Something worth dedicating a life to

Jim McKnight didn’t always realize he was destined to be a minister in the United Church. In fact, with several career changes already under his belt, he was well on his way to a life in bank management when he finally found his calling.

Jim McKnight has worked his way from banker, to teacher, back to bank manager, to United Church minister in his widely varied career. PHOTO: Phil Lameira / Beach Metro News

One evening while working late at CIBC, where he had worked for over a decade, McKnight was speaking with the branch’s loan officer about the bank’s desire for management to become more involved with the bank, by taking courses, purchasing shares, and other suggestions.

When his co-worker left, McKnight realized “the bank wants me to become a ‘CIBC man’.”

Though he loved his job and the work he did, he started to laugh.

“The bank is asking me to dedicate my life to the bank. That’s interesting. What could I dedicate my life to? And then, honest to goodness, out of the blue, came the idea of ministry,” he said. “Honestly, I thought I was losing my mind, so I packed everything up quickly, put it in the vault, locked the vault, and got the heck out of there.”

McKnight had originally graduated from the University of Toronto with a Bachelor of Science in Zoology – his wife, Babs, said she had thought early on in their relationship that she was going to be marrying a scientist. However, he left the world of academia for a job with the bank. His best friend went into teaching, and he decided that maybe he should do so as well, so another stint at teacher’s college resulted in a job teaching sixth grade in Scarborough.

Though he enjoyed the work, and the connection with his father, who had also been a teacher, McKnight felt it wasn’t the right fit, and went back to CIBC.

“I wasn’t ready, I guess,” he said.

He stayed there for another three years past his original thought of entering the ministry, which wouldn’t go away. He even went so far as to have information on theological school mailed to a friend’s address before finally revealing his possible career change plans to his family.

McKnight said his teenage daughter immediately went out to find a part time job to work for money for the family, while his son, 10 years old at the time, “cried because he thought he’d have to go to Sunday School every Sunday.”

So it was that McKnight left CIBC at the age of 36, after 15 years of banking, and entered Emmanuel College, at Victoria University, part of the University of Toronto. Most of his classmates were also signed up for a second or third career – there were nurses, teachers, engineers and other professionals, “but interestingly enough, no other bankers,” he said with one of many laughs.

McKnight’s parents didn’t live to see him enter the ministry, but he believes his mother would have been delighted: “She wasn’t exactly thrilled when I first went into the bank.”

McKnight was ordained as a United Church minister in 1992. After being ordained, serving churches in Etobicoke, Oakville, Kitchener and now Northlea United Church in Leaside followed. McKnight, a southwest Scarborough native, now finds himself and Babs living off Dawes Road, though they are planning to move closer to Northlea in the new year.

He said not only does he have no regrets about the decision, he still feels honoured to be in the position he’s in.

“It’s the thing I’ve done the longest in my whole life. It’s enormously rewarding. It’s almost selfishly rewarding, because people invite me into their lives at very critical stages in their lives,” he said.

From baptisms, to weddings, to people of all ages in hospitals and funerals, McKnight has a part in the most emotional aspects of his congregation’s lives, both positive and negative. Though some might shy away from a vocation dealing with such extremes of emotion, he points out that when something is right for you, it doesn’t really seem like work.

“It’s amazing, really,” he said.

He said there’s some irony in his career path, as he has told people with tongue planted firmly in cheek, “I played God a lot more often in the bank than I ever have at the church.”

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