NEW PALESTINE — Robert Miller was a kid who could get fired up about sports. But at 5-foot, 7-inches, he always had taller classmates who were going out for the basketball team.

For a long time, he was content to be the ardent fan in the cheer block — until fall of his senior year, when the coach singled him out and asked him to be the student manager for the team.

“That was a big, big deal,” Miller said. “I carried that with me my whole life.”

What Miller has also carried with him for most of his life is a call to be a minister. As a child, he came home from services and played church with his sister. Now, retired after 30 years as a pastor to Indiana United Methodist churches, he continues to find ways to minister to people — and not even cancer has stopped him.

Story continues below gallery

For a while, it didn’t look like that ministerial career would come to pass. Just as he sized up his height as not tall enough for the basketball court, he was aware of reasons he might not be the right fit for the role of pastor.

For one thing, he was a kid who slid into second with the spikes on or liked to shoot pool after a softball game. Folks chided him, wondering how an aspiring minister could do such things, until he came home from his freshman year of college and met the new minister. The new pastor, only five years older, also liked his spikes and a game of pool. Miller said this reassured him that one could do those things and still be a Christian.

There were other changes brewing for Miller during his days as a student at Indiana State University. He became president of the Wesley Foundation, a Methodist student group.

The guy who’d been pretty bashful as a student at Georgetown High School was blossoming as a leader and finding it easier to get a date, too. The one that proved pivotal was a senior year Christmas dance.

“It was just like he saved my life,” said Norietta Miller, Robert’s wife. The couple will mark 60 years of marriage in December.

Norietta’s parents worried about marriage ruining her college plans. But through more classes and some correspondence courses, she would finish. Miller kept learning, too; he earned a master’s degree in psychology, becoming a school counselor in a time when that was a fairly new position.

They began building their family and their careers. The journey included stops in Princeton and Bedford. Wherever they went, they were active in their church and the community, and Miller would be invited to speak at church.

“All of this time I was being urged every day of my life to be a minister,” he said.

But he enjoyed climbing the professional ladder. In one community, he was named the Chamber of Commerce’s 1963 Young Man of the Year. Looking back, Miller says he liked the recognition and that pride made him resist a call to be a minister.

When the family moved back to Terre Haute so Miller could take a job as Indiana State’s assistant director of counseling, the Millers searched for a new church. Miller learned of a church that needed a pastor and reluctantly agreed to try, offering to fill in for six weeks. Before that time was up, Miller knew something was happening.

Within four years, worship attendance had risen from 32 to 86.

So began the pastoral career of the Rev. Robert H. Miller Jr. He went to seminary and served eight Indiana churches.

“I thought I had a wonderful job as a high school and college counselor, and I did,” he said. “The ministry has topped that by 100 percent.”

It’s topped it so much so that after he retired in 1998, he and Norietta launched Agapé Family Ministries to make resources such as Bible teaching or marriage enrichment available to churches that might not be able to afford them. They bring musicians and people who share personal testimonies.

The group gathers at the Miller home every few months to sing and pray for each other. Miller quips that he’s an 80-year-old man with a garage band.

Agapé has a few more seminary grads in the mix, so Miller doesn’t have to speak quite as often. It’s an advantage because Miller was diagnosed with Stage 4 kidney cancer in 2013 and had a kidney removed. He’s heard from his doctor that the tumors are shrinking and feels he’s beaten it.

Miller said his journey with cancer has stirred an urgency within him, one that propels him to make sure those he loves know it, one that makes him more straightforward with people.

“It’s caused me to be a little more bold in my witness,” he said.

Norietta says he does more counseling now than he did when he was a full-time counselor. “As sick as he was, God was always giving him an opportunity to minister to someone.”

A waitress receives a metal “Jesus Loves You” cross, one of 2,000 to 3,000 Miller estimates he’s given away over 25 years. Miller and the woman in scrubs wheeling him back for a biopsy end up praying for each other and crying together; under her scrub hat she has no hair, as she’s been fighting cancer herself. Help is mobilized for the sick friend with rent due or a hospitalized single mom’s child who needs a place to stay. To his pastor heart, there is satisfaction in relationships forged, in help and encouragement extended.

“That’s the kind of thing that makes my life worth staying around for.”

The legacy

The legacy

-Churches served:

Youngstown United Methodist Church in Terre Haute, 1969-73

Cook Memorial United Methodist Church in Jeffersonville, 1973-77

Newburgh United Methodist Church, 1977-1984

Bradley United Methodist Church in Greenfield, 1984-89

Scottsburg United Methodist Church, 1989-92

First United Methodist Church in Logansport, 1992-94

Unity Chapel United Methodist Church in Ramsey, 1994-1996

Otterbein United Methodist Church in Indianapolis, 1996-1998

-Framed at his home are photos of people from those congregations that he helped encourage toward their own ministries — 17 men and women in all. Some of them have Hancock County ties: the late Hugh Severance, who was pastor at Charlottesville United Methodist Church and later Mt. Lebanon UMC; Joe King, who was pastor at Maxwell UMC; and Steve Ellis, a retired pastor serving part-time now at Curry’s Chapel UMC.

-In 2013, Miller received the Foundation for Evangelism’s Harry Denman Evangelism Award from the Indiana Conference of the United Methodist Church.