative ways to reuse ancient traditions with modern elements. Wheatley sees himself as shepherd, not superstar.

"The key for us is authenticity and realness," Wheatley says.

That approach was immensely appealing to Hays, who became immersed in the life of the congregation, volunteering to help in any way he could. But then he got laid off from his technology job and the couple were forced to move to Anchorage, Alaska, for work. There, they attended an Episcopal Church, where one of his friends suggested he go to a Protestant seminary.

He was accepted at the University of Glasgow, where he earned a bachelor's of theology in 2006. After that, he and his wife made a list of 20 cities from London to Seattle and many stops in between. They spent a month in prayer to decide where to settle, and it came down to London and Salt Lake City. They chose the latter.

He was called back here, Hays believes, to do "church planting," or developing congregations that don't exist now.

"Along with other Christian churches," he says, "I want to see Salt Lake City blanketed in gospel-loving services that drip grace."


* PEGGY FLETCHER STACK can be contacted at pstack@sltrib.com or 801-257-8725. Send comments about this story to religioneditor@sltrib.com.

The Presbyterian Church in America

* ORGANIZED AT A CONSTITUTIONAL ASSEMBLY in December 1973, the church was first known as the National Presbyterian Church but changed its name in 1974 to Presbyterian Church in America (PCA).

* IT SEPARATED FROM THE PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH (USA) in opposition to what founders perceived as theological liberalism that denied the deity of Jesus Christ and the inerrancy and authority of Scripture. PCA also held to the traditional position on the role of women in church offices.

* IN 1982, the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod, joined the PCA.

* THE PCA STRICTLY ADHERES to doctrinal standards that had been significant in Presbyterianism since 1645, namely the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms.

Source: The Presbyterian Church in America




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