Walk with me

chaplain college furman jim pitts ministry Jan 18, 2021
Jim Pitts

As a college freshman at Furman, I went to see one of the chaplains. Not really to talk with him but to share with him a prayer I’d written. While I was becoming active in the college ministry of a local church, I knew that they had a worship service on campus each week, and thought they might want to use it. I was just going to drop it off and give them permission to use it, but Jim Pitts had other plans.

“I really want you to be here to lead it,” he said. I finally reluctantly agreed on a date, and somehow by the end of that freshman year, I was one of the students responsible for planning and leading campus worship each week, a job I did until I graduated. That was Jim.

I could stop by the office to shoot the breeze or drink some tea or read the newspaper, and the next thing I knew I was pulling together the newsletter for the Church-Related Vocations Group, the group for ministerial and potential ministerial students.

Here’s what I didn't fully appreciate about Jim at the time. He was a door opener. He pointed out that the doors were there, cracked them open, and sometimes pushed me through them. 

Along with a lot of other students.

At Furman, I met women who were not only clergy but also pastors, which was a first for me on both counts. He started nudging my picture of my future ministry open, expanding it beyond my high school dream of writing for the Southern Baptist Sunday School Board (Yes, that had been my dream.) Jim created an outstanding network of ministerial internships for Fuman students considering ministry. 

For two years I worked as a Chaplain’s Assistant on Friday or Saturday nights in the Emergency Department of the old Greenville General Hospital. Although we were called Assistants and we could call in the staff chaplains if needed, we were there on the front lines on those evenings.

The group was modeled after Clinical Pastoral Education, the clinical training that’s required for many chaplains and for some congregational ministers. We served on the weekends, and then we talked about our work as a group as we met with our two chaplain leaders for supervision and education.

Just last week I was preparing some thoughts to share with a group of residents in the new Novant Health CPE program. The first story that came to mind was from that college internship experience. 

Jim encouraged us in so many ways. One year a handful of Religion majors met at Jim's house on a regular basis. Sitting by his amazing model train display, we had the Overly Earnest And Deep Conversations that such people are prone to have. (The times being what they were, I was the only woman in the group.)

Jim and Nancy welcomed me into their home on many different kinds of occasions, including the Sunday morning I had to borrow gas money to get home for my grandmother’s funeral (in the days before debit cards and ATMs.) Nancy and Jim always made me feel at home, which for a college student is a pretty special feeling.

You couldn't talk to Jim long without knowing that he loved carnivals, circuses, and trains. He loved the people who were a part of them,  often working them into his sermons. He taught me a lot about gospel in the way that he saw carney folks. 

Jim opened one door I couldn't walk through. I’d borrowed a cotton candy machine from one of his friends who owned a carnival. We were having a carnival on campus for some kids, and I was in charge of cotton candy. As it turns out, it seems that one of my previously undiscovered gifts was the ability to flick my wrist just right in order to get the cotton candy on the paper cone. Not everyone can do that.

When I returned the machine the man offered me a summer job traveling with the carnival, doing cotton candy. Not to be a Negative Nancy, but I kind of knew right away that I’d never be able to talk my parents into letting me travel the Carolinas for a summer with a carnival. 

Jim was my chaplain and fellow worship leader. (It’s no accident that my very first book was a collection of worship resources.) He was my professor for a class on ministry and one of the professors with whom I traveled through Israel and Italy on Foreign Study. Through the years that followed, I was also lucky enough to call him friend.

As a college student, I frequently came by his office to talk, whether to finalize something I was helping to plan or to talk about what I was thinking about seminary or about something else going on in my life. “Walk with me,” Jim would often say, and long before step counters we’d be off, walking and talking across campus.

This morning I got the word that Jim died last night. Were it not for Covid, there would be such a gathering of Furman students, all sharing the same kinds of collections of stories that I’ve just shared with you. Jim had a way of introducing people, but he also had a way of introducing us to potential in ourselves that we did not yet know.

Walk with me.

Jim’s days of walking on this earth are done, but the gifts that he gave us, the ministry and friendship that he shared with us will continue in our hearts forever.

Godspeed, Jim.


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