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When Presidential and Pastoral Duties Collide

Several dozen members of the historic Shiloh Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., are calling for the ouster of their pastor, claiming that among other things, he is visibly absent from the church tending to his job as president of a seminary located almost 150 miles away.

A group of longtime parishioners claim that since accepting full-time responsibilities as president of Palmer Theological Seminary, the Rev. Wallace Charles Smith, who has served as pastor of Shiloh since 1991, has been “inaccessible to the congregation on a daily basis and does not maintain an on-site presence at Shiloh during the week.”

Over the weekend, 138 members voted to have Smith removed as pastor, but church leaders say the vote was unauthorized and did not follow the church’s bylaws and constitution.

Still, parishioners are upset, claiming that he did not inform the congregation that he had assumed the full-time job at his alma mater. And they charge that his daily five-hour round-trip commute and his job responsibilities at Palmer, located outside of Philadelphia, have left Shiloh without effective leadership.

“He has not been honest and forthright with us about the outside jobs he has taken since he arrived here,” says Sammie Ellis, a church member since 1977 and a member of the group calling for Smith’s resignation. “He is living in the parsonage that the church pays for, using the church’s credit cards and automobile which he’s supposed to use to visit the sick and shut-in and on matters pertaining to the church. He is having a good time doing whatever he wants to do.” 

Smith dismissed the church critics saying, “When you’ve been at a congregation as long as I have, there are always issues with folks who have a problem with the pastor.” He says he told the congregation that he accepted the post at Palmer, noting that when he did, he received a standing ovation.

Smith says that with technology he can communicate with staff at the church and the seminary without physically being present. “I understand what each position requires and I put the time and effort in to get things done,” says Smith.

Several board members at Palmer expressed support for the embattled pastor. Others, meanwhile, have privately expressed concerns that the controversy, if not resolved soon, could ultimately impact the seminary’s day-to-day operations.

“I support him 100 percent, but this issue should be resolved,” says the Rev. Albert G. Davis, a member of the board that oversees Palmer. “I tell people all the time that the church should not be so enthralled with the personality of the pastor. Someone has to direct things, but do you think, for example, that President Bush does everything? No. He has a staff around him who carries out his objectives.”

Smith is not the first to lead a college or university while also leading a congregation. And he’s not the first to be criticized for it. The Rev. Calvin O. Butts III currently pastors the historic Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem while serving as president of the State University of New York at Old Westbury.

Faculty members at SUNY-Old Westbury have been critical of Butts’ lack of visibility on campus over the years and have even questioned his credentials to lead the state university. Butts holds a professional doctorate in church ministry from Drew University, not a research doctorate, which is usually required of college presidents. 

Several years ago, a number of professors sent a letter to the SUNY chancellor and the New York Attorney General calling for Butts’ removal as president of SUNY Old Westbury, claiming that he was in violation of university policies by holding two full-time jobs simultaneously.

“We all want him to leave the college and spend more time here at the church,” says one of Abyssinian’s trustees who didn’t want his name used. “He is spreading himself way too thin, and I think he knows that.”

Butts could not be reached for comment, but has disagreed with critics who claim that he is often missing in action and has pointed to several initiatives that he’s spearheading during his tenure at the college, including the construction of several new dormitories.

The historical tradition of Black preachers serving various roles within higher education is not a new phenomenon, says Dr. Sharon L. Miller, associate director of research at the Center for the Study of Theological Education at Auburn Seminary in New York City. But in recent decades this trend has been waning, with preachers realizing that running two institutions is a time-consuming venture.

Scholars like Miller, however, also note that White evangelists like Bob Jones, Pat Robertson, and the late Jerry Falwell have been able to hold jobs in the church while simultaneously building academic institutions. Their movement between the church and the college or seminary has not been subject to the same level of scrutiny as Black preachers.

The Rev. Marvin McMickle, who pastors the 1,500-member Antioch Baptist Church in Cleveland, also serves as a full-time faculty member at Ashland Theological Seminary, but he says there is a different time commitment to teaching and running an institution.

“The teaching that I do makes me a better preacher,” he says. “Different people are able to juggle pulpit responsibilities with different levels of efficiency. It’s just a time management question, and making sure that what you do on one ends serves you on the other end.”

– Jamal Watson


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