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Pursued by God

When Jim Mathews says that ministry is his “14th career,” he’s not exaggerating. Before embarking on the M.Div. program at Union Presbyterian Seminary’s Charlotte campus, 51-year-old Mathews worked as a photographer, journalist, public relations director, and furniture salesman, among other things.

“I jumped from job to job, always avoiding God,” he says. “I was Jonah. Though I felt the call to ministry right after college, I just avoided it.”

But God kept calling. While Mathews was working as a sports information director in Savannah, GA, he and his wife, Cindy, enrolled in an intensive Bible study offered by a pastor in the area. Participants committed to studying Scripture 30 minutes each night for 39 weeks. Mathews and his wife soon found they were spending three hours a night in Bible study. “The TV never came on,” he says. “We were so into it.”

One evening, all 12 participants in the Bible study gathered and took turns around the table sharing what “gifts and graces” they saw in each other. “Without fail, they all said I should be a minister,” Mathews recalls.

A native of Charlotte, he moved back there after losing his job in Savannah. Because he and Cindy are members of the United Methodist Church, he took his first seminary classes through a local extension program offered by Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. But Wesley required its students to complete their degrees on the D.C. campus. So Mathews looked around for local seminary programs and discovered Union. He enrolled in 2012. “It was perfect for me, because it meant not having to move.”

In addition to his studies, Mathews holds down two part-time jobs: pastor of a 100-member Methodist congregation and photography teacher in a program for adults with developmental disabilities. What keeps him going is the conviction that “Grace abounds”—a phrase heard frequently on the Union campus.

Mathews has already seen evidence that his studies are preparing him for ministry. When his mother died very suddenly last October, he drew strength from what he had learned in a course on pastoral care.

A month later, he was called to the bedside of a terminally ill member of his congregation. Nervously driving to the hospital in the pouring rain, he remembered his pastoral care professor’s advice: “Just be the presence of Christ.” Those words calmed him as he held the hand of the dying woman and prayed with her and her family.

Experiences like these, plus his long and varied career, have broadened Mathews’ understanding of a pastor’s call. “One of the ways pastors are judged is by how many people they are putting in the pews on Sunday morning,” he observes. “I’m more focused on how many lives I’m affecting outside the church walls.”