“I thank God for the Unseen Hand, sometime urging me onward, sometimes holding me back; sometimes with a caress of approval, sometimes with a stroke of reproof; sometimes correcting, sometimes comforting. My times are in his hand.”
– Vance Havner
In 1981, I was five years old and obsessed with Star Wars. Ronald Reagan was in the White House, cassette tapes were still fairly new, Facebook was still something printed out on college campuses, and the city of Grayson was more of a town.
1981 was also the year that a skinny young preacher came to a little church in Grayson, a church called Chestnut Grove.
The preacher’s name?
Now, if that name sounds familiar to you, it should; if you were to drive down Rosebud Road today and look at the big blue sign out in front, you would see the name Tommy Jordan under the word Pastor. It’s been that way for 30 years.
Thirty years is a long time (roughly 90% of my life), and its an eternity when you’re talking about one preacher sticking with one church. When the average tenure for most pastors is 3.6 years (according to Thom Rainer), the idea of one man being in one place for three decades becomes staggering.
Think about it: most modern day marriages don’t last that long. And in a marriage, you only have to get along with one person.
Try getting along with 500. Yeah – it’s not easy.
And yet, for thirty consecutive years, Tommy Jordan has been able to navigate that challenge successfully. I sat down with him to discover his secret.
“How do you make it thirty years at one church?” I asked. “What’s your secret?”
“Well,” he says, in his familiar drawl, “if you love the people and minister to their needs, they’ll overlook a lot of your faults. At least, they have with me.”
He laughs. “I mean, when I first came here, there was a man who was just determined to give me fits. Even the pastor before me told me, ‘Tommy, I have to get away from that man, or he’s gonna be the death of me.’ But I decided I would just love on him, no matter what – just love on that man and his family.”
Tommy, who is still so thin he doesn’t cast a shadow, leans back in his chair.
“And you know what, in time I became his best friend. When he got sick and couldn’t come to church anymore, or when he was having a really bad day at the house, he’d tell his wife, ‘Call Tommy. Tell him, I need him to come pray for me.’ And I would go and just pray for him and love him. He completely changed his mind about me. That’s the power of love.”
Unintentional Huey Lewis quotes aside, the power of love is probably the best way to sum up the ministry of Tommy Jordan. It comes to the forefront in almost every story, every anecdote that he shares with me, and it colors his philosophy of ministry more than any other theological distinctive. For Tommy, love is the beginning and end of pastoral ministry.
And while most pastors wouldn’t disagree with Tommy’s statement on its face, they might tell that the practical aspects of that philosophy are hard to live by. Not everyone can be loved into submission. It’s part of the challenge of being a pastor.
Of course, Tommy would never say anything like that. He’d rather be strung up by his toes than talk bad about a person. He sees the potential for good in everyone and goes out of his way to give them the chance to live up to that potential. And for thirty years, people have come to Chestnut Grove for the chance to have a pastor like him.
In fact, the church has grown tremendously under his guidance; when he came in 1981, the worship services were being held in the old white building, averaging around 100 people every Sunday. Now, the worship services are held in a much larger building, built in 2001, and the average Sunday attendance is around 375. And perhaps even better, the “new” sanctuary, which cost over $1 million, was paid off completely in 2009.
Seems like love, when freely given, can do a lot of things.
I ask Tommy what his favorite memory is in thirty years.
“I’d have to say…” He pauses to look at the ceiling. “I’d have to say Homecoming.”
“All of them,” he says. “I just love seeing all the people each year.”
I point out that, technically, that’s not really a memory. He thinks a minute.
“Well, then I guess I’d have to say the amazing number of people in this church who have musical talent. I mean, not just singers, but great piano players, musicians. I would say we probably have more musical talent for a church our size than any other church out there.”
Again – not a memory. At least, not a specific one. I urge him to try again.
“I know – I’ve always had good deacons.” He stops and looks at me. “Well, not always, but for the most part, I’ve been privileged to serve with really good men who supported me and worked hard with me. And I’ve been blessed to have some great staff over the years.”
It takes a minute for me to realize that, for a man who’s whole life revolves around people – not things, not goals, but individual lives – his answers are pretty good. If you hang around Tommy long enough, you learn that he might forget some things, but he rarely forgets people. Now that’s not to say he won’t forget the occasional name, but for the most part, once he’s met you and spent time with you, you are entrenched in his mind.
He proves this over the course of our conversation; he recalls at least two or three names of people I’ve never heard of, people twenty to thirty years my senior, but to him, their faces and names and lives are as fresh as yesterday’s muffins. It’s remarkable, really; if you do the math (and I stink at math, so I’m just gonna guess) you have to figure he’s pastored over 600-700 people in his career at Chestnut Grove alone (he pastored two other churches before coming to the Grove in ’81). That’s a lot of faces, a lot of lives to keep track of – and yet, somehow, he does it.
And this focus on people, on loving people, is continually set before me. I ask him what his biggest challenge has been in his thirty years. He thinks for minute.
“Staying fresh, keeping myself enthusiastic for the ministry to the people. Too many pastors just get complacent, feel like they’ve done all they can do, and they kind of give up. I want to make sure that I’m giving my best to the people every day I’m here, because I want to leave the church better than I found it.”
In thirty years, his biggest challenge has been himself? That’s hard to believe. Especially in a Baptist church. Surely there was one deacon, one member, one situation that pushed him to his very limits as a man of God?
“Not really,” he says.
Either the man is a saint, or he has the most godly congregation in the known universe. I have a suspicion I know what he’d say.
The photo attached to the left also happens to be the funniest moment in his tenure. I’ve heard the story numerous times, and it still blows my mind.
“Well, Tim Payne was our youth director at the time, and we had the kids down for retreat on the beach. It was Thursday night, and we were going to go home the next day, so we decided to let the kids have some fun.
“They got into a shaving cream war, just spraying it everywhere and rubbing it all over each other, and they got me involved. I had on shorts, and they just covered me good.
“After it was all over, I noticed that my legs was burning, so I went inside to take a shower, and the hair just come right off. It wasn’t too long after that that Tim showed up at my door and told me that two of the girls had used Nair on my legs instead of shaving cream.”
“In fact, there’s still places on my legs now that don’t have any hair.”
This story is pretty funny in and of itself, especially since Tommy didn’t hold a grudge against the two girls. He laughed it off then just as did sitting across from me. The man is just incapable of being mean.
“I did get one of the girls back though,” he says, his eyes twinkling. “I was doing her wedding, and when it came time to the vows, I got her almost all the way through before I said, ‘And I will not put Nair on the pastor’s legs.’
“She said, ‘I will not pu…now preacher!’”
He slaps his hairless legs and laughs. “She ended up laughing, and I told her, ‘I have the last word!’”
Of course, that’s not the only funny thing that’s happened to the man. In a world where so many people tend to think of the pastor as someone who can’t have a sense of humor, who must be sober as a judge and as humorless as a 401(k) statement, Tommy is a different breed. Granted, most of his comedic exploits came much earlier in his time at Chestnut Grove, but evidence remains.
There is the video footage of he and his brother-in-law, Don Barrett, doing their “Dumb & Dumber” routine. Tommy, dressed in a plaid button-up, driver’s cap, suspenders, short-shorts and knee high socks, sits on Don’s lap and pretends to be a ventriloquist’s dummy. The preacher is no slouch either; he completely sells the routine with stilted head turns, as well as hilarious near-pratfalls where he keeps his body as stiff as a board and trusts his brother-in-law to catch him. The routine lasts a good five to ten minutes, and has been reprised several times. It always gets a laugh.
There’s also the footage of Tommy, dressed in blue jeans and a black leather motorcycle jacket, riding a tricycle around while three teenagers lip sync the song, “The Leader of the Pack.” There is no finer physical comedy than seeing a man who is almost entirely arms and legs furiously pedal a toddler’s tricycle around on stage. It’s like watching a scarecrow do yoga.
There are other funny moments I could divulge, but they lose a little something, being translated to the page. You just have to see them to believe them.
It’s natural that a man like Tommy, one so loving, so un-self-conscious, will be a rather hard act to follow. He announced recently that he plans to retire at 67, which is less than three years away. Of course, his idea of retirement is a little different from most.
“I want to keep preaching,” he says. “I don’t think that being a pastor is something you can really retire from.”
I ask him if there’s a difference, for him, between vocation and calling.
“Definitely,” he says, “most definitely. Preaching, pastoring, is not a job like other jobs. I don’t understand how some preachers can retire from a church and just never do anything again. It would drive me crazy. I mean, I plan to, if nothing else, teach a Bible study or do some interim work at smaller churches once I’m retired.”
He leans back and crosses his legs.
“I mean, in all the years I’ve been pastoring, forty something years, I’ve only been without a church for two weeks.”
My eyes bug out of my head. “Do what?”
“Yeah, only two weeks in forty years have I not had a church. And I’ve never left a church either.”
He raises his hand, as if to stop me.
“Wait, that’s not right. What I mean is that I’ve never been asked to leave a church. Every time I’ve moved on, I had felt like God wanted me to. So there was that one time, He wanted me to move on from a church, even though I didn’t have another place to go, so I just stepped out on faith.
“I even went for a regular job interview, for a job that wasn’t with a church. I got in the car and just started crying, ‘God, I don’t want to do this. I want to be in a church!’ The next week, I got a phone call from a church to come and preach for them, and they hired me soon after that. So I was only ever without a church for two weeks.”
Tommy smiles. “So I can’t imagine not being in a church somewhere, even if I’m just teaching a Sunday school class and ministering to the older folks around here.”
Here he sort of looks to the side, as if a thought just came to him. He looks up and smiles again. “Of course, we’ll see what the Lord has in store.”
What the Lord has in store for Tommy is just as much a mystery as what He has in store for Chestnut Grove. One of the fundamental axioms of leadership, in any type of organization – Christian or not – is that you never want to be the guy that follows the guy. After thirty years of relationships, thirty years of being the center for hundreds of people, Tommy’s departure from the pastor’s role won’t exactly be a small thing.
“How do you plan on preparing the church for that transition?” I ask.
Tommy’s face gets solemn. “Well,” he says, “I would like to have someone on staff who can just take over when it’s my time. Whether it’s someone already on staff or someone we might bring in new, I’d like to have a person who can get to know the people and the church get to know him, and it just seem like a natural thing.”
“Do you think that will be enough?” I ask.
“No.” He leans forward and puts his hands on his knees. “When I’m gone, or not being the pastor anymore, I’m not gonna stay in the middle of things. If people were to call me asking me about the new pastor, or what they should do about something the new pastor wants to do, I’m just gonna tell them – you need to take that up with your pastor. I won’t be mean, but you know what I’m saying – when I’m gone, I want to be gone. I don’t want to make things hard by meddling where I don’t belong.”
Here he rattles off two churches he can remember that faced a similar transition – one that did remarkably well, and one that crashed and burned.
“The difference between them is that one pastor didn’t try to continue to run things and the other one did. The first one, the one that didn’t meddle, stayed on as pastor emeritus, and worked mostly with the older folks in the church. Whenever someone called him up to complain, he’d just say, ‘Go to talk to our pastor.’ That’s how I want to be.”
The question is just begging to be asked, so I toss it out there.
“Will you stay around Chestnut Grove once you’ve retired?”
“If that’s what God wants me to do, yes. I wouldn’t mind being Pastor Emeritus and working with the senior adults. I love our people.”
So we come full circle: love the people. The same principle that has guided his ministry from the beginning is the same principle that will guide his ending. Only for Tommy, there really won’t be an ending. He’ll continue to work within the church, whether Chestnut Grove or somewhere else, because that’s what God made him to do. It’s part of his DNA, as much as the color of his eyes or the leanness of his body.
It is this seriousness with which he takes his calling that makes him such a wonderful pastor. As I mentioned earlier, in a culture where pastors come and go like fashion trends, a man with the commitment and integrity to stay in one place and work according to his call is a spring of hope for weary parishioners. His longevity at Chestnut Grove is an indictment on that quick-change culture, but also an inspiration for those who want to see the culture changed. To look at Tommy Jordan and Chestnut Grove is to see that maybe the way forward is, in some ways, to go backward.
Here is where I give you full disclosure, because I can’t write what I want to write next without telling you that Tommy Jordan is not only my pastor, but also my boss. I work at Chestnut Grove as the youth pastor.
This is actually my second tour of duty as the youth guy; I was first called to the church in 2001, and loved it. I loved working with Tommy and for Tommy, and he did his best to encourage and stretch me as a person. It was only an unforeseen personal tragedy that caused me to leave in 2005, and even then, Tommy was a great mentor and counsellor as I tried to figure out what was next. I ended up pastoring a small church for three years, and Tommy was my unofficial sounding board and sponsor, as well as my model. He would cringe to hear that, but it’s true.
In 2008, I stepped away from the pastorate and went to work for an international Christian ministry as a writer and researcher. My wife and I came back to Chestnut Grove as members, and just basked in the love that Tommy and the church poured out on us. Twice Tommy asked me to step in as interim youth pastor, and I happily agreed. The second time, Tommy came to me in private.
“Would you consider coming back full-time?” he asked.
“Do you want me to?” I asked.
“Well, that’s between you and the Lord,” he said. “But we’d be happy to have your resume.”
I thought long and hard about those words. I’d been out of pastoral ministry for almost three years, and had told many people that I wouldn’t go back. But Tommy’s words resonated with me, and the more I thought about them and prayed about them – and the more God moved in other areas of my life – I realized that, much like Tommy, being a pastor is what I’m called to do.
And, perhaps more specifically, I’m called to minister to the people of Chestnut Grove.
When I interviewed, I told the search committee that the one thing that set me apart from the other candidates was the fact that I didn’t want the job.
“What I mean by that,” I said, “is that this isn’t just some next step for me. It’s not a launching platform or the opportunity for me to come in and show my philosophy of ministry off. I want to come back to Chestnut Grove, not for the job, but to help the church. I wouldn’t just come in and do what’s in the best interests of the youth, but what’s in the best interests of the church.”
I obviously got the job. And, as Yogi Berra said, “It’s deja vu all over again.” I am where God has called me to be, doing what God has called me to do. Just like my mentor, Tommy.
With that being said, this verse from Jeremiah seems most fitting as an end. The prophet, in the opening lines of the Old Testament book bearing his name, recounts the call of God on his life. In simple but direct prose, Jeremiah sums up a call that, like for Tommy, is undeniable.
“The word of the Lord came to me:
‘I chose you before I formed you in the womb;
I set you apart before you were born.
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.’
“But I protested, ‘Oh no, Lord, GOD! Look, I don’t know how to speak since I am only a youth.”
“Then the Lord said to me:
‘Do not say, “I am only a youth,”
for you will go to everyone I send you to
and speak whatever I tell you.
Do not be afraid of anyone,
for I will be with you to deliver you.’
“This is the Lord’s declaration.”