HOUSTON – As an electrical engineer and a self-professed "angry atheist," Clay Lein had no truck with religion. God, he was convinced, was fools' folly – a crutch for those who couldn't cut it on their own. His wife, Jill, and her father, an Episcopal priest, were free to believe, of course, but the Bible stuff just wasn't for him.
Baseball, though, was another matter.
Seated in a study at Houston's St. John the Divine Episcopal Church, where on Sunday he will deliver his first sermon as the 75-year-old congregation's new rector, Lein spun his tale of how a scoffing man of science was transformed – through the agency of sports – into a staunch believer.
At 53, Lein has worn the clerical collar more than 17 years, as executive pastor at Plano's Christ Episcopal Church and, most recently, as rector at St. Philip's Episcopal Church in Frisco, a Dallas suburb.
After the Easter retirement of St. John's Rector Larry Hall – he had filled the top position for 33 years – Lein was unanimously selected by the River Oaks church's vestry, the governing lay body.
The church sought a compelling Bible-centered teacher-preacher who coupled managerial skills with a warm demeanor – in short, "Jesus with an MBA," said senior vestry warden Tom Knudson.
"Clay met the description better than anyone we had seen," Knudson said. "We just fell in love with the guy."
Lein, the unlikely pastor with a talent for building congregations, will take the helm of the 4,000-plus-member Houston church just as it is poised for unprecedented growth. Tens of thousands of new residents, church leaders believe, soon will move into condo and apartment towers sprouting near the church.
For the church, one of the city's most prominent Episcopal congregations, and Lein, the next few years may mark yet another new beginning.
God, Lein said, "has a way of calling me to make changes."
"I met Jesus and that was the beginning of a wonderful relationship that has changed every single thing in my life – my marriage, my priorities, my future – all for the better," he said.
For much of his life, Lein – raised as a Lutheran – was a cheerful atheist. "God was irrelevant to me personally and to the world," he said.
All that began to change when, as a mid-20ish Intel Corp. engineer in Phoenix, he was paid a visit by his Episcopalian father-in-law. Searching for a church to attend during the visit, the older man stumbled onto a charismatic congregation that so impressed him that he recommended it to his daughter. She, too, found the Episcopal church a good fit, routinely dragging her spouse to services.
"I went to humor her," Lein said. "They talked to God. They had a strong relationship with Jesus. They prayed for everything."
Baseball came into the picture when the church's priest paid a call at the Lein residence.
Lein bluntly informed the clergyman that he was a nonbeliever, but was impressed when the churchman seemed to accept him nonetheless. The two men soon discovered a common bond: a favorite sport. Before the priest departed, the nonbeliever had agreed to coach a church team.
Lein coached for Jesus, but was unshakable in disbelief. When invited to counsel teens at a summer camp, he spurned the offer.
When reminded that summers at the mountain camp would be about 30 degrees cooler than in Phoenix, he reconsidered.
At first, his duties were limited to serving as a father surrogate to the campers. But things reached a crisis when Lein was asked to participate in a healing session, physically laying hands on the teens and praying with them.
Lein balked, then acquiesced, concluding that "I can do this. I'm arrogant and proud of my gifts. I can make something up: 'Oh creator of the universe, blah, blah, blah.' "
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Then the first teen stepped up, and Lein stretched out his hands.
"Before I could open my mouth, words came into my head that were not of me and I prayed those words," Lein said. "I saw big boulder fields like in Alaska, and on each were words – names of all the things he was struggling with. Each time, God got in the middle and the words that came out were not mine."
Next up was a girl who, as Lein prayed, began sobbing, revealing the details of sexual abuse she had suffered at the hands of an adult.
"That's when a question came into my mind," Lein said. "I said, 'God, if this happens when I get out of your way for 15 minutes, what would happen if I got out of your way for my whole life?' It was an epiphany, a thought that just didn't sound like me. It said, 'Try me.' "
Lein knelt, and recited the Lord's Prayer, the only one he knew by heart.
"I got up and I said, 'I'm a Christian. Jesus is real. This God thing is relevant.' "
Lein's conversion came at a high point of his life. His career was flourishing; he was about to begin study for an MBA. Still, he had been struck, he said, by his powerlessness to help the camp teens on his own.
Lein said he sprang into Christianity with a vengeance. A month later he agreed to mentor a church youth group; within three years he felt called to preach.
"It never occurred to me to doubt the reality of God," he said. "But it was like, 'Really, God, are you sure? I'm on the fast track. I've got an engineering degree and MBA and I'm headed to Silicon Valley. You want me to throw all that away and go to seminary?' I had three kids under the age of 4. Who was going to feed them?"
Still, Lein said, the more he persevered, the more the doubts faded.
With master's and doctoral degrees in theology, Lein was ordained in 1996. After stints as deacon at a South Carolina church and 5 1/2 years as rector in Plano, Lein joined the Frisco church as its first rector in 2002. During his 12-year tenure, he contributed to its growth to about 1,400 members.
Lein established a reputation as a communicator who eschewed pulpit oration for a relaxed delivery. St. Philip's spokeswoman Dianna Brannan recalled the Sunday when Lein perched atop a ladder and proclaimed, "I'm God looking down. Here are all the people below me." Then he descended, Brannon said, and added, "That's other religions. Christ is down walking among the people."
"He just had a way of making it come alive," Brannan said.
In 2013, the Houston church's search committee invited Lein to add his name to its list of possible rectors. He turned them down.
In 2014, the Houston committee tried again.
Warily, Lein agreed to a meeting – and the results were surprising.
"In a period of nine months, I went from 'No, absolutely not. I don't want to talk to you guys,' to 'I'll talk to you guys but I won't like it.' But when I talked to them, I did like it."
After intense prayer and family consultations, Lein – at dinner with his wife at the hotel – almost blurted out, "I think God's calling us."
"It was one of those things that, once you finally manage to say it, it's like, 'Yeah, you're right,' " Lein said. "God often finds a way to interrupt my life."