In the Passenger’s Seat

plane seatYesterday was a great day for my family. My brother invited us to an Atlanta Braves baseball game as part of my nephew’s birthday celebration (happy 6th birthday, Joey!), and the game started at 1:30. But before that, we were to meet at the world famous Varsity Drive-In for lunch at eleven. As it’s summer and we love my brother and his family, we agreed to both; plus, we were excited to take Ella and Jon to their first baseball game. However, it presented us with a dilemma.

What about church?

Even though I’m no longer working at a church, it doesn’t mean that the church isn’t important to me. It is, and vitally so. Not to sound all judgy on you, but I think that physical community with fellow Christ-followers is one of the key components of spiritual formation. Which means my family must seek it out intentionally now that I’m no longer employed by a church. It has become much more of a priority for us, instead of an assumed thing.

(I realize that sounds bad, but when you’re on staff at a church, you take for granted that you are part of a community. You get too focused on the responsibilities of leading it.)

Anyway, all this to say that Rachel and I sat down and discussed what to do.

“Well, we could go to an early service somewhere,” she said. “I mean, I suppose we don’t have to…”

“No,” I said. “I’m with you. Let’s go somewhere with a nine o’clock service. We can just head straight downtown after that.”

So we sat down and considered the different churches in our area that offered an early service. Actually, we both knew exactly which church we wanted to attend; it took all of nine seconds for us to simultaneously declare it. I won’t tell you the name, but it’s a local church with a reputation for excellence, and one we’ve both wanted to visit for a while.

Now that we can, we were excited for the possibility.

It didn’t disappoint. I won’t go into a church review, in part because it’d be boring to read, but also because I actively worked to NOT see things that way yesterday. When you spend time working behind the scenes in a church, the tendency when you go to another church is to peek behind the curtain; to get an idea of how the other guy does things, and see if there is any inspiration for your congregation. This tendency gets in the way of you actually worshipping, and so it is that some pastors forget what it means to sit back, relax, and focus on God from the pew (or in this case, theater chair). So I went into yesterday morning with my analyzing mode set to Off.

It was amazing. I didn’t stress about a single thing. We got the kids checked into the church’s registration system, sent Ella off the elementary age kids area and took Jon to the preschool area. I was worried about this part because Jon has attachment issues to me, and those issues flared up every Sunday just before he went to his Sunday school class and I went to mine. So I expected tears. I expected screaming. Instead, I watched my son stroll into a completely foreign environment, pick up a truck, and immediately start playing.

He never even looked back.

I figured if he could do it, then so could I. I walked back out to the lobby area, grabbed a free cup of coffee, found Rachel, and together we strolled into an entirely different world. And for an hour, I forgot I was a pastor. I forgot what it felt like to worry over the service.

I remembered what it was like to simply let go of myself, and enter into the presence of the holy, righteous, and awesome God of All.

Now I’m not saying you don’t worship as a pastor. You do. It’s just different. You’re so involved with the mechanics of the service that you’re a bit more aware of what’s going on than most people. You know what needs to go on in the Audio/Visual booth; you know when the men need to take up the offering; you’re subconsciously listening to the ticking of the clock in your head; reading the body language of the people; judging the ambient temperature in the room, watching the faces during singing, worrying about the lighting, revisiting your sermons notes in your head, thinking about how you might want to change an illustration or the close. In many modern churches, you’re the one responsible for making sure that the people have done their part to make the service worshipful.

And I worried about that more than I should have. I did theater in high school and happent to be a bit of a nerd, so the ins and outs of production not only fascinate me, they present an area for excellence to be achieved. Which means that I spent more time worrying about that stuff than necessary, which meant that I allowed my worship to sometimes be more of a battle than it needed to be.

Which made sitting in the passenger seat yesterday all the more restful.

It was also instructive for my spiritual life. I cannot always be in control. I cannot always be worried about making sure that every I is dotted and every T is crossed. To be that consumed with attaining perfection is to deny what Christ’s death and resurrection proclaims as true: that I am broken, and cannot fix myself, even after He’s put me back together again. I must rest in Him and let Him transform me.

To be sure, we can’t, as Dallas Willard famously wrote, be Vampire Christians – “I’ll just take your blood, Jesus, and go on with my life, thank you very much.” But neither can we go to the opposite extreme, where we don’t even need the blood of Jesus because we’ve figured out the magic formula. There’s a reason Jesus spent so much time chiding the Pharisees; when we feel like we have God mastered, then we’ve missed the point because we’ve missed the Person.

Writing all of this is taboo in some people’s minds because I’m admitting to something that some Christians want to deny: that I’m still being conformed to Christ. As a pastor, I often felt the sadness in people when they would ask me for an answer and the only one I could give them was “I don’t know.” Others were liberated by my honesty, but there were some who seemed defeated by the truth. Looking back on it, I think it was because they felt if I didn’t have all my stuff together, how could they possibly hope to?

Here’s how: by surrendering to Christ. Reading His word, not as a rule book, but as a conversation. Considering His Spirit in us not as a power to be mastered, but as a gift to be enjoyed. Putting ourselves into His hands and trusting that He will shape and grow us in the ways that matter, the ways we need, and that He’ll do the same for others.

Yesterday, I was reminded of that. It was powerful. It was awesome. And it awakened a hunger for more.

It was a good day.

My Daughter’s Salvation

ImageI can officially tell this story now. It’s been killing me for a couple of weeks, but I wanted to respect my daughter and only tell it once she’d had the chance to do so herself. Yesterday, at the close of our church service, during the invitation time, my daughter walked forward and told the church that she had given her life to Jesus Christ, her Lord and Savior. The church then got a good laugh out of her when the senior pastor asked whom she wanted to baptize her: me or the senior pastor.

“You,” she said, swinging a thumb in the senior pastor’s direction. It was a totally unscripted moment.

Which really, if you know my daughter, is absolutely perfect. But to be clear, she didn’t accept Christ yesterday; she did it a couple of weeks ago, during the big Discipleship Now weekend that my students participated in. Every year, around 20 some-odd churches in Gwinnett County and beyond pull together for one massive DNOW event. The past couple of years it’s been graciously hosted by Cross Pointe Church (senior pastor James Merritt) and over 800 students have come for a weekend of music, the Gospel and fellowship. This was my students’ third year participating.

Thus, it was my daughter’s third year participating. That’s what happens when you’re the preacher’s kid – you get to go to every event, regardless of whether or not you actually want to. We try and do our best (Rachel and I) to make it fun for Ella, and she genuinely enjoys the music and the freedom she has to run to the front of the stage and dance or hop around while the music plays. It’s part child’s play, part unfettered worship, and she only gets that chance during youth events like DNOW. So we let her go for the gusto.

Now, the past two years, she’s brought along books or a notepad for the sermon time. She would look up every once and while during the messages, but for the most part, she was more interested in the world of her own imagination than in the world of the Bible. And Rachel and I were okay with that.

See we’re weird – we’ve prayed for Ella’s salvation since before she was born (Jon’s too), and while we’ve always prayed that she would come to Christ while she was young, we’ve never felt the need to push her. Several of her friends have made confessions of faith long before Ella, and while she was always curious and asked plenty of questions (which we answered thoroughly without trying to push her one way or the other) she never seemed all that interested in making a decision herself.

In her mind there were three things she knew: Jesus was God, Jesus was Lord, and saying you believed that meant you had to get baptized, which meant getting wet in public in a very strange pool. Which meant, in her mind: no thank you.

But this recent DNOW changed things for her. She actually paid attention to our speaker for the weekend, the wonderful Clayton King. Clayton is a gifted speaker and an anointed preacher, and something about him – specifically, his humor – grabbed Ella’s imagination. On Friday night, she had her notebook and was doodling, but she would laugh right along with the audience, sometimes just before. Never took her eyes off her notebook, but was still engaged.

She was listening. Clayton had her attention.

So it was that on Saturday night, as we waited for the doors to the sanctuary to open, Ella walked over to me and said, “Daddy, will there be music tonight?”

“Yes, Ella,” I said.

“Well how long til that funny preacher man starts talking? I want to hear him because he’s funny.”

In retrospect, I know why that line struck me so hard, but in the moment it didn’t register. I just thought it was funny that my little girl wanted to actually hear the preacher preach. After years of being dragged to events like this on, she’d finally found a speaker who could hold her focus. It struck me as so funny that, when I realized Clayton King was seated on the row behind us, I made it a point to relate the story to him and introduce Ella. She smiled and waved coyly. Clayton waved back.

The music was great, but when Clayton started preaching, it just felt different. Ella was doodling, but she was sitting next to me, all snuggled up. Usually, that’s reserved for her mother, not me. As Clayton went through his message on the significance of Christ being Lord, I began to feel a familiar sensation. My heart began beating rather quickly. As Clayton neared the end of his message and began his invitation, I suddenly realized something.

I had the same sensation I’d had years ago when I gave my life to Christ. As Clayton continued talking about how Christ must be Lord of our lives if we’re going to be Christians, I began to pray: God, are you telling me I’m not saved?

I mean, I was sure of my salvation, but I’m nothing if not wiling to question things.

That’s when it became clear: it wasn’t me God was working on. It was Ella. And when Clayton gave the invitation to stand up and say “JESUS IS LORD!” if you had accepted Christ as your Savior, Ella turned to me, eyes full of confidence, and I nodded.

And she stood up and said, “JESUS IS LORD!”

I’ve been in ministry now for over 15 years, 12 of them as a youth pastor. In all of those years, that was the single-most precious moment. As someone prone to question whether or not the church still has what it takes to win the world to Christ, God reminded me very powerfully and personally on Saturday March 2 that the Gospel still changes lives, and always will. The church may sometimes limp forward, but the Gospel forever marches on, strong, bold, calling people to realize their sinfulness and Christ’s power to save them.

Ella went down front that night by herself. She didn’t ask me to come with her. And when she went down yesterday morning, it was completely on her own as well. Seven years of prayer for our daughter’s salvation came to fruition in a little girl who chose Jesus all on her own – and was so sure of it that the needed no one to guide her on the journey. She’ll be baptized soon, probably by the senior pastor, and I’ll be sure to post pictures.

Jesus saves. Never forget.

The Weapon of Kindness

ImageI don’t know how else to process what just happened. The only thing that makes sense to me is to blog about it, only I don’t want to blog in full detail because what if I’m wrong? What if the scenario I’m about to describe was real, even though every ounce of evidence I have tells me it’s not? What if, as a pastor, a minister, the shepherd of people’s souls, I made a mistake?

The solution is to not blog about the specifics – other than to say that my kindness, my innate sense of wanting to help people in need, is one of the most effective weapons against my soul. I can’t help it. I’m always willing to give people more leeway than they deserve; I could be happier, in cases like this one, if my natural instinct were defensiveness. To cut people off. To not be giving. To not trust, or at the very least, not be wiling to listen. I could avoid a lot of heartaches that way.

The thing is, though, that too many people need someone, anyone, to just listen. I don’t want to cut off that part of my ministerial self. I’ve seen too often how much it can bless the right person.

But then there are days like today when people prey on that kindness. They count on people like me being willing to err on the side of doing what’s right and good, and they construct elaborate webs designed to extract maximum empathy.

And what really sucks – the thing that I can’t get out of my head – is that I so badly want to spell out the details, put it out there for the whole world to read, and I can’t. I want people to know so they can be forewarned about stuff like this, but my brain keeps saying: but what if it’s true?

What if, despite the fictional county in Mississippi, the fictional city in Mississippi, the fictional address here in Georgia, the fictional brother here in Georgia, the dead-end phone numbers and the non-existent sheriff’s deputy, there was someone who needed my help and I let them down?

What if, God help me, the people actually show up at the church, put a finger in my face, and demand to know why I didn’t do something?

This is the price of being a pastor. It may seem like a sweet gig (and I hear enough comments from folks to know that a lot of people see it that way) but the reality is that if you are truly someone with a pastoral calling, a pastoral heart, it’s demanding in a way that few people could ever imagine. It doesn’t begin and end with the sermon, or the visitations, or the admin stuff in the office; it’s not over when the office hours on the door say the day is done; nor is it finished when you’ve done all you could for someone and they still choose to make a wreck out of their lives.

I mean, you know you have no responsibility for what any one person does, but the compassion and desire to help people choose God in order to avoid the devastation of sin is also the stuff that keeps you up at night, wondering if you could’ve done anything different.

It’s an agony that gets increasingly harder to bear. There are plenty of nights that it keeps me up, wondering, praying and wrestling with God to help me do a better job so that people might not have to suffer as much as they do.

And, to be honest, that I might be able to stand before God one day and say that I did my very best. And for God to say, “I know.” And for me to fall into His arms and say, “Thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

As a human being, as a minister, that’s not too much to ask, is it?

The Universal Particular

one_wayWent to a meeting today that was supposed to be about building community among local churches. I went because I believe this is a good thing for the church – to cooperate – and also because I was curious to see who else in my community was interested in that kind of idea.

Not a lot of people, based on the turn out.

And once the meeting got started, I understood why. The gentleman who called the meeting, who was very nice and polite and seemed like a heck of a good fellow, stood to explain his reasons for the pow-wow. And the more he spoke, the more he drifted into a sermonic delivery, and then to a patronizing sermonic delivery. He was telling us that most churches don’t do ministry right. Most pastors are lazy with their sermon prep and development. Most pastors aren’t ministering in the power of the Holy Spirit, and aren’t seeing miracles and healings and outbreaks of tongues the way he has.

In short, he’d called the meeting because God had called him to our community to fix us. To lead us into a better way. To revival.

I will be forever grateful for the gentle pastor who pushed back against this. He was respectful, thoughtful, and completely without sarcasm. He lovingly told our would-be savior that God had been doing similar things through his own ministry; that the people of the community – people with whom he’d personally sat and talked face-to-face – were doing the best they could with what they had. That not every pastor was created the same. That not every church would look the same. But that we all wanted the same thing: people in love with Jesus.

The would-be savior calmed down. He took a seat. He said, “That’s what I’m talking about. That’s what I’ve just said.”

The gentle pastor pressed on. “No, it’s not.”

I left before the dialogue went much further (I was out of patience), but I took away something that I think we often forget as Christians:

Just because it’s meant for you doesn’t mean it’s meant for everyone else.

Are there things that all Christians share in common? Absolutely. Is there definite evidence of the presence of the Holy Spirit in a believer’s life? Darn right. But does that mean we are meant to be uniform?

Not in the slightest.

Today was a cautionary tale for me. It’s easy to get caught up in the things about which you are passionate, and to think that anyone who doesn’t see things your way is trumping the will of God. I’m passionate about apologetics and thinking and understanding the Christian faith on a deeper level. But not everyone is. And that’s okay. There’s room in the Body for each of us.

Paul says it this way:

For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.

Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.

Do we need men and women who want to stir revival among the dormant heart of lapsed American Christians? Yes. Do we need faithful men and women who stand, week-in and week-out, to proclaim the Gospel to those who assemble to hear? Yes. Do we need men and women who travel the globe to address head on the objections and skepticism of those who don’t like Christ? Yes. Do we need men and women willing to set aside their personal comforts in order to serve the least among us, making sure that they have the basic necessities and rights accorded to all human beings? Yes.

We need all of that. Which means that none of it – no matter how we might feel otherwise – is more important than the rest.

Some will argue that the proclamation of the Gospel takes precedence, but they betray their own prejudices: the Gospel is proclaimed wherever God’s people go to work in His name, regardless of what they do. We need evangelists and preachers and teachers and healers and prayers and bureaucrats and singers and actors and painters and everything in between, because otherwise we couldn’t hope to ever bring to light the fullness and glory of our God.

Last night, I showed a video to my youth, a clip that’s part of the New City Catechism put out by Tim Keller and others. My mind was captured by Don Carson’s words at 1:19 of the clip: “We are not permitted to take one attribute of God and make everything of it.” Check it out below.

Too often we do that. We make one aspect of God, or one aspect of God’s body, the church, the defining aspect, when in reality you have to endeavor to understand the whole rather than just certain parts. As Carson rightly points out, when we make one particular a universal imperative for all Christians in all places at all times, we venture away from what could charitably be called misguided fervor and into the very real sin of idolatry.

I’m reminded again of Paul, who – in a defense of his ministry to the elders at Ephesus – said that he didn’t hesitate to proclaim the whole counsel of God. The mystery. The beauty. The grace. The love. The wrath. The justice. The judgment. The mercy. The sacrifice. The commands. The transcendence. The immanence.

God, as much as our tiny minds can fathom Him.

I came away reminded that my particular is mine; others may share it, and we may even succeed in finding still others with the same passion, but that doesn’t mean that it’s prescriptive for every believer everywhere as their driving passion.

That’s the great thing about the Body: there are many gifts, expressed uniquely through individual believers, but the same Spirit enables us all. So while we may not all be gifted in evangelism, we can all evangelize. We may not all be gifted in apologetics, but we are all called to give an answer. We may not all be healers, but we are all called to bring healing.

We are one body. May we spend some time thinking deeply on that truth.

30 Years of Obedience: A Profile of Rev. Tommy Jordan

“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?

Tommy Jordan.

Rev. Tommy Jordan, Senior Pastor - Chestnut Grove Baptist Church

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.”

“Which one?”

“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.


Who brings Nair to a shaving cream fight with the pastor?

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.”

He laughs.

“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.”

Jeremiah 1:4-8