CHARLOTTE, N.C. — With tears and applause, hugs and handshakes, Myers Park Baptist Church said goodbye on Sunday, Feb. 24 to a longtime senior minister who announced in mid-February that he needed to walk away from the stresses of pastoring a 2,200-member congregation.
The Rev. Steve Shoemaker, who recently sought treatment at a Maryland facility for anxiety and depression, also bid his “beloved community” farewell with a final sermon that cast his resignation and the 70-year-old church’s upcoming search for a new leader as opportunities for each to start a new day.
“God is giving to me a new dawn, and God is giving to you, the congregation, a new dawn,” the black-robed Shoemaker said after climbing the stairs to the church’s pulpit one last time. “God is a God of new beginnings.”
Shoemaker, who also had admitted “self-medicating with alcohol,” wants to devote his attention to an intensive 90-day, out-patient recovery program and then pursue a career of teaching and writing.
Myers Park Baptist, meanwhile, is expected to launch a search for an interim senior minister, who would serve for a year or two, then commission a second search, for a permanent successor to Shoemaker.
As the fifth pastor of one of Charlotte’s most prominent houses of worship, Shoemaker, 64, was lauded and criticized over the years for the church’s liberal stands.
‘We mean the Gospel we preach’
In 2007, Myers Park Baptist — affiliated with the American Baptist Churches USA and the Alliance of Baptists, not the conservative Southern Baptist Convention — got kicked out of the state Baptist Convention for welcoming gays and lesbians. The church has formed partnerships with Temple Beth El and Masjid Ash Shaheed — Jewish and Muslim congregations. And its high-profile roster of outside speakers has included some — retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong and scholars from the Jesus Seminar – who questioned basic tenets of Christianity.
On Sunday, Shoemaker alluded to that reputation for inclusiveness, telling those who filled the 700-seat sanctuary that “if we’re not willing to welcome everybody, everybody, we make a lie out of the Gospel. … This welcome (of gays and lesbians) has been the proof in the pudding that we mean the Gospel we preach.”
The service was an emotional hour. Many wiped at eyes that were red from crying, while the Rev. Cheryl Collins Patterson had to stop momentarily after her voice cracked with emotion during a prayer of thanksgiving for Shoemaker’s nearly 14-year tenure.
God “has given us a shepherd who has led us in a joyful partnership of the Gospel,” she said. “And … a friend who has (taught) us to seek peace with justice.”
There also was laughter.
Shoemaker started his sermon with a reference to that other religious figure who made news recently by quitting.
“The pope and I had a conference call with the Almighty,” he quipped. “ ‘Hons,’ she said with a Southern drawl, adjusting her apron, ‘it’s time to let go and let God.’ ”
And there was singing, lots of singing: By the choir; by Shoemaker’s twin sister, Susan, a soprano who performed a solo about how blessed is the man who walks in the ways of Jesus; and by Shoemaker, from the pulpit.
As a musical exclamation point to his comments about the church’s inclusiveness, he sang some of “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” — a pointed show tune from “South Pacific,” the classic Broadway musical, about how people are not born racist.
Shoemaker even added a verse he penned himself: “You’ve got to be taught to be afraid/Of people with different DNA./And people not born in the U.S. of A./You’ve got to be carefully taught.”
‘It’s OK to love everybody’
Many in the wooden pews donned red as a tribute to Shoemaker’s regular worship-ending prayer that “God take your hearts and set them on fire.”
Before and after the service, members said Shoemaker will be a hard act for the next pastor to follow.
“He’s a very human combination of intellect and spirit,” said David Offill, 67, who began attending Myers Park Baptist seven years ago with his wife, Jane.
Kim Bentley, 41, cited Shoemaker’s leadership as a big reason she and her husband, Lee, joined the church a year and a half ago. They had attended other churches, but were turned off by rules and laws.
“Here, it’s OK to have questions,” she said. “And it’s OK to love everybody. You don’t get that everywhere.”
But, for all the grief Sunday, some also said they understood Shoemaker’s decision.
“Being a minister is a very difficult job. You’re on duty seven days a week, all year long,” said former UNC System President C.D. Spangler, who’s attended Myers Park Baptist since its 1943 founding, when he was 10 years old. “Steve has probably said to all of these congregation members: ‘How can I help?’ But I doubt that many of us have asked him: ‘How can I help (you)?’” : :
— Reprinted with permission via The Charlotte Observer. Tim Funk served as the contributing writer on this piece. qnotes is a member of the Charlotte News Alliance.