How can your congregation bridge tradition with new ideas for ministry? In this episode we speak with Ronald Slaughter, pastor of St. James AME church, who shares how he maintains important traditions while still innovating.
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How can your congregation bridge tradition with new ideas for ministry? In this episode we speak with Ronald Slaughter, pastor of St. James AME church, who shares how he maintains important traditions while still innovating.
Doug Powe: Welcome to Leading Ideas Talks, a podcast featuring thought leaders and innovative practitioners. I’m Douglas Powe, the director of the Lewis Center and your host for this talk. Joining me is Rev. Dr. Ronald Slaughter, senior pastor of St. James AME church in Newark, NJ. Our focus for this podcast is balancing tradition and innovation. Ron, we’re happy you’re going to be joining us today. I want to start by having you share with us a brief history of St. James AME church.
Ronald Slaughter: Well thank you so much Dr. Powe. Thank you for this opportunity to be a part of this podcast. St. James was birthed 179 years ago. It was actually, originally, Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church led by Rev. C. Birch. But then, later on, Bethel was disbanded. A few years after that and St. James was birthed at that time. St. James has been in the city of Newark. It was started on Green Street and then it moved to 94 Union St. But what’s significant about our history is that in 1945, St. James moved to its present location here in the central ward, the heart of the city of Newark, NJ. It moved here by purchasing, in 1945 get this, a group of African Americans — it was a nice-sized church, even back then — under the leadership of Dr. Mansfield Jackson, purchased this present building which was known as the Gothic Cathedral. It was owned, at that time, by First Presbyterian Church, or the Presbyterian denomination who sold the building for $35,000. A group of blacks purchased the building for cash in 1945. We’re talking about economics back then, was able to purchase this building for cash back in 1945. And so, we purchased the Gothic Cathedral back then. I have now become, and I am the 50th pastor of St. James church in 179 years. I am also the youngest pastor to lead St. James AME church. What a beautiful family that God has allowed me to be the under-shepherd of these past 9 years.
Doug Powe: Thank you for that brief history of the church. Let’s jump into our conversation. Under you, you’ve been working hard to, you’ve been talking about tradition. So, can you share a little bit about how you have determined what traditions were important to maintain at the church and then what traditions were important to change. The basis of the question, of course, is, many of our congregations struggle because they want to maintain tradition, but those traditions often lead to them declining. But at the same time, we don’t want to throw out the baby with the bath water, because tradition, of course, is important. So how have you figured out how to maintain some traditions but also then, how to change others so the church can move forward?
Ronald Slaughter: I think, Dr. Powe, I must first give credit to my predecessor. My predecessor who, of course, is 30 years older than me, had pastored this church, the longest serving pastor with 27 years, Dr. William D. Watley, in doing that 27 years, he was able to do some things that I don’t think a young pastor, especially the youngest pastor in the history of the church, would ever be able to do. He was able to transition this church from a more traditional church to more of a contemporary style. So it had a balance. It had a blend. And, because of his groundwork, that made it possible for a young 30 year-old — I think I was 33, or 34 at that moment — to come in here and to come with new ideas and innovation and not get slapped in the face. It’s because the groundwork and the soil had already been tended to, that allowed me to do that. But I thank Dr. Koppel. I always want to go back on my time at Wesley and how that helped me tremendously. Dr. Michael Koppel introduced a term called reflexivity. Reflexivity. And reflexivity is simply the willingness to change, through engagement with tradition, and an equal willingness to change the tradition through engagement. In other words, what Dr. Koppel introduced to me, in my own words, he gave me an idea. He gave me a vehicle in which I was able to take the traditions of the church, keep the ones that helped us, but also be able to replace the ones that were not helping us to accomplish the present day vision or mission. I think George Thompson would call it building cultural capital. And so, when I started building cultural capital, Dr. Powe, it enable me to use the tradition as a vehicle to the fulfillment of the vision and the mission that God had given me. You got to keep in mind, in terms of the culture, I was a Southerner, moving into the Northern context. And so, a Southerner can’t just come in and just start doing southern things, or just start doing things. I had to learn the culture, and once I began to learn the culture, that helped me tremendously, and that reflexivity really blessed me because it allowed me to engage the tradition. It allowed me to engage the culture, and, as a result of engaging the culture, I was able to make changes to tradition through engagement. So, you know, it’s the old adage, Dr. Powe, if you try to kill the tradition, that becomes a stone that people use to kill your vision. So I didn’t waste time trying to kill the tradition. I came in an did an assessment. Take the time and have an assessment. So, for instance, we still do the Decalogue on the first Sunday. Most people would find that shocking for a thriving and vibrant congregation, that’s still doing all ten commandments on the first Sunday. And “Lord have mercy, incline our hearts to keep this law.” The chants, all of it. We still do all of that on the first Sunday. We still do a hymn every Sunday. But guess what, we still get out in 90 minutes. So that means I kept the tradition that the people appreciated. But the tradition that they wouldn’t fight me over, I was able to replace that with something new.
Doug Powe: Alright, that’s helpful and I appreciate the example. Some of our listeners may not understand the Decalogue. In your tradition, the Decalogue, of course, is based on the Ten Commandments. Many congregations do it every week. But you all have moved to doing it on the first Sunday.
Ronald Slaughter: Yes. Once a month.
Doug Powe: So, connected to that, let me talk about, you have had roughly 1300 new individuals join since you became the pastor of the congregation. Let’s talk about some of the innovative things you’ve done to reach these individuals. Can you share a few of the things you’ve done that have helped you to reach 1300 new people.
Ronald Slaughter: Yes sir. Some of the things might sound traditional to some people. But I spent a lot of time, Dr. Powe, learning and watching and reading about past pulpiteers. Like Bishop Allen. Like pastor George Moore of St. Philip in Atlanta. Calvin Butts over at Abyssinian. Dr. Floyd Flake over at Allen Cathedral. Dr. Chip Murray at First AME in L.A. And even Adam Hamilton, Church of the Resurrection, where I spent the last 4 years going to his conferences. And I watch those persons and personalities and read about them very closely. And one thing I came up with, the commonality in all of them, regardless of their preaching, regardless of their style of worship, they were vibrant and growing churches because they all had this common denominator – they affected the community. They were a part of the community. And I think, you called it one day, but if you haven’t I sure hope you do, or I’m going to do it and give you a little credit, but you called it an outside-in church. You might have forgot that lecture –
Doug Powe: Oh, no no, I have not, and I have not put it in a book yet, but I may have to do it now.
Ronald Slaughter: Yes sir! It was the inside-out church and the outside-in church. And the outside-in church, of course, is that church that focused more and is more concerned about the things outside the church than they are about the things inside the church. Which means the outside-in church is a part of and focused on the community. And that’s what we used to grow this church like it is at St. James. Social Justice has helped this ministry to focus on things outside of the walls of this church that impacts the community. And what I’ve learned Dr. Powe, if you take care of the people, they’ll find their way to the church if they know that that church is willing to do more for people than it’s willing to do for itself. And so, in terms of innovation. We use technology. We use social media. We use radical hospitality. We value people’s time. We got worship down. We’ve got three experiences on Sunday. Because that’s when you capture the people the most. We’ve got 90 minutes, 7:30 and 11 are 90 minutes. Our 9:30 worship is all contemporary. It is 1 hour. It is at our South location, located about 15 minutes from Newark. Almost 20 minutes, in South Orange, a suburban community where 150-200 people gather. And between the 150-200 people that gather on Sunday morning, that church, that location is responsible for over $400,000 in income for this ministry called St. James. Also, it’s about accessibility. I wanted to become an under-shepherd. I wanted to take a church that’s known to be large, but make it small in terms of being – allowing people to touch the pastor. To be accessible. To meet with people. To interact with people. If you see me in the mall, and you’re part of the St. James family, I may not know you out of the 3,000+ by name, but I know your face and I’m going to walk up to you and say, “Hey, you’re part of the St. James village!” Or “You’re part of the St. James family!” And people just love the fact that their pastor, if he doesn’t know my name, he knows what service I go to. He knows where I sit at, out of the thousands of people he sees on Sunday morning. So it was accessibility. But it’s also, finally, what Dr. Lovett Weems calls “the language of grace.” I’m gonna say that slowly, the language of grace. That’s the language I’ve been using. Language of grace. Here’s an example. I use it everywhere I go. “I’m proud to be your pastor. I’m proud to pastor the greatest people on the planet.” I have the greatest people I have ever seen in my entire life. Because when you make people feel special and when you make people feel needed, they want to be a part of something like that where they feel needed and they feel loved. And they feel like their concerns are being heard.
Doug Powe: Let me go back. You were talking about social justice. A lot of people are concerned about thinking social justice can actually help their congregation. But you actually use and said “social justice has helped you reach 1300 new people.” Can you share a little bit about some of the things your congregation is doing or has done in terms of social justice to reach out to other individuals?
Ronald Slaughter: Yes sir. About eight years ago, I started the ministry, the social justice ministry. And the social justice ministry, originally was focused on voter registration. Making sure we get everyone registered to vote, making sure we get people to the polls. But then it began to expand. We started having crises in this state. One of the crises we had was dealing with higher learning institutions that were practicing racism, at that time. But it was a different form of racism. It was what we call, or deemed, structural racism — where blacks were going to a particular institution, they were staying there almost eight years before they graduated. And that was because that institution was taking away the programs that those African American high-risk persons, or minorities, they were allowing to enroll in the university, it was taking away the programs, the tutoring programs, the programs that would help them to excel. So we began to call those things out. And lo and behold, when we started calling those things out, we started calling out foreclosures that were happening in our community. Closing up hospitals in our community. People started seeing that this church, although it is known in this state and known in the world, these people are really concerned about us. They’re concerned about our community. You know what, I’m going to give that church a shot. I’m going to give it a chance. And you end up coming in on Sunday morning. That’s all I need. Is one experience. You come in for one experience, we believe — in terms of the leaders of this church, worship and arts ministry, the preacher ministry — we believe one experience will revolutionize your life. One experience will change your life. Not just that experience but the fact that you are now becoming part of a family, a village that’s really excited about you and crazy about the things that you are doing in your life. And we have realized that when people know you are really concerned about them and concerned about their way of being, they don’t mind coming and being a part of a family like that. So they’re just an example of how social justice helped us to grow and, for those 1,300 to find their way to the building. We became an outside-in church, instead of an inside-out.
Doug Powe: As you talk about that, as you know, not only within the AME tradition, but most mainline denominations, that most congregations are trying to do things within the community. But they have not been able to impact the number of lives that you have impacted. Can you share a little bit about what you think has made the difference for St. James and the work that you are doing there that you have been able to transform and touch as many lives as you have.
Ronald Slaughter: I think what makes the difference is that although St. James is an inner-city church with great numbers in terms of congregational size, we have not succumbed to the label, and I’m going to use an old, African-American term, of “bougie.” We have not become the Bourgeoisie. We have become every day, touchable, reachable people that love God radically. Excited about God, but are more excited about our community than we are excited about our tradition or our rituals inside the sanctuary. In essence, what a person would say in the inner city where I come from, in the hood, “real recognize real.” People recognize when you genuinely love them or when you’re doing something just to get their attention or when you’re doing something just to get them inside of your family. Naw, people know when you really love them, Dr. Powe. And they know when you really care about them. And I think, once again, we’ve done all of the radical stuff in terms of advertisement. I’ve been on bus stop signs. I’ve been on movie theater screens. I’ve been on grocery carts, I’ve been on flight. We’ve spent money. And some people are like “grocery carts?” Yeah, where’s everybody going to go every week? To the grocery store. So why not get that little flap where we used to sit the kids at in the middle where they sit at up front. Why not get that little flap, that piece right there. So when people lift it up, the first thing they see when they put their bananas in there, and their eggs, and their precious bread, and their precious items, they flip it up and guess who they see? My big ole’ face and St. James big ole’ church.
Doug Powe: I love it!
Ronald Slaughter: And they’ll say “everywhere we go this fella shows up! He’s popping up everywhere! We go to the movies, he got 90 seconds on the movie screen during the commercial sitting.” So we try to take everything. Everywhere people will go, Dr. Powe. We would take it. And then, here’s the big things. I trained my members how to take fliers and use them at work and use them in the malls and use them at the grocery store. And so, St. James members would take bundles of fliers and they were responsible. If you got 10 fliers, every member got 10 fliers today, everybody got to go give it out. You can’t put it on your coffee table. You got to go give it to somebody you don’t know or even somebody that you do know. And invite them to become part of our family, or to just come try us. Because all you need is just one experience. If you just come one time, I know you’ll be back.
Doug Powe: I love it. I especially love the image of people pulling up the flap on the grocery cart. That is just a great image. I want to keep pressing a little bit and ask though, how do you know when you have pushed, particularly, we’ll say, the more mature members too much? That, as you’re trying to do innovative things and as you’re trying to bring them along, how do you know when they say “Okay pastor, no, no, we can’t go there with you.”
Ronald Slaughter: Oh man, body language, tone, energy, responses, and once again, you have to be a part of their culture. If you’re not accessible, if you’re not among the people, you won’t know what their body language, when it shifts. You won’t know when their tone, or their energy has shifted if you are not there. And that’s why I believe in accessibility. And that’s why I don’t believe in missing Sundays, I don’t believe in missing days in my office, I believe in being there because it’s there where I get the tone and the pulse and the rhythm of the church and what’s going on. Here’s a big example: We used to have – I said we used to – we used to have a church cookout leading up to our church anniversary. It started out humongous. I’m talking about thousands of people in the park. Food was free, everything. Music, games, we was having a blast. I mean it was exciting. Everybody was like “aw man!” And then we kept having it. We kept having it. So, we was on about our fifth year, Dr. Powe and I noticed the tone was starting to shift because in September, we have Family and Friends Day with a block party that started when I came. I started a block party because I believe in community, family, and friends. Everybody comes to the block party. It’s right behind the church. We block the whole street off. Games, rides, everything, right? And one of the older members of the church, senior stakeholder, is what I would call him, a senior stakeholder. I call him Papa Ike. Because anybody in their 80’s or 90’s, I refer them as Papa and Mama. You know, I affectionately give them new names. And Papa Ike came to me and said, “you know son, I need to speak with you.” I said, “Yes sir, Papa.” He said “I don’t think we can keep this thing up with this cookout and organizing.” I said “We’ve got people coming! We’re having a blast! We’re enjoying it! What do you mean we can’t keep it up?” He said “Son, they’re enjoying it but the folk that doing the work every year, we’re tired!”
Doug Powe: I love it!
Ronald Slaughter: He said “we’re tired son! The same folk that do it in August, it’s the same group that do the block party and the cooking in September. He said, “Pastor, hear my heart.” That’s what he said, “One of them, we’re going to have to think about ending.” And he said, “I’m not going to rain on your parade. I’m just putting this in front of you and asking you to talk to God.” And that’s what I mean by tone and language. I didn’t have to talk to God long to realize, if I would have insisted on pushing them back-to-back months, at that magnitude, that I was going to start not only losing my senior persons, but also losing my middle persons, my baby-boomers. Because they were going to have to be the ones to pick up what the other generation was getting ready to lay down. So rather than being embarrassed, it’s time to shift, that season has ended. Let’s just move and focus on our Family and Friends Month, which is September, with our Family and Friends Day and block party. And it has remained a success. And when I stopped that cookout, you wouldn’t believe the folk who came and said “thank you!”
Doug Powe: I love it and I think that’s a helpful story because I think, often times, we think doing more is better. But sometimes, doing less can actually be better.
Ronald Slaughter: Yes sir. Yes sir. And even the Family and Friends Month, that schedule, that schedule is going out because I always release flyers a month before the events. That’s going out this coming Sunday, or after this Sunday. And even that is more compact. We used to have something every week for Family and Friends Month. We were going to deal with finances, we were going to deal with the surrogate’s office. Here in Essex County, there’s some boys dealing with wheels and estates because, I always tell people that – they laugh at me, I said with absolute certainty, “You’re all going to leave here. You all got to leave here. This ain’t home. You’re going to leave here. So you need to start planning now so your family don’t go in debt for funeral costs, all that.” So I have those conversations from the pulpit. So we were doing all of that in September. But now, I can see the body language and I said “I better cut back.” So now, instead of having eight things in September, we’re only having four.
Doug Powe: Alright. I think that’s helpful. And I think it will be helpful for those listening to think about things that they can cut back on.
Ronald Slaughter: And guess what Dr. Powe? I’m getting older too! I used to be able to run up and down the stairs, run all around! But I came here, I was 34. I’m 44 now! I mean, I’m slowing up in a sense. So I still got the energy, of course, but at 34 I was jumping in front of the pulpit and all over the place. Now I’m just walking down from the pulpit.
Doug Powe: I want to stick with the pulpit and ask you a two-part question. What is it that you hope consistent worshippers who come to the church take away from your sermon? And what is it that you hope visitors take away from your sermons?
Ronald Slaughter: Well, one thing that I pride myself on is hope. That one word, Dr. Powe. Take away hope. I don’t care how difficult the text is, or the tension in the text that I’m wrestling with. By the end of that sermon, the congregation is going to take away, whether you’re visiting or whether you’re a long-time member, it’s going to be some sort of hope and encouragement. That, in spite of everything, I have to face this coming week, or whatever I’m dealing with, I serve a God that can deliver and a God that can bring me out. I try to pride myself on finding hope in every narrative that I read in the Bible. And that’s one of the things that I try to emphasize. And when we leave this place, all three worship experiences, on the back of the worship bulletin, it’s going to say, “Statement of Encouragement.” And that Statement of Encouragement is going to tell you it’s going to be a good week. There’s nothing you’re going to face this week that you and your God cannot get through. Because if God can’t do it. It can’t be done. But if you have the faith, God has the power. Because God is good all the time and all the time God is good. And if you be good to God, God will be good to you. We leave every week reciting that. Every single week.
Doug Powe: So, do you think, just to stick with that theme of hope, do you think then, it sounds like that sort of connects to the work you all also have done in social justice? So, what people experience from you is hope in the community. And then when they come to the church and visit, or if they’ve been there a long time it gets reinforced in your sermons if I’m hearing you correctly.
Ronald Slaughter: Yes sir. It gets reinforced. Somewhere in that sermon, you’re going to find hope even if it’s dealing with correcting your behavior, correcting your lifestyle, even if I’m challenging you on those particular things, or challenging you with your mind. You know I say things such as those that concentrate on social media, “Get your head out of social media and get your head in a book or something. Start reading a book!” And one of the books I’m reading now because I try to find – you know, let me confess this, I told the church I wasn’t reading at least for a whole year after I completed my doctoral program. I said “they made me read so much at Wesley I don’t want to see another book. I’m taking a Sabbatical for a year from reading! That’s my Sabbatical. A year from reading.” But I couldn’t stay away because it became so refreshing. I’m reading a book now, Stony the Road by Henry Louis Gates, talking about reconstruction, white supremacy, and the rise of Jim Crow. And the way he is challenging my mind! I tell the people “get your mind out of social media” because I have a great deal of young persons in the church, and baby boomers. And even the baby boomers are into the social media. Get your mind out of social media and start putting your mind in the book. Something that’s challenging you, something that will stimulate your mind. That is something I’m always, even if I’m challenging them in a way like that, Dr. Powe, I still find my way back to hope and how they can find hope even in resources. And I’m a preacher, so I think everything preaches to you, so I find hope in a drive-in, I find hope with the birds on the ground. I remember the Lord says “If I can remember to feed the birds of the air, I can remember to feed you.” I find hope everywhere!
Doug Powe: I think that’s helpful and I like the way that what you preach also connects to the work that you’re doing in the community. And I think that’s an important theme. As we get ready to bring this to an end, can you share what’s on the horizon for St. James? What is it that you’re thinking about in terms of working with the congregation and working with the community and where you would like to go next?
Ronald Slaughter: Well, the main thing I think that we’re dealing with is trying to move this “dirt to destiny” vision to a reality. It has tested my faith and has renewed my hope at the same time, trying to build this massive facility which is really not just a …it’s not just a church. Because I caution the congregation and told them “we cannot invest $8 million in this community and put in something we’re going to use one day a week. That’s an indictment against God and we should be ashamed of ourselves if that’s our aim.” So we’re trying to build a transformative center. Now, in that transformative center is, of course, is the sanctuary because we do need a modern day sanctuary that, and this sanctuary will seat 1,500. But the rest of it is community space. Second and third floor. We’ve even got the bottom floor outside of the sanctuary where independent Starbucks, or Dunkin’ Donuts and Krispy Kreme just moved up here. Or an independent bakery would be able to own that particular space so we’re also encouraging entrepreneur ideas as well as developing residual income so we’re not just worrying about Sunday mornings to carry this building. But the second and third floor are the community space where we partner with the hospital. Where we partner with the local community college. Where we partner with the city. Where we partner with the prison re-entry. And they take up residence on that second and third floor and have their own space so that the building becomes a 7-day-a-week building. We would just occupy, on Sunday morning, the bottom space. But the other six days, Monday-Saturday, people are coming and gaining the assistance they need in order to better themselves, to help our young students get ready for college and get ready to take SAT tests, to help those who are coming back into our society from prison, to get re-acclimated. So we’re getting ready to make an investment in the city of Newark, who accidentally and coincidentally, we’re dealing with a crisis with lead in the water. And now the crisis is almost to the point that it’s almost resembling Flint, if not worse than Flint, Michigan! And it’s been happening right beneath our noses and our eyes! So now, my whole language is shifting and I just posted something on social media that said “we don’t need no lone rangers.” This is not a time for self anger and advisement. This is not a time for PR-stunts. This is a time for church and community to come together. Because we’ve got a lead crisis in our city. So now we have to get bottles of water. So, now more than ever, so my focus of course was on getting this building up. But now my focus is on getting these resources to get these pipes out of the system, so we can get new pipes installed, so that my people can live here in the city of Newark. And then, finally, watching my kids grow. Four more years and that oldest girl is going to college. And that’s so exciting. It’s even exciting for the church because these were babies when they came here. And now these babies are growing into teenagers and I always tell people, they say “Man, how did you do it?” I say, “First of all, God did it.” And then second of all, when I was making all of those terrible mistakes, and I still make them, but I was making them bad, my first two or three years. This church had not had babies in its entire existence. They were so enamored by the babies they didn’t even see all the mistakes I was making because they were playing with the baby’s face and stuff! So I said, “Thank God for the children! Thank God for the children!” They covered up a multitude of mess until I finally got my feet settled and God was doing God’s thing. So it’s the “dirt to destiny”, watching the kids grown. And this parole board is my life now. And it’s given me new life and new energy because now I’m giving hope to thousands of persons a year. I’m in prison every day. I’m going to a prison every day, holding hearings for the parole board. So I’m able — one gentleman was just, I encouraged him, he said- I mean, he had a rap sheet, it was long Dr. Powe. And he said “Well, my Dad, he ain’t ever been in my life. You know what I’m saying bro? Your Dad ain’t ever been that man and that kind of lead me to a life of crime.” And I stopped him and I said “Brother, I wouldn’t even know if my Daddy was that correction officer behind you or not. I don’t even know where Daddy at. But I’m on the other side of this table. And you’re on that side. So, at what point, at 28, will that no longer be an excuse for you. That your daddy was not there.” And you’re talking about a hardcore killer who started crying, at that particular moment. And God started using me, even in a prison context. As a parole board member that’s in charge of granting parole, able to just speak hope to a young man that was giving his life away. So this has given me life, being on the parole board. So that’s on the horizon. That’s another 10 or 12 years that I’m looking to serve on this board. So that’s what I’m doing now. That’s what’s on the horizon.
Doug Powe: Well, I appreciate your taking the time with us and the work that you’re doing at St. James and I look forward to many of the more wonderful things that will be taking place at the congregation.
Announcer: On the next Leading Ideas Talks we speak with Jen Bradbury about fresh approaches to youth ministry and how to conduct youth mission trips with integrity and purpose.
Jen Bradbury: So I see a ton of hope and possibilities for youth ministry ranging from the idea that, I don’t think youth ministries have to be big in order to be effective. I think you need to have adults who care deeply about youth and who love God and want to follow Jesus and are willing to invest in teens in creative ways.
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