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From the Courtroom to the Pulpit

STH student Bill Hoch’s midlife career change

“I think we all make mistakes, we all screw up, but in God’s eyes, you can wake up every day and start new.”—William Hoch

When the pastor at Carter Memorial Church in Needham, Mass., faced a labyrinthine task—procuring a prayer labyrinth to help parishioners meditate on Good Friday—William Hoch, Esq., just happened to know where to get one.

That’s not standard expertise for an attorney. But at 50, Hoch (STH’19) is making a midlife career switch to ministry, interning at the Needham Methodist church. He volunteers at a nonprofit fighting homelessness, which owns a 20-foot-wide canvas labyrinth that Hoch dutifully borrowed and unfurled on the floor of the church basement. He spent Good Friday doubling as answer man and traffic cop, helping adult walkers seeking contemplation and smaller strollers seeking fun in the labyrinth’s concentric circles.

Spying two young boys on the canvas, he quipped to their father, “I’m sure for the rest of the day they’ll be deeply spiritual and centered.”

“I’m happy they’re not tackling each other right now,” the dad replied.

All in a day’s work at Carter Memorial, which has hosted STH interns since the early 1960s, Pastor Gary Shaw (STH’78) says. Some use the opportunity to polish their ministerial strengths, he says, others use it to challenge themselves with new opportunities: “Bill has done a little of both.”

Hoch “participates in and/or leads Bible study, faith formation classes, and worship, and does some administration,” Shaw says. The intern also preaches on occasion. His Earth Day sermon last month disputed with Christians who he said believe environmentalism does not jibe with their belief in humanity’s God-given dominion over nature and that it’s a distraction for clergy from their work of saving souls.

The original, biblical Hebrew word rada, usually translated as “dominion,” he said from the pulpit, “must be understood in terms of care-giving, even nurturing, but not exploitation. In other places in the Bible, rada is used to describe a good king who rules responsibly, with peace and prosperity.”

“I haven’t always aspired to be a minister,” says Hoch, who shows up for an interview with BU Today looking every bit the barrister in gray suit and tie. He has tentative approval to be a half-time pastor at the United Methodist Church, in Woburn, Mass., starting July 1. In that capacity, continuing indefinitely, he’ll perform the duties of an ordained minister. (Ordination would come at some future point.)

Bill Hoch oversees placement of a prayer labyrinth at Carter Memorial Church in Needham, Mass., where he interns.

Hoch oversees placement of a prayer labyrinth at Carter Memorial Church in Needham, Mass., where he interns.

He grew up in Wilton, Conn., a tony New York City suburb that churned out Wall Streeters and white-shoe lawyers. As a Williams College undergraduate, he confesses, he “wasn’t getting up on Sunday morning” for services. After Boston College Law School, he worked at a Boston firm doing employment law defense, then for the Boston Police, monitoring cops’ conformity with department policies, and for MassPort, which runs Logan Airport and Boston’s seaport. He’s hung his own shingle for the last few years.

It wasn’t until after he and his wife had kids and moved to Newton that the idea of a career change began to take form. The couple was seeking both a moral anchor for their burgeoning family and an opportunity to put down community ties. They joined United Parish of Auburndale, a church where two congregations, Methodist and Congregationalist, worship, and it clicked with them. Hoch says he “got very involved, and started to see ministry as something that I really had passion for.

“I had for years devoted most of my personal reading to theology. So while somebody else might be reading Stephen King, I’d be reading somebody’s analysis of the book of Romans. You’re tackling really big issues of who are we, why are we here, what’s our role.” He began to see how church and ministry could fill in the emptiness in people’s souls.

“It’s really good for people to realize that they are loved by God and accepted,” Hoch says. “I think we all make mistakes, we all screw up, but in God’s eyes, you can wake up every day and start new.”

Gradually, lawyering lost its luster. “I remember sitting at the kitchen table, working on a legal project, a good project,” he says, “and I was just like, aw, I can’t do this for the next 20 years.

“I knew—and everybody in my life affirmed—that the ministry was something I was good at.” No one goes into the ministry to get rich, but between his past savings and his wife’s income as a lawyer, they calculated he could afford the career change.

Hoch aspires to parish ministry. “I’m a suburban white guy. I am probably a model for a sort of suburban parish ministry.… I’d be very happy working in an inner-city church or a rural church.” But even outwardly prosperous suburbanites can have holes in their souls, he says. Funneling them into community service and finding a sense of purpose “is a way into a relationship with God. Then I think you can use that to push them to think more about their faith and what’s important.”

He experienced that reality years ago, when an elderly neighbor locked himself out of his home. Hoch didn’t know him that well, but seeing the man’s plight, he fetched a ladder, climbed in through a window, and unlocked the door for his neighbor. “I remember walking back from his house to my house, and I had a moment where I was like, Oh! The kingdom of God is with us, almost like a veil that separates us. And when you do stuff to help people, that veil gets pulled back, and you’re like, this is the way the world should be.”

Hoch’s internship at Carter Memorial Church fulfills one of the requirements necessary for a master of divinity degree, but in the age of Donald Trump, with its rampant partisanship and extremism, it also fulfills a personal ministry: bigger and more conservative theologically than his home parish in Newton, Carter immerses him in a different worship environment.

“We’ve all got to figure a way to communicate better—‘I don’t agree with you, but how can we talk about that,’ as opposed to just, ‘Screw you, you’re an idiot.’”

Rich Barlow, Senior Writer, BU Today, Bostonia, Boston University
Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

2 Comments on From the Courtroom to the Pulpit

  • avis smith on 05.10.2018 at 7:03 pm

    I can’t wait to meet this very interesting man in the Woburn church.

  • John A on 11.14.2018 at 11:43 am

    I’m a law school classmate and former work colleague of Bill Hoch. I wish him well in his new calling!

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