Pastors worried about what they can say from the pulpit during these politically polarized times have to be bolder, the Rev. Earl C. Johnson says.
“You can’t lead out of fear,” says Johnson, who lives in Raleigh but has spent most of the past year traveling the country as an interim pastor and consultant for congregations in the American Baptist Churches USA, a denominational arm. “You have to turn your moral outrage into political action.”
Johnson recently accepted a two-year appointment as interim pastor at Shiloh Baptist Church in Scranton, Pa., where he says he hopes to help the 75-member historically black congregation build its spiritual and numerical strength. Johnson says he has given the church a message that has become familiar to ones across the country that face declining attendance: They must change to stay alive.
In a story in The Times-Tribune of Scranton announcing his appointment at Shiloh, Johnson said he told church members, “They have to accept those people who come in who don’t look like them, who don’t dress like them, who don’t act like them, don’t talk like them, don’t worship like them, who are not like them.”
Johnson, 60, has long been known for his strong views on social issues. From 2009 to 2016, while pastor of the historically black Martin Street Baptist Church in downtown Raleigh, he often spoke publicly about voter suppression, political district gerrymandering, gay marriage, fair pay for hourly workers, health care for the poor, and police violence against black youths. He frequently attended Moral Monday protests led by the Rev. William Barber, a longtime friend, and led political forums for the Raleigh-Wake Citizens Association.
Johnson left Martin Street Baptist last year after the church membership voted to fire him. At the time, Johnson said he had been criticized for developing relationships with community non-profits and said one deacon had told him he was speaking too much about social issues and needed to “get back to the Bible.” Johnson nor church leaders have spoken publicly about the pastor’s departure since.
Today, Johnson says he’s not interested in serving again as the sole pastor at any one church.
“I guess I got a new career,” Johnson says with the optimism that colleagues say is one of his hallmarks. If an American Baptist church is between pastors, Johnson may be sent there to preach, provide leadership development, coaching and mentoring. “I help them restructure if that’s what needed, and I help them to find a new pastor. When that’s done, I’m gone to another place.”
Johnson also runs The Success Dream Center, through which he offers leadership seminars and workshops.
It’s been a big change for Johnson, who studied journalism, religion and philosophy at Virginia Union University in Richmond and has a doctor of ministry degree in metro-urban ministry from New Brunswick Theological Seminary at Rutgers University. He pastored a series of churches over three decades, starting with one in Virginia.
Things happen in the world, and you say to yourself, ‘These things are immoral. They are hurtful.’ And at some point, you have to stand up as a theologian, as a leader, as a person with a compass, and say, ‘Regardless of who you voted for, these things are going to hurt you as much as me.’
Rev. Earl Johnson
Johnson says his new intineracy does make it a little easier to speak out where he feels the need, and he understands some pastors’ trepidation about taking a stand in their own churches. Almost no congregation is universal in its political or social beliefs.
“Everybody in the church is not a Democrat, everybody in the church is not a Republican, everybody is not apolitical and everybody is not Independent,” Johnson says. “So you have to be careful in your tone. You alienate people, you lose church members. You’re losing them anyway, and you certainly don’t want to lose them over politics.
“But things happen in the world, and you say to yourself, ‘These things are immoral. They are hurtful.’ And at some point, you have to stand up as a theologian, as a leader, as a person with a compass, and say, ‘Regardless of who you voted for, these things are going to hurt you as much as me.’
“People are depending on you as a community leader to let them know what is taking place in the community and the world at large,” Johnson says. “If you don’t interpret that for them, they’re going to be socially, politically and economically ignorant. You can’t afford to have a congregation that doesn’t know what is happening in their surroundings.”
In addition to his work with the denomination, Johnson also conducts educational seminars and consults with church leaders about the legality of taking a stance on current issues. Many churches fear losing their tax-exempt status, he said, because they don’t know the law.
“We tell them what the rules are,” Johnson says, and he believes the rules provide more leeway than most people think.
Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause North Carolina, which advocates for open and ethical government, has seen Johnson in action.
“He’s a very dynamic speaker. Very genuine. And there is a passion there,” Phillips said. “But there is also just something about him, a quality that he carries, maybe from the ministry. He has a hopeful view of things. People like being around folks like that.”
He has a hopeful view of things. People like being around folks like that.
Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause North Carolina
In the past, Johnson served on the board of Common Cause, which teams up with more politically right-leaning organizations on issues such as government reform. At a meeting once with one of those groups, the John Locke Foundation, Phillips says Johnson was just completely at ease.
“There was no awkwardness or tension. He’s just very genuine,” Johnson says.
Wake County Board of Commissioners member Sig Hutchinson, who worked with Johnson on the Raleigh-Wake Citizens Association, says that’s because Johnson is a human bridge.
“He can always find common ground and move people forward,” Hutchinson says. “He can walk into any room, whether its filled with African Americans, Latinos or whites, and be trusted. He can speak with authority and integrity and credibility. He’s that rare person who bridges the divide.”