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Giving Back — David Ruth D’03

By Jami Moss Wise

As the 2009-2010 school year begins, the Divinity School depends on alumni to fulfill its mission and ministry by recommending students, serving congregations, and making gifts that support our students and faculty. “Giving Back” recognizes and celebrates their good work, so often performed without fanfare.

The first thing David Ruth D’03 says about his call to ministry is that he was “cornered into preaching.” A lifelong Presbyterian, he owned a successful Nissan dealership in Fayetteville, N.C., had a wife and three teenagers, and was busy with the ordinary details of middle-class life.

But after a friend asked him to speak at a small church, Ruth found himself becoming what he calls a “circuit rider” of a preacher. In the course of four to five years, he was invited to preach in about 40 congregations, ranging in size from 15 to 1,500.

“There was no great epiphany,” he says. “It just came on kind of gradually.”

Giving Back

The closest thing to an epiphany came when he officiated at the funeral for a 14-year-old boy. It was a difficult service made more so because Ruth had teenage children himself. But it was during that service that he realized his ministry to the family wasn’t one-way. Instead, despite all the pain and suffering that the boy’s family endured, he says, “They ministered to me.”

By the late 1990s, Ruth had completed the commissioned lay pastor program through the Presbyterian Church. He tended to his business during the week, and filled in at different churches as he was needed. He knows that he could have continued working part time in two jobs. And he never intended to leave Fayetteville, where he and his family were happy.

In the end, however, being a commissioned lay pastor wasn’t enough. “I wanted to serve one community,” he says. “I wanted to experience their ups and downs, their joys and sorrows.”

He considered several Presbyterian seminaries, but eventually decided on Duke. With three teenagers at home finishing school, he wanted to commute. But he was also attracted by Duke’s reputation, especially what he calls the “fine mix of academic rigor and practicality.” And he was impressed by the graduates he knew.

“My time at Duke was wonderful,” says Ruth, whose son Andrew, a May graduate of Davidson College, is now a first-year divinity student. “I would have stayed if I could have. I messed up, though. I finished!”

Given Duke’s reputation for academic excellence, Ruth says he had initially worried that the faculty would be aloof. To his surprise, his professors were accessible and interested in his success. His love of preaching continued to develop, particularly in his courses with Rick Lischer, Cleland professor of preaching.

“I was scared to death but the faculty and students nurtured and encouraged me,” he says. In appreciation, Ruth is committed to giving back.

“Duke made a commitment to me. Why shouldn’t I honor the school as much as it honored me?”

He currently serves on the national Alumni Council, and he has made a five-year pledge to the Divinity Annual Fund, which supports student financial aid.

Duke Divinity School, he says, is essential to the healthy future of the church. When he took his ordination vows, he says he promised to serve the church with “energy, intelligence, imagination, and love. I think Duke prepares pastors to help the church be healthy and grow.”

As he begins his fifth year at Williamsburg Presbyterian Church in Kingstree, S.C., preaching is still Ruth’s favorite part of ministry. “I get excited when I prepare a sermon,” he says, “and my palms still get sweaty before I get in the pulpit.”

But the rewards of ministry extend beyond preaching.

“Yesterday I sat next to a hospital bed with someone who has no idea what’s coming next,” he says. “And I did a baptism on Sunday, and a wedding the week before.” It’s the ups and downs, the joys and sorrows, that give energy and life to serving God’s people.

Jami Moss Wise is the director of development for Duke Divinity School. For information about making a multiyear pledge to the Annual Fund, please contact her at 919.660.3455.