FORTVILLE — Like many who ultimately hear the call, the Rev. Dr. Joe Smith grew up in the United Methodist Church but never considered he’d be on the other side of the pulpit.
“I didn’t think I’d be a pastor,” Smith said from his still-new office at Fortville United Methodist Church this week. “It was the farthest thing from my mind.”
Some 38 years later, however, Smith continues to preach as a United Methodist minister, continuing his passion for pastoral care at Fortville UMC where he took over July 1.
Only three years away from when he thought he’d retire, Smith received a call from the conference asking him to step in at Fortville where the previous minister had retired after a year there.
“It’s been a blessing,” Smith said.
The Gary/Hobart area native pursued his undergraduate degree in public health and earth science at Indiana University and figured he’d move on to a career in health care. But a suggestion from his home pastor to consider hospital chaplaincy began nudging him toward ministry.
It was nothing dramatic, Smith said. But after prayer and contemplation, the “small, still voice” led him to Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis where he obtained his Master of Divinity and Doctor of Ministry in Pastoral Care and Counseling and found his calling in parish ministry.
“I have a passion particularly for pastoral care,” he said. “The shepherding. The intimacy with the people and their joys and sorrows and their willingness to share those moments with me. I’m a relational person.”
He’s made a career of walking through life with his congregations, spending more time than many Methodist ministers in one place. With many of his colleagues working an itinerate circuit in the conference, Smith has been fortunate to spend no less than three years at any of his charges with a 12-year assignment at Kentland Trinity United Methodist northwest of Lafayette.
For a man whose call is caring, time is the essential element.
“The first thing you have to do is build that trust relationship. It takes a few years to build that trust. And as they say, people don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.”
Since time is the bedrock of a relationship, Smith is not wasting any, according to church leaders at Fortville.
“Joe is very compassionate and kind,” said Fortville UMC church council chairman Marvin Metzger. “He has a sincere interest in getting to know our church family on a one-to-one basis, and he’s already visited our members who are in the hospital and our shut-ins.
“He’s also a very good evangelist, spreading the word not only to our church and to Fortville, but also to the outlying community where we have members who can’t get to church each week,” Metzger said.
Working the parish was not something Smith saw coming initially, but over the years, he’s found walking with the people is what he was meant to do.
“I like the variety found in the parish – the preaching, the teaching and the counseling. I’m always amazed by God’s leading – opening avenues – things you didn’t see coming.”
Though stepping from the pulpit to engage people where they live can many times be sorrowful and in some cases outright tragic, “the joys have outweighed all the sorrows,” Smith said. “The friendships and watching people grow in their Christian faith.”
When he’s not tending the flock, Smith recharges by retreating to nature’s cathedral, hiking and birding through some of his favorite Hoosier haunts and reading the works of naturalists like Thoreau and Muir.
Yet another of his literary favorites has a much more local connection.
“When I was at IU in Bloomington I visited Riley’s home in Greenfield and bought a hardback copy of all his poems that I’ve had my entire career,” he said.
Though retirement might have been in the picture once upon a time, those plans have taken a back seat to a scheme from a higher source, and Smith finds the new assignment has given him fresh energy.
“Nothing gets old,” he said of his ministry. “Every day is fresh with new opportunities for counseling and to witness.
“It’s a new church with new people, and I’m learning to love this congregation,” the soon-to-be 64-year-old minister said. “I plan to be here as long as my health permits and the relationship is fruitful. I’m glad to be back in Riley territory again.”