Cover Story: And That's the Truth

New minister brings some real world experience to downtown church

Belief. It seems readily evident how a minister would respond to questions about his belief. The obvious, simplified answer: He believes in God. He believes in Jesus and the Bible. He believes in his faith. All that's true for Russell Smith, minister of the Covenant-First Presbyterian Church in downtown Cincinnati, but, ultimately, he believes in truth.

"Truth is the only thing that matters. If (churches) do not proclaim truth, then they should be avoided at all costs," Smith says, explaining that people must find a church suitable to their beliefs and personal style.

"I would tell people not to take my word for it, but to read the Scriptures. The style is not as important as the content.

And then if the content's there, does this style resonate with me? Are they proclaiming truth that resonates with me?"

Smith has found a truth and style suitable for him at Covenant-First Presbyterian Church. "My preaching method — it's called lectio continua," he explains. "Basically, it just means going straight through the text. We are a very tradition-oriented church here. We're really going back to older traditions."

Traditions had Smith attending church regularly as a child, singing in the choir and participating in the youth ministry. College changed that path.

"I didn't lose my faith. I just put it on the back burner."

He pauses occasionally, searching for the right words to describe an episode in his past he's not particularly proud of. "I joined a fraternity. I did all kinds of ... stuff. I was Christian in name only."

In the end, he feels it was all part of God's ultimate plan for him.

"At the end of college I met the woman who has become my wife and who had followed a similar path," he continues. "We found ourselves. As we were dating, we started going back to church. (Later), I had three or four months where I had a lot of reassessing of what my life stood for. I really believe God used that to open my eyes. At the end of that summer, I knew that a call to vocational ministry is what God had in mind for me."

Smith went back to school in Orlando, Fla., earning a Master of Divinity degree. He gathered experience working as a hospital chaplain. His first official pastoral assignment began April 1 of this year when he became minister at Covenant-First Presbyterian.

His youth — he's just 29 — wasn't an issue with parishioners, who welcomed him with open arms into their family. His personal style might have contributed to that, though he's quick not to criticize the style of other clergy.

"I bring a little more humor than some pastors," he says. "I personally have really keyed into the joy that God brings. In my experience, in having a relationship with God, in having a faith experience with Jesus Christ, that brings a lot of joy. You're going to have some joy, and it's a beautiful thing. I personally think in my perspective, I have much more a sense of the majesty of God."

His personal journey allows him to connect to his ministry in other ways as well. "I worked in banking for a number of years before I went back to school. You know, I lived the Dilbert life. I lived the life in the cubicles. I feel I have a sense of the frustrations of people who beat their head against the corporate machine. As people wallow in a work environment that's characterized by petty office politics, I have a lot of empathy for that. That's not to invalidate any other pastor out there."

Though faith is of utmost importance in his life now, Smith does concede it can be a struggle.

"In the Presbyterian Church, we believe that, while Christ does heal (original sin), we still struggle with that throughout life," he says. "That's what we're called to do, and that's what we shoot for. But we're not going to be 100 percent perfect at it all the time."

"My faith will be at the forethought of everything I do. That's part of the struggle of Christian life is to keep faith at the forefront of everything we do."

And that includes through the pain that life brings. "Nowhere in the scriptures does God promise that there won't be pain," Smith says. "What God does promise is for those who have faith, He will always be by their side. He will sustain them."

In the end, it comes back to truth for Smith. "I would say when it comes to faith, it comes to having a personal relationship with God who handcrafted the universe and everything that is. That's why I'm here.

"Yeah, it's a struggle. The idea is it belongs there, because it's all about truth." ©

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