For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope (Jeremiah 29:11).

Tomorrow, October 30, I will have been ordained to the Presbyterian ministry 33 years. As I thought about what I’ve learned over all that time, three tired but true cliches came to mind.

1.  People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. I first heard that from the Rev. Harvey Jenkins, a friend who also happened to be a presbytery exec, as he critiqued my Personal Information Form (a ministerial resume). A candidate for ordination with long life experience said it earlier this month at a presbytery meeting as she was being examined. It was a nice reminder of what Harvey told me all those years ago.

I recall my first conversation with my pastor in Albany, GA about going into the ministry. I was a deeply introverted kid, and I think I saw the ministry as some kind of dodge of interpersonal relationships. I imagined that I would be preaching to big crowds, essentially hiding behind a pulpit. “I’m not good one on one,” I told him. “Ministry is mostly one on one,” he replied. I blew that off and kept on seeing my anticipated work as mostly academically-flavored proclamation. (Of course, that was the model of ministry I had seen from every pastor I had ever known; not one of them had ever been in our home for a visit, and they all used big words in their sermons.)

Over the years, it’s become clear to me, though, how right my pastor was. Even preaching is a pastoral act. I remember one particularly awful sermon I preached in a little chapel down in south Alabama near the beginning of my ordained service. It was all about Jesus’ process of self-discovery. The people were bored out of their minds. One lady sat in the back knitting!  It was a single Sunday assignment, and I didn’t know the people nor had I been given any information about them, but that experience taught me a lesson for the long haul: sermons are not academic studies, but rather proclamation of good news that impacts the real lives of the congregants. (My ever-practical and wise wife Susan has helped me to see that more than anyone, even down to reminding me to keep my sentences short.) And to know what to say (and sometimes, out of sensitivity, what not to say), you have to know the people. What are they struggling with? What are their joys? Their viewpoints? Their interests? That takes time and conversation and caring. No one is interested in what “the Greek says” unless it makes a difference in their daily lives.

2.  Bloom where you’re planted. As I look back on my years in ministry, I was never until fairly recently satisfied with where I was. I recall complaining how one presbytery official crassly applied the standards of the secular business world, with its corporate ladder and superficial emphasis on looks and charisma, to the church. But really, my carping was dishonest, because I wanted the big church and the prestige and the staff the official equated with success. It took hard experiences to teach me that God places you somewhere in his good providence, and you need first of all to be grateful and secondly to truly be present in that place. Pay attention, enter in, live into the traditions, become a part of things. As Jeremiah advised: “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jeremiah 29:7). Holding yourself aloof from the real issues, beliefs, and needs of the place you are while a) trying to impose your viewpoint without having first heard theirs and b) making it obvious you don’t value the way things have been done (the “myth” of the congregation) is not smart, and in the end, it will not serve the gospel. 

3.  When God closes a door, he opens a window. The providence of God never ceases to amaze me, no matter how many times I have experienced it. My position now in Amory, MS is a prime example of how God works. I grieved when my campus ministry career came to an end due to lack of funding. But God opened up the little church a hour away to help both them and me. We have a marvelous relationship of mutual benefit. It’s the sort of place with the kind of people I have come to love: small, authentic, intimate, deeply caring, hospitable. A place where I can use whatever gifts God has given me and maybe make a difference.

Thanks be to God.

© 2010 Tom Cheatham