September 2011

I’m going to be taking an extended break from this blog, starting today. In the meantime, please check out my sermon posts at

Thanks for reading. I’ll be back.

© 2011 Tom Cheatham


This Sunday is labeled “Theological Education/Seminary Sunday” on the PC(USA) planning calendar. It’s a day for recognizing the contributions our seminaries make to the life of the church and in turn considering their financial needs for our congregational budgets. We also remember the women and men studying in those schools for various theological vocations, including the pastorate.

I’m not doing much in my congregation this Lord’s Day to focus on this denominational emphasis, other than a prayer for seminaries and seminarians, but I wanted to say a word here about educating pastors. I was prompted to comment by some observations by Ed White I ran across the other day while going through some files.

White is a church consultant. He was writing in a 2006 issue of Congregations, the journal of the Alban Institute.  In an article entitled “The Shortage of Capable Clergy: Root Causes,” White complained that “Seminaries are engulfed in the academic model and they do a fine job of teaching Bible, theology, church history, polity, and ethics. They don’t, however, teach much about leadership!  Many seminary faculty are academics who have never had to exercise leadership.”

Dr. White goes on to talk about the concept of “emotional intelligence,” developed by Daniel Goleman. While IQ is a fixed figure, emotional intelligence can be cultivated and has to do with interpersonal relationships. White concludes: “Unfortunately our seminaries are not geared to help candidates for the ministry develop their emotional intelligence. The result is that we produce clergy who are often very smart and can preach good sermons but lack the competencies (emotional intelligence) to be fruitful leaders” (Fall 2006: 52).

To which I say, from hard personal experience, Amen! Over my almost 34 years in ministry, I have found that parishioners are hungry for knowledge about the Bible, and look to me to feed them. But they also want a pastor who knows what to say and how and when to say it, someone who remembers their names and the important details of their lives, and who is approachable and warm. I’ve come truly to believe what my old friend Harvey Jenkins once told me, citing an old proverb: “They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

Much of what I know and practice as a pastor now I actually learned from working in a law firm and from personal mentoring by an experienced pastor who took me under his wing. Seminary, at least the one I attended for my Masters of Divinity work, did not prepare me for being a pastor! Only real world experience and further education, especially by people in congregations, did that. And I’m still learning.

I have to confess ignorance about what seminaries are teaching these days. I don’t know if they are addressing White’s concerns about leadership or listening to the pleas of their graduates for more training in what they will face in the real world of the church. But I pray God will grant wisdom to presidents, boards, and faculty to tailor and refine their curricula to engage the needs of the church in the 21st century.

© 2011 Tom Cheatham

“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8).

Flannery, a girl in my congregation, is 10 years old and in the fifth grade. She has no memory of 9/11. The decade since she was born has never been free of war, terrorism, bombings, conflict, and heightened security at airports. Perhaps she is only vaguely aware of this or maybe she watches a great deal of TV and knows that the world is a dangerous place, even if her daily life in Amory, MS is free of the kind of mega-fear that is pervasive globally. The same could be said for other children her age and younger.

These children will grow up taking terror and war for granted just like they do cell phones, 3D movies or MP3 players. They will unfortunately see war as the normal state of things as much as that a black man or a woman of any race could be elected President. They are the last wave of Millennials and the first of Gen Z; their crises were 9/11, whatever their awareness, and the financial distress of the latter part of this decade. It will shape their experiences into their 20s and beyond. Some of them may even end up fighting their contemporaries, the generation growing up a world away in poverty, fear, and hatred of the US. God forbid, but I believe it to be true.

On the other hand, the firefighters interviewed again for the CBS documentary “9/11: 10 Years Later” have an all too vivid memory of that horrific day and its aftermath. In a clip aired on yesterday’s “The Early Show,” to a man they said the events feel as if they happened “yesterday.” No doubt they wish they could be as free of remembering as Flannery and her generation, not haunted by the horror of their colleagues dying, not experiencing the grief of knowing that even now those brave first responders are getting cancer from the lethal cocktail of mercury, benzine, and who knows what else they encountered in those collapsing buildings.

I guess that, like we all do these days, those firefighters take terror as a given, war as an ever present reality, the possibility of another attack the cause of eternal vigilance. But unlike Flannery and her friends, those men, as well as you and I, know that it has not always been this way in our world. There have been times of relative peace and of prosperity, when the possibility of lasting harmony and continued growth and security seemed real because we caught a glimpse of them.

Honestly, I don’t know what the answer is. I don’t know how we can truly have a world where people get along, where there isn’t constant bickering and suspicion in families, in government, in communities of faith, where children won’t go to bed at night hungry and afraid. Maybe it begins with memory, whether given through education or derived from actual experiences. Memory that is almost sacramental, ritualized, as in “Do this in remembrance of me.” That’s the kind of memory that takes hold of us and moves us to positive, faithful action to do whatever we can to ensure a better world, so that when Flannery’s children and grandchildren grow up, theirs will be a planet at peace.

© 2011 Tom Cheatham

A couple of months ago, my wife and I got disgusted with our cell phone carrier’s bad service and decided to go with a different company. Both of us also got new phones. Mine came with a $50 rebate, which would be paid with a gift card.

Sure enough, the prepaid Visa card arrived, and sooner that I expected. Right away, we used it for lunch out. A couple of weeks later, we tried to use it again in another restaurant. It was rejected, despite multiple attempts. The manager of the place, though, was able to get a special code from his home office that enabled the card to go through, and we got another lunch on our cell phone carrier.

Knowing that the card balance was getting pretty low by now, we decided to check how much was left. What a surprise I got when I saw that the company had charged not only the actual amount of our lunches to the card, but also had authorized a 20% tip, which was deducted from the card whether we put a tip on it or not!

Disturbed and puzzled by this, I called the 800 number on the back of the card and was told that I should not use it in restaurants, hotels, and salons because of the deduction of the tip. That practice had in fact sent the card over its value in our second attempt to use it, and thus it had been rejected. The excess charge, if unused, was not added back to the card for two weeks or so.

The “gift” had come with strings attached. It was fine for groceries or a movie or a prescription purchase, but not for what we most wanted to use it for. The devil was in the details, the fine print on the back of the sheet on which the card had come.

I guess that’s always the way it is in the world. Gifts aren’t really gifts. They come with some sort of fine print, obligation, catch, some expectation (no matter how much denied) of reciprocation. As they say, there is no such thing as a free lunch.

Only the gifts of God are unconditional, given freely and solely out of love with no expectation of anything in return from us. Fortunately, he doesn’t send us something ephemeral, like money, in whatever form. He gives us himself. And that sustains us when everything else is gone.

© 2011 Tom Cheatham