Since the Rev. Earl C. Johnson became pastor at Martin Street Baptist Church in 2009, he has spearheaded efforts to partner with a food bank, created a social justice ministry and opened the church to after-school programs.
Johnson also actively recruited new church members and tackled polarizing issues such as same-sex marriage and the deaths of unarmed black teenagers.
On Wednesday, the 600-member congregation is expected to decide Johnson’s future at Martin Street Baptist, which formed in 1869 and is one of Raleigh’s oldest black churches.
Johnson, 59, said he thinks some church members want him gone because he has worked to open the church to the larger community and to new ideas. He served as president of the Raleigh-Wake Leadership Citizen’s Association from 2011 to 2015 and regularly addresses community concerns with the Wake County school board and Raleigh City Council.
“This is something that has really taken me aback,” Johnson said. “(Deacons) told me they wanted to do all these things, so I started to do them, and now it’s a problem.”
About two weeks ago, Johnson received a letter from the church’s deacons that said he “demonstrated a lack of mutual respect for the opinions, concerns and roles and responsibilities of other church leaders.”
The letter also said Johnson has missed too many ministry meetings and that he refused to establish a worship schedule that fits with the Sunday School schedule.
George Currie, chairman of the deacons’ ministry at Martin Street Baptist, declined to comment. Other deacons, including Wake County Commissioner James West, also said they didn’t want to discuss the matter.
In Baptist churches, the congregation decides who serves as pastor. A board of deacons serves in an advisory role to the pastor and does not have power to make church-wide decisions.
This will be the second time in 25 years the congregation at Martin Street Baptist has voted to decide whether to fire its pastor, highlighting an ongoing conflict between some older congregants who want to keep the church the same and some younger leaders who want to grow the church.
When Johnson was hired, he said, he thought the deacons wanted a pastor who would open the church to the community, help improve the surrounding East Raleigh neighborhood and increase the dwindling number of members.
Johnson hasn’t shied away from social issues, which he said is important for attracting younger church members and keeping them engaged.
He opened Martin Street Baptist for rallies after Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, was killed in Florida in 2012. He did the same when Michael Brown, another unarmed black teen, was fatally shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014.
Johnson also spoke publicly about same-sex marriage, an issue long considered controversial in southern Baptist churches, and especially so in black churches.
As North Carolina voters prepared to head to the polls in 2012 to decide whether gay couples should be allowed to marry, Johnson was quoted in the Washington Post as saying he worried the gay community would think the church “turned your back on us.”
“I thought the social message would be the easiest,” he said. “I think stepping out and making a statement in the pulpit is an issue for some people.”
Most black churches in America have become more open to gay members, according to the National Congregations Study, a 2015 study directed by Mark Chaves, a sociology and divinity professor at Duke University. The study looks at trends in American churches’ leaders and congregations.
In 2006, about 44 percent of black Protestant churches reported they were open to gay members, according to the study. In 2012, the number jumped to 62 percent.
In the early 1990s, Martin Street Baptist partnered with Pullen Memorial Baptist, which began formally welcoming gay members to its Raleigh church in 1992. Nancy Petty, who is gay, became pastor at Pullen Memorial in 2002.
Petty said she has always felt welcome at Martin Street Baptist, but she believes Pullen’s decision to welcome gay members put a strain on the relationship in the 1990s.
She said Martin Street Baptist needs to find ways to be more open, or its livelihood may be in danger.
Many Protestant churches have struggled to maintain membership levels as congregants get older. Petty said it’s tough to create an environment that draws in young people without alienating church elders.
“You don’t solve these problems by getting rid of people,” Petty said, referring to the church’s decision to vote on Johnson’s future at Martin Street Baptist. “The problem they’re facing with (Johnson) is not going away.”
Martin Street Baptist formed 147 years ago to serve Raleigh’s black community. It was a successful church, with more than 1,000 members at one time, according to a 1969 program celebrating the church’s 100th birthday.
David Forbes, who organized sit-ins during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, became pastor at Martin Street Baptist in 1984. Forbes said he increased the church’s membership “exponentially,” but some of the deacons were wary of the growth.
Forbes, who is now the interim dean of Shaw University Divinity School, recalls overhearing a conversation between two deacons who said they felt the church was growing too fast and that they were losing control of the church.
Many members of Martin Street Baptist Church were middle-class residents, Forbes said, but he also attracted poorer members. He said he thinks this might have led to some members questioning his leadership.
“Some people see the church as the house of the Lord and some people see it as a country club,” he said.
In 1990, the church members voted to fire Forbes.
“I think Martin Street does itself a great disservice,” Forbes said. “Eventually the church is going to have difficulty getting a quality pastor.”
Mechelle Hankerson: 919-829-4635, @mechelleh