Finding Happiness in Helping Others: Moritz Alumni as Spiritual Leaders
Moritz alumnus Todd McKenney ’89 began his law career in a traditional fashion, clerking for U.S. District Judge David Dowd. Following his two-year clerkship, Todd practiced with Black McCuskey Souers & Arbaugh in Canton, Ohio. During this time, he volunteered with a program offered by his church, The Chapel, a large non-denominational Christian church with two locations in the Akron area. The program assists international students at the University of Akron in navigating the legal system. When the director of the program resigned in 1994, Todd left his position with Black McCuskey and dedicated himself to the position full-time. Todd recalls, "I soon realized how frightened international students are of the legal system. Traffic tickets, auto accidents and landlord/tenant issues are difficult to resolve when English is your second language, in addition to the fact that courts can be intimidating places. We made it part of the ministry to provide pro bono help when someone could not afford to hire an attorney."
Over the years Todd's position has evolved to be known as the mercy/justice pastor. As the “mercy pastor,” Todd heads The Chapel's local and national relief efforts, as well as managing financial assistance requests from the community. Some major initiatives include disaster relief in Mississippi, a local home-building project, offering low-interest car loans, and providing no-cost furniture. As the “justice pastor,” Todd leads pro-bono legal services, provides mediation and arbitration services, leads ALLIES (a racial reconciliation effort in partnership with the Arlington Church of God), and serves as in-house counsel for the church.
"Probably the most rewarding thing I do is help people understand the legal process, while they cope with frustration during their divorce, or their company failing, or a fight between heirs in probate court," Todd notes. "I often say that litigation feels a lot like cancer, in that it is out of your control, and it is always with you and consuming. But somehow, it usually gets better over time and you have to find a way to go on with the other parts of your life."
When asked about how his legal education and experience have influenced his faith, Todd answers that they have had beneficial impact. "I think I am a much better theologian because of my legal training. I have found there is an internal consistency in the Scriptures, and it strengthens my faith," he reflects. "On a practical level, I think one of the best things lawyers do is try to resolve disputes. My legal education teaches me to look for solutions. My faith teaches me that people can change.” Todd can also offer solutions to common problems, “Most of the people I talk to are in debt way over their heads. I am always looking for ways to give people a second chance, to help them pay or negotiate down debt and to control spending in healthy ways."
Todd appreciates the opportunity to preach and the interaction with others that his position as mercy/justice pastor affords. Though he plans to step down from his current position to run for Municipal Court sometime in the future, he continues to see his purpose in life as helping others. "I think we all have opportunities, as pastors and lawyers, to help people when they are stuck or distraught, to take a step in the right direction," he says.
When Episcopal Priest Becky Robbins-Penniman ’79 graduated from law school, she would have been shocked if someone had told her that one day she would be leading Lamb of God Church in Ft. Myers, Florida, let alone be actively involved with religion. "When one is taught to 'think like a lawyer,' one is taught to be logical, careful and to look for reliable, substantial and probative evidence. This, coupled with my undergraduate education in science, made me highly skeptical of religious faith," Becky remembers. "I thought people of faith were anti-intellectual, emotional and unscientific. I did not find that either admirable or very appealing to be around."
However, during a sabbatical following fifteen years of legal practice for various agencies with the State of Ohio, Becky felt something was missing from her life. At the advice of a friend, she decided to take some classes at a local seminary, ultimately entering a program to earn a master’s in lay ministry at the Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Bexley, Ohio.
"I became convinced that God had intervened in my life in a real and powerful way, and I had to figure out a way of dealing with that conviction," Becky says. "That is when I did what all good lawyers do: I began to research the questions. Although I am a grateful and committed Christian, my research was not limited to Christian theologians. In the process of doing my research, I found many extremely smart people who were every bit as logical, careful and skeptical is I am who had profound things to say about God and the way God interacts with the created order. My legal education and experience, therefore, have affected my faith deeply in that they have helped my faith become integrated and authentic in my life in a way that might not have been possible otherwise."
After her graduation from seminary, Becky was invited to move to Florida to become the Episcopal priest for Lamb of God Church in the summer of 2002. In the almost five years she has held the position, the congregation continues to grow, and she finds more affirmation in her decision to become a religious leader. Becky ably drew from her legal experience with mergers and acquisitions to formally unite the Lutheran and Episcopal congregations of the church into one unified body. "This process was very powerful for me on a symbolic level; over the years, Christian groups have excelled at being contentious and divisive, and we were uniting for mission, ministry and witness," she notes.
On a personal level, Becky has found her passion in helping others find purpose and meaning in their lives. "There is nothing more exciting than being around people whose lives have been renewed, restored and re-energized by God's faith in them and their faith in God."
Attending what is now the Moritz College of Law was not the initial plan for Rich Nathan ‘80. As an undergraduate, Rich strongly considered attending seminary following graduation. When it was time to make his decision, he did not have a favorable view of the Church's role in the practice of faith. "I wasn't sure [the Church] was terribly relevant; the form of church I was in touch with was fairly traditional and I couldn't see myself leading something like that." So, at the urging of a professor, Rich set his sights on law school.
Soon after arriving in Columbus in 1977, Rich and his wife Marlene began to worship with an informal church of approximately 30 “twenty-somethings” in a building that housed the Republican Glee Club in Clintonville. "There was no political connection with the church," Rich remembers. "It was the only building we could find that was virtually free." Rich taught the group on Sundays during law school, and later while practicing law and teaching Business Law at OSU’s College of Business.
In 1987, the members of the church approached Rich with the opportunity to become the senior pastor. Attendance at the lay-led church had grown to about 150 and an institutional change needed to be made. Though Rich was on track for tenure with the College of Business, he decided to leave that path and begin a new one as senior pastor. "When you have a sense of an internal calling from God," Rich says, "You stop weighing the pros and cons and submit to His will."
At the same time, the church joined the Vineyard movement, a national coalition of churches that share essential elements of Christian doctrine and practice, making him the leader of the Vineyard Church of Columbus. Under his leadership, the church continues to witness tremendous growth and now sees a weekly attendance of around 7,000. With the growth of the church comes his appreciation of what such a community offers for spiritual growth and the capacity for positive impact on the community. "I get to see the impact when folks use their talents not just to benefit themselves, but use their talents for other people," Rich says. "If I can encourage that, it's great."
The resources provided by such a large congregation provide the Vineyard of Columbus the opportunity to work on social justice issues in the community and around the world. The church houses a community center that offers free medical, dental, and legal clinics, job training, prisoner reentry, English as a second language courses, and other initiatives. It also runs a medical clinic and food pantry on Fifth Avenue in Columbus, as well as economic development programs in Tanzania and Zambia. Rich says, "To me, a follower of Christ is one committed to justice and mercy so that we make a difference in the world by helping the least, the less, and the lost."
Informed by their law degrees and inspired by their faith, “making
a difference in the world” is what matters most to Todd McKenney,
Becky Robbins-Penniman, and Rich Nathan. Those wishing to contact Todd,
Becky and Rich can reach them through the links to their churches, provided