Clemons finds new spiritual fulfillment in career change

by Scott Rudie, ’05

For more than 30 years, wherever Cheryl Clemons, 14 went, her trademark white lab coat was never far behind.

As a field application specialist for a large biotechnology company, Clemons made her way to hospitals around the country, training medical personnel in the use of diagnostic instrumentation technology.

The extensive travel aside, her career provided stability and an excellent salary. And yet, Clemons’ mind frequently grappled with thoughts about her future – haunting doubts that could not be put aside.

“I’ve got my whole life together, but still, there’s a piece missing,” she recalled herself thinking. “I always wanted to do something in ministry because I was always very involved in my parish, but because I traveled so extensively, I couldn’t even do much there.”

Last year, she found herself the victim of corporate downsizing. But rather than simply taking her lab coat to a new biotechnology company, Clemons paused to reflect and pray about what this unexpected event truly meant to her.

“I said to myself, ‘Maybe this is my sign,’” she said. “I didn’t take it as a negative. I thought that this was my opportunity to be on a new path. It was an opportunity to do something that I always wanted to do.”

As Clemons considered her options, she received encouragement from her church.

“One day, my pastor came up to me, handed me a brochure, and said, ‘Here. No more excuses,’” she recalled with a laugh.

The brochure was for the Certificate in Lay Ministry program, offered by Stritch's Saint Clare Center for Catholic Life, which provides education and formation programs for lay Catholics who seek to grow in faith and service.

“And my pastor even handed me a letter of recommendation,” she recalled. “I said, ‘This is right up my alley.’ I think that all these doors started to open so that I could start to look at another path – the opportunity to leave corporate life.”

As Clemons began her study of lay ministry at Stritch, she simultaneously fulfilled a deeply personal need by pursuing hospice work. Over the years, she had provided support to relatives in hospice care, including one of her closest friends, Linda. Amid caring for her friend and supporting Linda’s daughter, she felt moved by the impact the hospice workers had upon the grieving process.

“The hospice care worker there said, ‘Don’t worry, sweetheart; we’re going to love her to death.’ And I said, ‘Oh my God, I’ve got to do this.’ And it stayed with me. I told God, ‘This is what I want to do. If this is what you want me to do, then you get me there.’ And I ended volunteering at a hospice.”

Clemons has been grateful for the opportunity to offer that same support she had so often witnessed, and it is an aspect of her journey that has strengthened her faith.

“When I am with a person, I will often sit with them and say some prayers, or I’ll start humming some hymns,” she said. “They sense my presence, or maybe even the prayers. Sometimes I get a little close to the patients and then they pass, but that’s okay.”

Clemons also decided to explore teaching as a substitute in the Milwaukee and Shorewood school districts during the last year.

“In corporate life, I was training and teaching and I thought I was good at it,” she said. “Schools are always looking for math and science teachers, and science is my thing.”

Clemons has found herself teaching a wide range of subjects – from math and science to art, French, band, and history. And her students have ranged in age from three-year-olds to high school seniors.

“I’ve learned a lot, and I do feel I’m making a contribution,” she said.

Clemons completed the Certificate in Lay Ministries in May and praised the program for nurturing her as she journeyed away from her former career.

“I went into it thinking that it would be a purely academic exercise; I never envisioned what a spiritual journey it was going to be,” she said. “Sometimes it was a little eye opening, sometimes it was a little painful, sometimes it was a little frightening, but I had no idea how deep it would go.”

As she looks ahead, Clemons plans to continue to pursue opportunities within ministry, remaining confident in her path but staying adaptable.

“At this point, I’m totally assured that I’m in His hands. And that gave me a sense of peace and freedom,” she said. ”I’m going to be open and let the Spirit run things, although it’s been running things all along – even though I thought I was in charge.”

Back home, Clemons still has her signature lab coat hanging in a closet. She’s come to realize that it just doesn’t fit anymore.

“I wore lab coats for 30 years. I think maybe it’s time I let it go.”