Paul E. Luthman has been an ordained minister in the Presbyterian church for the past 35 years.
“On the Job With...” is a weekly feature of Sunday Inc. Today’s segment is with Paul Luthman, executive presbyter of Flint River Presbytery in Albany. He shared his answers with Danny Carter.
Q. What was your first job?
A. Pushing a broom at the new gas station-garage two young guys opened down the street from my parents’ home. I was in the fifth grade; and I worked at that gas station until my second year of college, and learned to work on or rebuild every piece of a car.
Q. What was the first thing you spent money on when you received your first paycheck?
A. In the early years practically every dime went into building my dream car. The first paycheck after college went to purchasing contact lenses to replace the glasses I’d worn since fourth grade.
Q. What led you to your current position?
A. I was born and raised in New Jersey. Although no one in Georgia believes it could possibly be true of New Jersey, my hometown had 500 people and 15,000 dairy cows. I went into the Army immediately after graduating from college. I was sent to school at a far off place called Fort Benning. After tours at Fort Bragg and in Vietnam, I returned to Fort Benning thinking I would make the Army my career. The Army deemed otherwise, and I suffered the first major disappointment of my life when I was forced out by the Reduction in Force going on at that time. I took a job with Aetna Life & Casualty in their home office in Hartford, Conn. Two years later, I gave up fighting with God and went to seminary; and when I graduated three years later I discovered that a church in Columbus, Ga., was looking for an associate pastor — the same church I had attended while I was in the Army, with the same senior pastor I had admired back then, and the rest is history. God and I now have a working agreement. Years ago I promised him if he would not make me cold, I would never complain about South Georgia heat. He tested me last summer. I can look back and say I believe God has used everything in my life to put me in the ministry I have today. Vietnam taught me a lot about myself, and how to work with and motivate men. The two years with Aetna were invaluable, because I went from leading a platoon of young men to supervising 10 women, and I learned what a very different thing that is. I’ve served in a variety of ministerial positions in a variety of church sizes. I believe God has blessed me with the background and skills one needs when dealing with His pastors and 50 of His churches.
Q. Do you have a role model or mentor in your career?
A. My first boss after I became a minister was Jim Johnson, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Columbus. He was an incredibly dedicated, loving and wise pastor, and he taught me so much in the four years I served under him. Thirty-five years later – when I find myself shaking my head in wonder that a pastor could do “x” – I still have to remind myself that without Jim’s patient wisdom I could be the one making that mistake.
Q. What is your favorite work-related gadget?
A. My first sermons were cut and paste, produced on a typewriter and literally cut and pasted as I tried to improve it. I couldn’t function without a computer today. But I also don’t know how we ever got anything done in the good old days before cell phones.
Q. What is your favorite tradition?
A. Christmas Eve. I’ve loved the magic and miracle of Christmas Eve ever since I was a small child. Every year as a church pastor, my gift to churches I served was to personally decorate the sanctuary for the Christmas Eve service. I’d do something new every year — bring in 20 Christmas trees or bales of hay for the living nativity (our janitor always loved that one), or hang strings of starry lights in the ceiling. I love the Christmas carols and the birth narrative; and I always worked to make my sermon very special that night. The first Christmas Eve after I took this Executive Presbyter position almost killed me.
Q. Favorite hobbies or activity outside work?
A. Anything I can do with my hands. I get a great deal of pleasure out of tackling something I’ve never done before and seeing it turn out well, be it a brick patio or a hardwood floor or how to bring two drain lines together. I’ve recently begun trying to play golf, although no one who has ventured onto a golf course with me would call my efforts golfing.
Q. Best thing about your job?
A. Working with dedicated pastors and church members who take their faith seriously and want to make a difference in their communities.
Q. Worst thing about your job?
A. The travel. Our Presbytery goes from Pine Mountain in the north, follows the Alabama line to Florida, runs east along the Florida border to I-75, then goes north up I-75 to Forsyth and back across to Pine Mountain. I spend many hours in my car, but I cannot do this job without face-to-face contact.
Q. The most beneficial course I took in school was?
A. A theology course in seminary. I spent the first six weeks wondering what in the world the professor was talking about, and then the light bulb turned on and I hung on every word this very intelligent, very demanding professor said. Second place might go to the Army’s Jumpmaster School. Given the impending reality that the lives of young paratroopers will soon be in your hands, no one gets a free pass in that school. The instructors were like that seminary professor: exacting and demanding, with little patience for sloppiness.
Q. What is the one trait a strong business leader cannot afford to be without?
A. Honest integrity. If people cannot believe what you say or trust your motives, you might as well give it up.
Q. What are the biggest changes you have seen in your specific line
of work during the past few years?
A. Like it or not, for good or for bad, church is no longer socially required. In the ’50s and ’60s the first two questions you asked a new neighbor were “Where do you work?” and “What church do you belong to?” People don’t feel that social pressure anymore, so a lot of them sleep in on Sunday morning instead. We pastors have to give people a personal reason to attend church today.