Margot Davis, Special to the Catholic Virginian
Deacon Michael Ellerbrock has faithfully served God for 26 years as a deacon and as a professor of agricultural and applied economics at Virginia Tech.
“I give 100 percent to my marriage, to being a father, to being a deacon, to being a professor, and I enjoy all of it,” said Deacon Ellerbrock.
Early in life, Deacon Ellerbrock had quite the journey that led him to find the best of both worlds – a ministry and a profession. After earning an undergraduate degree in recreation and parks from Texas A&M, and a master’s in recreation and park administration from Clemson, he concluded he no longer wanted to pursue a career in that field. Inspired by an environmental economics course he took during his last semester of graduate school, Deacon Ellerbrock stayed at Clemson to earn a doctorate in economics.
“Economics is so relevant to how the world works, and it explains a whole lot about people, business and government,” Deacon Ellerbrock said. “After studying it, I came alive. I always tell my classes it was the best decision I ever made, but don’t tell my wife that.”
Marriage and ministry
With doctorate in hand, Deacon Ellerbrock started his first job as a professor of economics at the University of Florida. During that time, he continued to discern the priesthood and even scheduled a visit to interview with a Jesuit community in Philadelphia.
Right before the visit, he met Sue. During the interview with the Jesuits he admitted that she might be “the one.” The priests were supportive and told him he could not go wrong with either decision – joining the priesthood or marrying Sue. Finding comfort in that thought, Deacon Ellerbrock proposed to Sue by the end of the year.
“I had always been in love with Catholicism, and once I got married, I couldn’t be a priest, so I had to figure out what I could do,” he said.
This search led him to enter diaconate formation at the University of Dallas after moving back to Texas with his wife, who he lovingly refers to as “Rose.” During the four and a half years of diaconate formation, he taught during the week and took classes with his wife on the weekends. He was among the first people to complete the program while also having two children in the same period.
Best of both worlds
Four months after being ordained, Deacon Ellerbrock interviewed for a professorship at Virginia Tech on Easter weekend; he was offered the position. He did not want his children to grow up in Commerce, Texas, because it was a small town with few opportunities; he accepted the position, and his family headed to Blacksburg.
The most challenging part of moving set Deacon Ellerbrock up for his greatest success. Starting two vocations at the same time was tough, but he learned how to balance them. He started at Virginia Tech as an associate professor – doing research and publishing articles, working tirelessly to earn tenure for a second time after losing it when he moved.
He simultaneously began his ministry as a deacon at St. Mary Catholic Church and raised two small children with his wife. Throughout that time, he had faith in God that he could do it all.
“I thought, ‘I’m not going to put God on hold for five years, get tenure, and then act like I’m real religious,’” Deacon Ellerbrock said. “I’m pleased that I did that because it all worked out.”
He has found the best of both worlds between his two vocations. He teaches during the week, and preaches at Masses at St. Mary on weekends. While it has not always been easy to do everything, his wife and family are grateful for the challenge.
“We have had to adjust our schedules at times in order for him to spend time at church on weekends when he preaches, or if someone in need calls him, we might have to change our family plans,” said Sue.
Nevertheless, she has no regrets.
“It has been a great blessing to our family in that we have been able to be a part of people’s lives in a very special way – allowing us to be a greater part of the community,” she said.
Although he is passionate about his love of God and his love of economics, he is careful not to cross any boundaries. He keeps a healthy balance between his two roles.
“I work at a public university; it would be inappropriate for me to preach religion at work,” Deacon Ellerbrock said. “It is not inappropriate, however, to teach religion, so I’m always telling myself, ‘Teach; don’t preach.’”
As a professor, he teaches students faith, not through words, but through actions. Aside from a few words of wisdom each semester such as “No one is perfect; the only man to ever be was hung on a tree,” he refrains from outwardly professing his faith in the classroom.
Instead, Deacon Ellerbrock is a witness to Christ through his compassion and service. He lives his life for Jesus and waits for students to come to him for matters of the faith.
“Students are smart; they figure out who you are and what you are about,” the deacon said.
Ministering after tragedy
After the April 16, 2007 tragedy at Virginia Tech, many students and even colleagues came to him with questions concerning where God was in all of it. During this time, his ministry became about letting people talk it out, not about knowing or giving all the answers.
Deacon Ellerbrock lost a student and a parishioner in the shooting and honored them by writing several commentaries that were published in the Roanoke Times and Deacon Digest. In his writing, he reassured readers that while God had a reason for the evil, it was still OK to mourn because “even Jesus cried when Lazarus died.”
When classes resumed following the tragedy, he was shocked at how many students returned to finish the semester. He blessed them all with holy water, and the class left a Hokie hat in the chair of their lost classmate for the rest of the year.
As one of the faculty members present during the time, Deacon Ellerbrock is a living witness to the strength, resilience and overpowering love of the Virginia Tech community. He was encouraged by the students’ love and support for their school, and continues to share their stories.
‘Makes you feel welcome’
Today, Deacon Ellerbrock is cherished by his students. He is widely respected for his passion not only for the subjects he teaches, but also for his students. Even more memorable than his intelligence and thought-provoking lectures is his care for each student.
He makes sure to learn every student’s name, even in large lectures, and makes time for them outside of class. His courses are highly recommended by other students because of their inspirational nature.
“Mike Ellerbrock is a man who can teach you about micro-economics and then go and teach you about life, too,” said Jeff Badstübner, one of Deacon Ellerbrock’s students and a member of the Newman Catholic Campus Ministry. “The man just makes you want to be a better person. His interactions are so casual and yet uplifting. He always makes you feel welcome.”
Through his dual vocations, Deacon Ellerbrock has had special opportunities to connect with not only his students, but also his colleagues. He has found peers respect his faith and have even invited him to share in their most special days. As a deacon, he is able to baptize and witness marriages, which he has done for his co-workers and their children. He has also offered invocations at university events.
Deacon Ellerbrock is also an award-winning professor. Throughout his time at Virginia Tech, he has been awarded nine honors in the agriculture, natural resources, human and veterinary sciences field, as well as for excellence in teaching. Furthermore, between his religious and academic careers he has had over 100 works published.
Not only is Deacon Ellerbrock a beloved member of the Virginia Tech community, but he is also beloved by St. Mary parishioners. He is known for his homilies, which provide historical context to the Gospel passages in the Bible.
“Deacon Mike exemplifies the qualities you would hope to find in a man of God,” said Ramsey Yunis, a parishioner at St. Mary Parish. “His sermons both convey the importance of following Jesus’ teachings in today’s world while making it clear God’s love is for everyone.”
Recently, Deacon Ellerbrock extended his ministry to the Catholic Campus Ministry at Virginia Tech, where he gives a homily at the campus ministry house at the Tuesday Mass — an indication he is willing to serve God whenever and wherever he can.
Deacon Ellerbrock is not the only member of his family involved in ministry. Sue serves as the director of religious education, youth ministry and adult faith formation at St. Mary, Blacksburg, and St. Jude Parish, Christiansburg.
“Being a deacon’s wife is such a true blessing,” Sue said. “It has given me many opportunities to grow in my faith through working with Mike and others. It has been a true gift from God and has strengthened our marriage.”
Margot Davis is majoring in public relations at Virginia Tech. This article was written as an assignment in a media writing class. It is posted with her permission.