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Institute for Public Service Reporting – Memphis

Faith

Shifting gears: Seminary president finds new life as long-haul trucker

Jay Brown spent 35 years in ministry. He was a seminary professor, and eventually president of Memphis Theological Seminary. Then he gave it all up to become a truck driver. He loves it. (© Karen Pulfer Focht)
Jay Earheart-Brown spent 35 years in ministry. He was a seminary professor, and eventually president of Memphis Theological Seminary. Then he gave it all up to become a truck driver. He loves it. (© Karen Pulfer Focht)

The Rev. Dr. Jay Earhart-Brown, the former Presbyterian minister and seminary president, the son and father of Presbyterian ministers, and a man who loves a good religion joke, likes to tell this one:

How many Presbyterians does it take to change a light bulb? Four. One to change the bulb, and a committee of three others to make sure it’s done “decently and in order.”

Those last five words usually set off waves of laughter in a presbytery meeting. They are drawn from the Apostle Paul’s admonition to the Corinthians: “Let all things be done decently and in order.”

The verse also can be found in the Cumberland Presbyterian Manual of Operation, which says “each presbytery shall have a set of Standing Rules to assure that all things are done ‘decently and in order.'”

Earhart-Brown, whose extensive resume includes Professional Registered Parliamentarian and, thus, certified expert on Robert’s Rules of Order, has been doing things decently and in order for decades.

So, it was more than a bit surprising when the man who rose from graduate to professor to president of Memphis Theological Seminary, the man who rose from local church pastor to moderator of the entire Cumberland Presbyterian denomination, resigned from ordained ministry at age 60 to become a long-haul truck driver.

“I left the church in October 2021, and the next week I was in truck driving class,” says Earheart-Brown, who just turned 62. “I’d never even been in a big rig before. I think I was the only one in the class with a PhD.”

"I left the church in October 2021, and the next week I was in truck driving class," says Earheart-Brown, who just turned 62. "I'd never even been in a big rig before. I think I was the only one in the class with a PhD."
“I left the church in October 2021, and the next week I was in truck driving class,” says Earheart-Brown, who just turned 62. “I’d never even been in a big rig before. I think I was the only one in the class with a PhD.” (© Karen Pulfer Focht)

Or a Master of Divinity degree. The seven-week truck driver training class at the Tennessee College of Applied Technology takes considerably less time than an advanced degree, but it’s considerably more hazardous.

Studying the 162-page Tennessee Commercial Driver’s License Manual isn’t easy, but it’s not nearly as harrowing as learning to turn, back, dock and parallel park a five-axle, 70-foot-long tractor-trailer, or learning to double-clutch a 13-gear transmission pulling the equivalent weight of 25 sedans in rush-hour traffic or up and down mountain highways.

“Going downhill is much harder,” Earheart-Brown said. “You worry about keeping control of the rig. And if you overuse the brakes on a long descent, you can burn the brakes up. It’s intimidating at first.”

Earheart-Brown managed. He’s handled bigger and more complicated challenges in his 35 years in church leadership, including 13 as president of Memphis Theological Seminary.

“I enjoy the peace and quiet of being out on the road,” he says, “not having to deal with all the interpersonal issues in ministry, the need to be chasing dollars all the time, all the politics in the church and the fights over sexuality issues and the divisive political climate in the country.”

Earheart-Brown left MTS in 2018 and returned to the pulpit as pastor of Faith Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Bartlett. “I didn’t mind being a pastor,” he says. “I enjoyed the first couple of years. Then Covid hit. That made it very difficult to be a pastor. You couldn’t visit people in the hospital. You couldn’t see people. The church was empty. Everything was online.”

The same year, he was elected moderator of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, which is based in Memphis. Like many mainline denominations, the CP Church is fighting over same-sex marriage and the ordination of LGBTQ clergy. “My denomination is trying to commit suicide, like most of them are these days,” he says. “I was ready to leave ministry, but I wasn’t old enough or wealthy enough to retire. I needed a job I would enjoy that also would support my family.”

That’s when Earheart-Brown saw a sign. It was an ad for a local truck driving school painted on the side of a truck that passed by his church office window nearly every day. “It got me thinking,” he says, “so I checked into it. There aren’t many things you can retrain in seven weeks to do and make a decent living.”

Earheart-Brown received his Commercial Driver’s License in January 2022 and became one of America’s two million tractor-trailer truck drivers.

“We had always joked that there were two things Jay could do if he wasn’t a minister,” said his wife, Mary Earheart-Brown. “One was to be a weatherman. He’s fascinated by the weather. The other was to be a truck driver. He loves to drive.”

Earheart-Brown drives an 18-wheeler for Indmar Marine Engines in Millington, one of the industry’s leading manufacturers. He delivers 40-ton loads several times a month for Indmar. He logged more than 142,000 in his first year. He’s driven as far north as Michigan, as far east as South Carolina, and as far west at Abilene, Texas. Someday he hopes to make the eight-day run to the West Coast.

“By God’s grace I finished the year with no accidents and no moving violations,” he says. “I did get pulled over at the I-30 weigh station near Hope, Arkansas, for being overweight on my rear axles. I was visiting with the DOT officer while she checked my log and my papers, and when she learned I was a rookie driver and what I had done previously, she said, ‘I’m going to write you a warning. I can’t give a ticket to a preacher.’ I thanked her profusely, slid my tandems to the proper place and reweighed legal, and headed for Abilene to deliver my load.”

Driving a semi wasn’t his lifelong dream, but long-haul trucking suits him. He grew up on a farm in Oklahoma, driving a different sort of tractor, so he’s comfortable around heavy machinery. As a kid he’d spend hours reading maps, so he enjoys planning his routes and stops.

Former colleagues can see how Earheart-Brown’s new vocation fits his problem-solving skills, his conscientious attention to detail, and his strong sense of responsibility to all around him.

“As incongruous as it may seem, Jay as a seminary president and then a truck driver are both ways to live out his basic call from God to be Jay in all of his distinctive goodness,” said Dr. Pete Gathje, vice president of Academic Affairs at MTS.

Earheart-Brown doesn’t see his new career as a calling or vocation. “For me, it’s something enjoyable to do until the time for retirement comes,” he says. “People say, ‘Oh, you can do a lot of ministry out on the road.’ Yeah, I can but I’m not really looking to do that now.”

Out on the road, there are no services to plan, no sermons to prepare, no potentially controversial biblical passages to exegete, no potential donors to solicit, no political landmines to navigate. Earheart-Brown leaves the navigation to the Google maps app on his cell phone and the Motor Carriers’ Road Atlas in his cab.

Out on the road, there is plenty of time to talk to his wife, his adult sons, Paul and Carter, other family and friends, plenty of time to listen to sports or the news or bluegrass, plenty of time to be with God.

“Some weeks we talk more when he’s gone than when we did when he worked here and we both had very demanding jobs,” says Mary Earheart-Brown. “He’s definitely happier than he was before he started driving, There’s a lightness to him now that’s nice to see.”

Out on the road, there are plenty of rules to follow to keep him driving “decently and in order.”

They tell him how to prepare his Kenworth T680 NextGen truck for the long haul, how to balance the loads he carries, how to move safely among impatient “four-wheelers”, how many hours he can drive, when he needs to take a break and when he must rest.

If he has a problem with the truck, say one of his 18 tires goes flat, he knows who to call for help. Most problems he can take care of himself. On a recent overnight haul to Abilene, he blew five fuses on his way back to Memphis. It doesn’t take a PhD in theology to know how many Presbyterians it takes to change a fuse. Just one.

“I’m just glad to be doing something I can leave behind when I’m not there,” Earheart-Brown said. “I can’t tell you how many pastors learn what I’m doing and tell me, ‘Boy, I wish I could do that.’ You could if you wanted to.”

This article was originally published by Memphis magazine.

Written By

David Waters is Distinguished Journalist in Residence and assistant director of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis.

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