by Robert Earl Houston
Convention politics is a ruthless animal. I don’t care which national baptist convention or methodist or COGIC or apostolic or any Christian or non-Christian group – when you get people together who worship together flawlessly, once the worship is over, human nature kicks in and a political atmosphere can easily divide what a spiritual atmosphere has produced.
Last week in Louisville, (and weeks beforehand), the talk of the nation was the transition of leadership in the Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship. Bishop Paul Sylvester Morton, Sr., International Presiding Bishop (IPB), had previously announced his “retirement” in 2015 and his desire to name his successor in 2013 in order that the new IPB could “learn the ropes” and that there would be a seamless transition. Literally, Bishop Morton would be IPB one day and there would be a new IPB the next day. It was a grand plan that apparently the Bishop Council approved.
Unfortunately, politics kicked in.
From laypersons to Pastors to Overseers to Bishops – camps started forming. There were all kinds of names being bandied about – because the initial word was that Bishop Morton would hand-pick his own successor. Even pastors and denominational leaders who didn’t “have a dog in the fight” were speculating on who would succeed the charismatic IPB from Louisiana/Georgia. Names were floated and scenarios were drawn:
– What IF Bishop Morton called Bishop Kenneth C. Ulmer and asked him to return to Full Gospel?
– What IF Bishop Morton decided to look outside of the Bishops Council?
– What IF Bishop Morton chose a leader of a smaller group and sought a merger?
Names were thrown around at will and then as Louisville drew closer the talk settled down to two names: Bishop Neil C. Ellis of Nassau, The Bahamas and Bishop Joseph Warren Walker, III of Nashville, Tennessee. I have met and worshipped with both men and have respect for both of their ministries and they are both trailblazers in their respective areas.
Bishop Ellis’ native country is The Bahamas, which is recently (within 50 years) set “free” from the Colonial rule of Great Britain, but still retains a strong influence which means that worship is along the line of Anglican (Church of England) worship. That style of worship is not a typical U.S. baptist worship, but lends itself to a more sedate worship. He broke the mold at Mt. Tabor Full Gospel Baptist Church and his ministry literally changed a generation of worshippers there. In Full Gospel he rose through the ranks and, in my opinion, is one of the top 5 preachers in Full Gospel.
Bishop Walker, a native of Shreveport, Louisiana, is a mega-pastor in Nashville of the Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church that was “in the hood” – right by Fisk, Meharry and Tennessee State Universities and “blew up.” Everyone in Nashville is aware of the growth of that 28,000 member plus congregation. Although they relocated the main worship centers to three different areas outside of the original property, they continued a commitment to that neighborhood and has a standing room only worship on Wednesday afternoons for the College and community, they maintain mission work in that area, and have strong ties to TSU and provides transportation, food, and ministry to the students. Of course, like Ellis, they both have national TV ministries. For the last few years he has given directions to the Pastors Conference.
The camps had compelling arguments, which were actually articulated by one of the transition team leaders during his lecture about “How to Transition Your Ministry:”
If you choose Bishop Ellis it would have been a sign of continuity. He has been one of the prime forces in assisting Bishop Morton in theme selection and the flow of the Conference. He would have taken a very strong stance on spiritual issues and he was very familiar with the protocols of the Conference since he helped author many of their protocols and marketing strategies.
If you choose Bishop Walker it would have been a sign of change. He has the largest congregation in the Fellowship and he has had direct dealings with the younger pastors and has been instrumental in assisting many of them with transitioning their congregations from traditional baptist settings to Full Gospel. Because he is familiar with mega settings, he would have been able to tap into the process of Conferences and is used to seven figure budgets.
And then it happened. Bishop Morton called together the Bishops Council who went into sequestration to deliver to him a name. Bishop Ellis did something that no one saw coming.
He took his name out of the process.
Before a packed house at the Louisville International Convention Center and before a national television audience (unfortunately the naming of the IPB was not televised because the speaker after Dr. Jamal Harrison Bryant decided to take up 40 minutes of time and bumped the most important moment of the week off of the air), Bishop Ellis explained that during the meeting, he voluntarily withdrew his name from consideration because the politics of the choice had wearied him and grieved him spiritually. He said that because of his love for the organization, he would rather move out of the way in order to keep the unity of the body. To a stunned crowd, who sat there, some with bowed heads, some with tears, Bishop Ellis became the epitome of humility and showed that he doesn’t just talk the talk, but he walks the walk. In the words of a friend, “he became St. Ellis” to me.
Bishop Ellis has become for all denominations and even for local churches, especially pastors – Exhibit A.
What has happened to us that we are willing to either split or allow the rumors of splits to go on without reprimand, that we would allow ourselves to become bigger than our purpose? I’ve been preaching for 35 years and a student of black baptist history and I’ve seen it on all three levels – Nationally, States (Regions), and Districts, when politics has ripped apart our organizations and after 133 years of National Baptist history not one convention owns a hospital; not one state convention operates a hotel; not one District runs a seminary; not one convention has a stand-alone retirement program; not one State has a national TV broadcast; not one District has (to my knowledge) a child development program, like momma used to say in most cases, don’t have two red nickels to rub together.
We have leaders that are only concerned about their election or re-election. I’m a State President of a state body in Kentucky, which I never campaigned for, and I’m not looking for nor am I campaigning for re-election. I’ll tell you why – hell, this is not easy. It’s a drain of your time. It’s a drain of your resources. It’s a drain of sometimes having to reset a group. It’s a drain of your family time. It’s a drain of your work with your church. It’s not an easy task. And the higher you go, where the group is larger and larger – unfortunately many times the selected man is not the most godly man. Or the leader becomes what he previously campaigned against.
I’ve seen candidates for convention leadership waste resources with buttons and pins and billboards and sheets and middle of the night stuffing of door entries with campaign flyers while being in hotels in cities where no evangelism was done in that community by the group because the priority of a convention overruled the priority of the Savior. I’ve seen conventions waste more money on getting someone elected as leader and then report a paltry sum of money was given to missions, education and evangelism. I’ve seen “Survivor” styled alliances formed. I’ve seen national convention split over personality instead of scripture, power instead of ministry, and it’s left us with four badly battered national baptist conventions which numbers that can’t even draw the attention and calendar of the President of the United States to a meeting. Several groups have gone to court about who will be their next leader, and attorneys have gotten paid well for perpetuating the fight which is costly and winds up putting brother vs. brother. It’s ungodly and has turned off generations of preachers of all ages.
But Bishop Neil C. Ellis stood, flat-footed, measured, and not emotional – but spiritual. He gained a national dialogue about humility. For all the talk of those who were going to leave FGBCF if Bishop Ellis became IPB saw first hand that if he were selected, he had the integrity, spirituality and love for the fellowship that was worthy of following. He never raised his voice. He never turned it into a “look at me” moment and he didn’t use that precious time to make it a platform for self-grandizement. He stood there, before the world, and declared that he is Exhibit A for humility and that a Convention is not worth losing your soul over.
On Wednesday evening, Bishop Ellis asked a question of the FGBCF that I want to amplify in this discussion. What happened to the people of God praying? Praying is the ultimate act of humility. In prayer you have to humble yourself beneath the almighty hand of God. Maybe the reason why many of us are not humble is because we haven’t submitted ourselves fully to God. Bishop Ellis showed us all that humility is not a catch phrase – it’s a lifestyle.
Bishop Neil C. Ellis is Exhibit A. I pray that others of us who want to climb or are climbing in leadership will pick up that same spirit.
YOUR COMMENTS ARE WELCOME.