We’re posting weekly transcripts of David Plotz’s Working podcast for Slate Plus members. This the transcript for Episode 3, which features the Rev. Dr. Howard-John Wesley, a senior pastor of Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria, Virginia. To learn more about Working, click here.
You may note some differences between this transcript and the podcast. Additional edits were made to the podcast after we completed this transcript.
David Plotz: What is your name, and what do you do?
Howard-John Wesley: Reverend Doctor Howard-John Wesley, senior pastor of Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria, Virginia.
Plotz: And how do you become a pastor?
Wesley: I don’t know if you actually become one or you’re chosen, or it’s a sense of a calling that many—many pastors have a sense that the Lord has called them to this assignment. And I received a calling, which I thought was just to preach, way back in 1989 when I was only 16.
But somewhere along that journey in the 1994 realm, I felt like the Lord was calling me to a higher level and to work with his people. And so when I left undergrad I went to seminary, I worked on my Master’s of Divinity to get the formal education and training, and it was from there that the Lord provided the first opportunity for me to pastor a church in Springfield, Mass.
Plotz: What is the first thing that you do when you come to work on a weekday morning? Let’s not take a Sunday to begin with. Let’s take a weekday morning.
Wesley: The very first thing I’ll do is come in the office, try to beat all the staff here. I’ll come in and close the door and kind of get settled. Before I open up any folder or briefing or emails that are waiting on me, I go to my little prayer alter and kneel down, and ask the Lord for guidance for today and try to quiet my spirit.
I take time to read some Scripture, and then I have a list of concerns for the church—typically our sick members or some pending issues that I just want to pray for guidance for. Because I realize that today or the next day, I’m probably going to have to make some real difficult decisions and I want to be certain that I’m peaceful, quiet, and hearing the Lord’s voice before I make those decisions.
Plotz: And what time of the day is that, and how long does that first prayer usually last?
Wesley: I try to take my first hour in the office to just be still, to not do office work, to pray, to read some Scripture, to get in some devotional works, just to get myself grounded for the day. So, I typically get in the office after I drop the kids off at school, so I’m here by, like, 8:15 a.m. or 8:30 a.m. And I won’t take my first meeting until about 10:00 a.m.
Plotz: What are the tasks that tend to occupy you during the weekdays, during everyone’s traditional working hours?
Wesley: Well, I guess it depends on what day it is. The crazy part of my job is that it is very monotonous, in that the weeks always look the same. Tuesday is always the same, Wednesday is always the same, Thursday is always the same, just in terms of the scope of the work. But on any given day it‘s always going to be majorly different, in terms of what gets done that day. So Tuesday I typically deem my administrative day: I have department head meetings, I’ll meet with my managers, I’ll meet with my direct reports, all in preparation for our staff meeting which begins at 11:00 a.m. on Tuesdays. And that typically goes from 11:00 to 12:30 p.m.
Afterwards I’ll have what I call my “executive council.” I’ll meet with my chair of my board of trustees, the chair of deacons, and the church administrator, and we sit down at a real macro level and talk about some of the issues that we’re facing in church, and make some executive decisions. From there I’ll take a lunch, and typically come back and have some more department-head meetings, a building committee meeting.
And then around 3:30, 4:00 p.m., I start shutting down to get ready to teach Bible study on Tuesday nights—I teach our adult class of about 200 to 300 people that come out. So, I need to be prepared to teach on Tuesday. So, Tuesday is the longest day of the week. I used to call them “terrible Tuesdays,” but the Lord slapped my hand about that, calling any day “terrible.” But Tuesdays start at about 8:15 a.m. and don’t end until 9:00 p.m.
Plotz: What about the other days?
Wesley: Wednesday is typically the time I avail myself to office hours to meet with members. So, we’ll come in and start from 10:00 a.m. and go to about 3:00 p.m. or 4:00 p.m., with meetings on the half hour. With a congregation of about 6,000, there‘s always someone who wants to meet with the pastor—for counsel, for prayer, casting a vision, they want to ask questions about the church, new members who want to join and who want to understand our doctrine, want to know some things about me, want to know some things about the vision of the church.
So typically Wednesdays I‘m meeting with members, and trying to sneak in some hospital visits if I’ve got open time. Even though we’re large, I still like to have a hands-on with our sick and our shut-in. And then I’ll have a little bit of a break, and Wednesday evenings and Thursday evenings are typically committee meetings for our large committees. So, like, the deacon’s meeting, a trustee meeting, a ministry that‘s gathering together, a large program that‘s coming up where they’re training their volunteers. So Wednesdays I’m typically here in the evening having large meetings with groups, as opposed to individuals.
Plotz: What are the really particular kinds of things that people want to talk to the pastor about?
Wesley: Wow, well, without, you know, breaking confidentiality—because obviously I don‘t have to name individuals—we have a bunch that come through. So the number one question that comes into the office are people trying to discover: What is God’s will for me?
Those who are coming in with what I consider therapy issues, a bereavement, a loss of a loved one, hospice, someone in the family is terminally ill, someone is in their circle of friends that‘s drug-addicted. I have some who come in who’ve been sexually molested or abused, and just want to cry and be in a safe space. So, it‘s almost like I’m a therapist, even though I’m just a pastor. People feel comfortable in sharing their personal life issues.
Plotz: And I suppose again this must vary tremendously from person to person, but are you there to listen, to ask questions, or to give answers? Or maybe all of those things?
Wesley: I think they come in with the hope that I’ll give answers, but I quickly learned in this job that what people deal with is typically much greater than my skill set. So I typically listen. I will end every counseling session by holding hands and praying with them. I think most people, that‘s when they feel the real sense that they’ve gotten a touch, so I pray with them.
And then I’m quick to direct them towards more professional counseling and therapists. We have Christian counselors within our church as well as within the community, that we’re connected to. And there are some people that come in, and I know you need to sit and speak with someone else two or three more times, but unfortunately I can’t be that person. But I’m going to direct you to someone who I’d ask you to take a look at.
Plotz: That‘s Wednesday. What about Thursday, Friday, and the other parts of the week?
Wesley: Thursday typically can be some of the more—more of the same, with meetings with staff and ministry heads. We have 70 active ministries in the church and they all have different visions and programs and they want to run ideas by me. But typically on Thursdays I don‘t come in until about noon. I try to spend Thursday morning in meditation and sermon development, beginning to shape that sermon for Sunday—Saturday and Sunday—which is one of the critical moments in the life of our church.
Thursday evening I typically have more ministry meetings in the evening, and then Friday I try to stay out of the office and just write sermons. Friday is sermon-writing day, you know the sermon has got be done, finished up, and polished so that I can start memorizing it. Because our first worship experience is Saturday evening, and I’ve got to be ready to preach on Saturday evening.
Saturday, however, very seldom gives me a lot of private time. I’ve got two young boys, and so I’m always out and about with something with them. We have weddings on Saturday. If you think about it, that’s when most of our members are off on the weekends, and so if we have—like, a sports walk or a biking, or a motorcycle ride, it’s typically on Saturday mornings. So I’ve got to show up typically in the office, because that’s when the people gather together. They just want to see the pastor’s face and pray with them, and maybe start the walk with them and then back out.
But Saturdays are typically kind of busy and buzzing, because that’s when most of our members are off and are on church campus.
Plotz: Is Monday a day off? Or there is no day off? I’m confused here!
Wesley: Well, there’s supposed to be a day off, and I’m probably a bad model of that. I’m supposed to model having Sabbath, and for us Sabbath isn’t just about a day of worship, it‘s about a day of rest. So, I try to make Monday my Sabbath, but it doesn’t always work out like that. Typically if there is a funeral it’s going to show up on a Monday. So, most of our funerals come in on Mondays. Monday is also a time when I have to have some special meetings. So if we’ve got a crisis going on in church and we need to have a meeting, my Tuesday is booked with Bible study, and Wednesday I have committee meetings, Thursday committee meetings, so typically things get shoved in on Monday.
Plotz: How many sermons do you give on a given weekend?
Wesley: I will stand and preach three times between Saturday and Sunday, and we’re getting ready to go to four next year.
Plotz: And is that the same speech three or four times? Or is it three different speeches?
Wesley: Well, it’s the same sermon in the sense that I will use the same Scripture text and the same outline. It comes out a little bit differently, obviously. I’m not a manuscript preacher. And given the interaction with the crowd, you know, an African-American congregation, there’s a call-and-response narrative that shapes the preaching. And so, it’s supposed to be the same so that members won’t stick around. If members knew I was preaching a different sermon at Sunday 8 a.m. versus Sunday 11 a.m., they would stay. And the idea is for you to come and leave so that other people can get in, because we have a larger membership than we have space to accommodate.
Plotz: Go back to last week. So, when you start to think about what you were going to preach on that weekend, what was the first thought you had? Why did you have it? And how did that develop during the course of the sermon development process?
Wesley: Last week was a little different because I was in the midst of a series, and that to me is great preaching. So I’m linking up a sermon from one week, to the next, to the next, in with a theme. The theme I was dealing with over the last four weeks was learning how to really make substantive change in your life. That all of us know what it’s like to identify a change you want to make and struggle to get through that.
So for four weeks we looked at different individuals in the Bible who were able to make significant change. That was easier for me because I knew from one week to the next what was coming. But there are some weeks when there’s not a series in place and the sermon is just kind of singular and standalone. Those sermons can be guided by a couple of things. They can be guided by the season that we’re in—so, if we’re in Advent, or Lent, or Pentecost season, you know, I’m dealing with the birth of Christ or issues around his death and resurrection—so, sometimes those guide it.
Sometimes it’s driven by what’s happening in the world. Do we have a crisis that needs to be addressed? Is there—like, when Trayvon Martin got shot, I had to address that. When 9/11 came, you had to speak about that. With war breaking out—in this area, you know, we have so many servicemen and servicewomen in our church. So sometimes the issue in our culture will shape what I feel the Lord wants to speak in the sermon.
Other times it may simply have been a real struggle that I was put into with someone in counseling. I know that if I meet with a member who’s wrestling with a parent about to die, they’re probably not the only member in there. We have members in our church across the board who know what it’s like to lose a loved one, and so I may feel the calling of the Lord to write a sermon about when it’s time to say goodbye.
Plotz: Let’s pick that as a good example. So, was that a real sermon?
Plotz: So, you have the inspiration or the germ of it, which is that you were dealing with a parishioner who had this issue. Then, how did you develop it? What is your process, and how did you write that sermon?
Wesley: Well, for me sermons begin in one of two places. Since we’re a Baptist church, the scripture—the holy word of God, the Bible, is very critical to us. So, I’ll start in one of two places. Either I have an issue that’s burning on my heart, or I have a passage of Scripture I want to teach and preach from. For me, the very first step in sermon writing is identifying which one I have, and then finding the other.
In this instance I had a yearning in my heart, a leaning from the Holy Spirit to preach on losing a loved one. So, the very first step for me then is to find a passage that might address that, or even better, a passage in Scripture where someone is about to lose a loved one. I’ll give an example. Mary, standing at the cross watching her son die. She knows he’s about to die. She’s got to get ready for that.
Or, the disciplines realizing he’s about to die. Or, Paul realizing it’s his last days, and he’s writing to Timothy, his son in the ministry, trying to prepare Timothy for Paul’s death. So, I’ll take the relevant life issue and try to find some synonymous Scripture where that issue is being addressed, so that we can look it from Scripture and not simply from what I think or what I feel, or what my perspective may be.
Plotz: In that case, what was the passage that you decided really to focus on?
Wesley: On that one, it was Paul preparing Timothy for his death, and giving him a charge and a commandment to follow on and to rejoice, knowing that the work continues in Timothy and that this was not something that should halt him. It would hurt him, but it shouldn’t halt him. And how in our lives when we lose loved ones, there is a time when we press pause, and then there’s a time when you’ve got to press play.
Plotz: So, you had your issue and you had your Scripture. Then, it’s Friday. What do you do? Do you write it by hand? Do you sit on front of a computer? Is this something that comes to you in paragraphs in your head? How do you rehearse it? Do you stand in front of a mirror? What’s the process there?
Wesley: Typically on Thursday I do what’s called my “exegetical homework.” So, I’m going to be doing a lot of research on the text I’m preaching from and the cultural norms and morays that may have shaped it. I’m going to be trying to do research on Timothy, on Paul. So, I’m putting all of that paperwork together. I’m Xeroxing articles. I’m doing research on what’s called our ATLA database, the American Theological Library Association. I’m, you know, Googling stuff. So, I’m trying to pull a lot of research together.
Then on Friday comes the sermon writing, and that’s probably the most difficult thing for me because I’m very linear. I can’t write a sermon in the middle and then back out to the introduction. I have to start at the beginning and work my way through it. So there’s an introduction, there’s a transition to the biblical text, there‘s the exegetical work on the biblical text, and then there’s the, “what does the text say about the relevant life issue that I’m trying to preach?”
I’ll start by creatively trying to write an introduction. I believe that in a sermon, you’ve got three minutes to answer the most critical question, and that is, “why do I want to hear you for the next twenty?” You know, I’ve got to grab the listener. So I work very hard at engaging introductions, introductions that are funny or raise a relevant issue. And from there I will then try to transition into the Bible. I will do some background in the Bible, writing.
So, to answer your question, I typically write. I’ll have a lot of what I call just kind of “ex-lax.” I’m just going to write a bunch of stuff, you know, throw out ideas for introductions, ideas about the text, and then they’re to start to come together. So, what looks like 18 pages of random notes will then start to combine itself into what is ultimately a three page-strong outline. I know if it’s more than three pages, the sermon’s going to be too long.
I want to have that done by Friday. Because Saturday all I’m doing is going over that in my head. My preparation process is that once the manuscript is done, then I sit, I close my eyes and I try to walk through the sermon in my head without the paper. Do I know my introduction? Do I know what my first idea is? Do I know what I’m saying next? Do I know what comical point—do I know what illustration I want to use? And the more I go through it in my head, the better it prepares me so that when I stand on Saturday I can preach without necessarily looking down at those three pages. People love to feel you give them eye contact, that you’re engaging them, that you understand this is a verbal presentation and to connect with you I need you to be looking at me. And so I try to work very hard at the gift of memory and memorizing the sermon, not necessarily verbatim, but big chunks. Like, I don’t need to read every word off the paper, I just need to be certain that I get the idea out. And once I get the idea out, I can move on. So, I don‘t need to be locked into a manuscript as much as, see it in my head so that I can speak it out of my mouth.
Plotz: On the Scripture, how do you make sure you get it right? Do you have the whole Scripture memorized? Or, do you write the text out there just so you know it’s there?
Wesley: No, typically I will just make a Scripture reference, say, Luke 12:1. And I’m either going to two things: either allude to it and kind of suggest what it says, or yes, I’ve memorized it. I have spent the bulk of my life memorizing Scripture, and that is—I’m not going to say a gift, but it‘s something the Lord has pressed on my heart to do. And so there are certain Scriptures that are foundational that I have memorized verbatim, and I can just—you know, I can see Romans 8:28 and know that that Scripture says, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” I can see John 3:16, you know, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not -”
Plotz: Even I know that one!
Wesley: You know, you see that everywhere. But there are certain passages that I really have put to memory, and if in the sermon there’s a new passage, I want to memorize that one. And I think that that helps people desire to want to learn Scripture, when they see that you’ve embedded it in your heart and in your memory.
Plotz: It sounds like you spend somewhere between 25 percent and 40 percent of your time on preparing your sermon and then the act of giving the sermon, and preaching on Sunday. Why is that so critical?
Wesley: For a couple of reasons. One, that’s when our church is really gathered together. I can meet with ministries, but that’s 30 people. I can meet with an individual, that’s one. But over the course of weekend worship, I get to address and speak to 4,500 people in-house, and we have over 5,000 people watching us online every weekend. And so that’s when the largest gathering has come together, and that’s when people desire to be fed the word of God.
It’s the most visible part of my job. It’s also a time when people come to feel that they are going to connect with the Lord, and I take that very seriously, that I’ve got to be prepared to speak for the Lord. I take it very seriously, that I have an assignment to stand and be a voicepiece for the Lord. Not my politics, not my own beliefs, not my own leanings, not to make people copycats of me, but to sincerely stand there and say, “this is what the Lord has ordered me to share with you today that’s going to bless your life.”
And then finally, most people come to church believing that God is going to speak something that helps them. So when I do one-on-one counseling, when I preach I’m really counseling 4,500 people. And I laughingly tell people, most times you come to my office to meet with me for me to tell you privately what I’ve already said publicly in the sermon. So, whereas I can’t meet with the entire membership one-on-one, I can counsel them sermonically on Sundays. And so, that’s a critical moment for us and for me.
Plotz: Do you test your sermons with anybody before you give them? Or is the Saturday night sermon the first time anyone else hear it?
Wesley: No, there’s never a test period, man. I’m so insecure about it and nervous, I wouldn’t even share it with the people closest to me. Like, my mother lives with me and I won’t tell her what the sermon is about, because I want her to experience it fresh for the first time when she hears it. The only person I will talk to—I have a preaching partner, Dr. Marcus Cosby who lives in Houston, Texas. He preaches on the weekend as well, and we run our sermons by each other. We’ll call ourselves “preaching partners.” So, we rub our sermons off one another, but Saturday is the first time I get up and preach it. Now, it‘s funny, Saturday I always call it my “first draft,” my first oral draft, because I’ll get up on Saturday and I’ll preach it, and typically I tell myself that was the worst performance of that sermon. I know now where it’s going to grow. So, Saturday night while I’m resting, I’m also thinking about how to make this sermon better.
So, typically by 8 a.m. it’s better than it was, for me at least, on Saturday. And then by Sunday at 11 a.m. it’s fine-tuned, it’s polished, you know, we’ve gotten the kinks out. I know what areas I needed to tighten up. I know what areas were funny. I know what areas I need to cut back on. The 11 a.m. crowd, which is the last one, they get the sermon that’s been polished. The Saturday 6 p.m. gets the first rough draft.
Plotz: On Sunday—and on Saturday—besides giving your sermon, what is the other work that you’re doing in leading service?
Wesley: Well, the best part of my job is before every worship service. I come out about a half hour early and I shake the hand of everyone who’s in the sanctuary, and just speak to them. “How are you doing today?” Because I don’t get to touch members enough, you know, at the size we are, and that to me is the best part of my job. It’s hands-on. It’s eye contact. It’s shaking hands. It’s asking—it’s helping me to talk to you, and you say, “would you please pray for my mother?”
And then next week I remember that you said that, so I’ll come to you and ask you, “How’s your mother doing?” And it makes members feel like they matter, that you’ve given them one-on-one attention. So, I’ll shake every hand in the sanctuary, in the balcony, and in the overflow, and prayerfully get back to the pulpit before worship begins. That is the best part of my day.
Plotz: And after service on Sunday, are you done?
Wesley: After service on Sunday, I crash. I don’t like afternoon or evening work on Sunday, because I have physically and spiritually exhausted myself. I’ve stood to preach three times, and I’m very energetic when I preach. I’m probably very tired. I’ve shaken no less than 2,000 or 3,000 hands, spoken to 2,000 or 3,000 people. So, that’s the—I’m done. I’m no longer pastor. I’m going into Howard-John mode or daddy mode. I’m going to watch a movie with my boys, or I’m going to get onto my Harley-Davidson and ride for a couple of hours.
Plotz: Being a pastor, you have a job—it is a job—you are employed by a church. How do you reconcile the fact that you have a job where you get a salary, and you have to negotiate with your bosses, and deal with personal problems with your employees, with the fact that you’re inspired by the Lord?
Wesley: You know, I don’t know if I actually see any tension or conflict there, you know? I would do this for free, because it’s what the Lord has called me to do. I’m grateful to have the administrate structure, though, and, you know, it is a job. I do have a board that I lead and guide. We do have administrative work out the ying-yang. I’ve got more—like, literally, I do more outside the Bible and the pulpit than I do in the Bible and in Scripture. I’ve got a staff of 57 people with seven direct reports that I manage. We are building a $57 million church. I have to go down to the board of architectural review. I meet with City Hall. This morning I had to meet with the Mayor and the City Manager about a project that we’re trying to get done. You know, I sit on boards with the NAACP and the Urban League.
So it really is a job. My skill set grows every week in this position. Nothing is the same. It’s a new counseling issue. It’s a new political issue. It’s a new social justice issue. It’s a new teaching issue. So, every week I have the ability to stretch out and grow in areas that I’ve never learned before, and I think what drives me is that I have a healthy dose of curiosity. I always want to know more.
Plotz: So, I’ve watched some YouTube videos of you preaching—it’s great—but the listeners to this probably haven’t. So, describe your style as a preacher and how you came to it.
Wesley: I consider myself very steeped in the African-American celebratory tradition, meaning that there’s going to be call and response and there‘s going to be some good news. We don’t sit quiet and just listen to the sermon, we engage, we talk back. And so I’m very dialogical in my preaching, I look you in the eye. I call out names. So, in the middle of a sermon I’ll be, like, “you know, David, isn’t that crazy how such and such happens?” So people feel an engagement.
I tell people that if I wasn’t a preacher I would have tried stand-up comedy. I got A’s in school but I always got F’s for behavior, because I was the class clown. I really believe in laughter. And so, if you come to one of our sermons, 9 out of 10 times I’m going to have a moment where I literally try to break you down in tears, in laughter—that that’s something that makes you feel good. So, there’s an engaging laughter moment there.
I tell a lot of stories. I kind of make things practical and personal. I try to be very transparent. I don’t lift myself up as a model to follow, but one who has fallen enough and learned lessons. And I think people love the transparency and authenticity of a preacher who doesn’t say, “I’m perfect,” but a preacher who says, “Listen, I’ve been there, I’ve made that mistake.” So, I think we pull all of that together, and you do it in 30 minutes well, and people feel like it’s been a good sermon.
Plotz: Go to that question of personal failing, because that’s another thing where as a pastor it’s different, because you’re—you’re not a saint. But it is a position where people have expectations of behavior and expectations that you’re going to live well and do the right thing. How do you manage the fact that you’re a human being with failings, with the fact that you also have this role as a model?
Wesley: Well I definitely believe I’m held to a higher moral standard than some members hold themselves too. That may be hypocritical, it may be duplicitous, but it’s the nature of this calling. I joked with a member once and said, “You must think I have a different Bible than you, that my Bible has different commandments for me than for you.” But people do hold that standard.
So, there are a couple of things. One, I’m very clear with our members that I am a man who has the same kind of struggles. Now, I’ve grown through some and I would never flaunt my struggles, but I’m human and I want them to accept me as human. But at the same time, I’m growing in Christ, and so I’m trying to grow the same way they are. I will be held accountable in judgment the same way they will over their lives, and we all have to learn to do the best we can with our God. I can’t judge you and I don’t need you to judge me.
Just very recently I’ve come through a divorce, and there were some members who were very disappointed by that, and then there were some who were very encouraged to see that—I tried to handle it in a way that was respectful and that God could be seen in the midst of it. Because there are others who have been in there and need to know that you can live through this and it doesn’t have to be ugly. It doesn’t have to be sinful.
And so, just trying to be transparent and open, that I’m a work in progress. And then at the same time, David, I’ve learned—I stay out of the public eye. One of the worst parts of this job is that because our membership is so large, anywhere I go our members are there, and I have to be mindful of that. I don’t believe there’s anything wrong with having a glass of wine with dinner, but I can’t always order a glass of wine when I’m out. That’s tough.
Members have social functions. They invite me, but I really can’t go. If I go—let’s say I go to a wedding, I don’t go to receptions. I don’t go to receptions afterwards. Because that’s a festive time and people want to have alcoholic beverages, and there’s nothing sinful with that, you know, depending on what tradition you come from. I don’t think there’s anything sinful with it. But people don’t feel comfortable having a drink with their pastor at the table, right?
I’m not Howard-John, I’m always Reverend Doctor Howard-John Wesley. I’m in the grocery store just trying to run in and grab some chicken to fix, and a member walks up to me and they want to talk, and I’ve got to be on. I’m your pastor, I can’t ignore you and just say, “Hey, listen, I’m not pastor right now, I’m just getting chicken.” So, when I want private time I either have to stay at home, or I travel a lot. I travel to other places.
Plotz: That point about not being able to go to receptions is a really interesting one. Is that a practice you’ve had your whole career, or is it something you’ve realized as you’ve grown into the job?
Wesley: It’s something I got from my father. My father was a pastor, my grandfather was a pastor, and my great-grandfather was a pastor. So, there are a lot of life lessons learned from them that have been passed on. And I don’t know if it’s right or wrong, but my dad said, you can’t pastor friends. And it’s important in my position that people believe I know them intimately, but I can’t allow them to know me intimately. I need to know you as an individual, you need to know me as Pastor Wesley so that I can pastor you, so that we can have the right relationship. I can’t always be Howard in front of someone. So, if Howard wants to smoke a cigar, I can’t do that in front of people because some people can’t handle it. And I take that out of Scripture, too, that the Apostle Paul said that, “All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient.” What Paul understood was, everything I can do, I shouldn’t do if it’s going to cause someone else to stumble in their walk.
Plotz: But you have to be Howard sometimes. So, you—I assume you have friends who maybe aren’t in your church, or friends from college, or friends from back home, or whatever it is, yes?
Wesley: Yeah, oh, definitely, definitely. I am grateful. First of all, I’m in awesome fraternity, Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc., and those are not only friends but brothers to me. I love to ride my motorcycle. I’ve got a group of guys that we go out riding with. I love to play golf, and on the golf course I can light up a cigar if I want one. Those four guys, they don’t judge at all. They allow me to be Howard. And like I said, I travel a lot.
Plotz: You’re an African-American man. This is a black church. Do you think the job of pastoring a black church is different than the job of pastoring any other kind of church?
Wesley: There definitely are different dynamics, and that’s not to be racially prejudiced in any way, but there are different dynamics when you’re dealing with a collective group of African-Americans. We value certain things differently: our history, our heritage, celebration. But in this position, one of the things that is unique—and typically in a Baptist African-American church there is a high expectation of the authority of the pastor, a real reverence of that that you may not see in some Caucasian or Euro-based churches where there’s a board that governs the church.
At the end of the day, members want to know, “what does pastor say?” And that comes with a huge responsibility, a huge responsibility and authority that you have to deal with. I would say, other than that it’s like any other organization. You’re going to have conflict, you’re going to have division, you’re going to have difference of thought, different perspectives, and you’ve got to learn how to manage that. But at the same time, know that at the end of the day I make the final decision on just about everything at this church.
Plotz: Who is your boss?
Wesley: Technically I only answer to the voting body of this church. I have no board that I report to. I am the ex officio of all boards, I am the chair of all boards, and I share a ministry with my deacons, who share with me the concerns of the church, and pray with me, and help do my annual evaluation. But ultimately I can only lose this job by the vote of the membership of the church or by my own resignation.
Plotz: That is really interesting. Is that typical in churches, or in Baptist churches?
Wesley: It’s typically in most Baptist churches, definitely. Part of the identity of a Baptist church is that each church is autonomous, meaning that it’s self-governed, and it depends on how they choose to govern themselves, but in our constitution and bylaws it takes—an issue has to be brought up, to say that I’m not worthy to pastor. 50 percent of the church has to say, we want to hear the issue, and then two-thirds of the church have to vote affirmatively to remove me, which is very rare.
In the 210-year history of this church, no pastor has ever been—ever lost his employment by that vote. So, that doesn’t really happen. But I am accountable only to the voting body of the church.
Plotz: I take it from hearing you talk about this, that being a pastor is how you’re going to spend your life. Do you think you will be a pastor of a church for your working life?
Wesley: The majority, but not the finality. Too many pastors don’t plan for their succession and the fact that another pastor has to come after them. They don’t retire correctly and they work until they die. And that is not going to be my model. My predecessor stayed here 42 years, the one before him 42, just long-term tenures. I told this church I’d give them 25, so I’ve got about 20 more years and then we need to start a succession plan.
And I plan on retiring. I am actively investing so that I can live and retire, but ultimately I would like to see myself in the academy. If not the academy, teaching preaching and pastoral principles, because as a practitioner I can tell you what I learned in my master’s program was woefully insufficient for what the real job requires. You know, the master’s program wants to teach you Greek and Hebrew, and this theology, and that doctrine, and that’s not 90 percent of what I do. 90 percent of what I do is administer a business. I’d like to teach at that level. If not, maybe teach theology in a high school, to really impact a younger generation. But that’s what I would like to do when I retire from this place—educate.
Plotz: Dr. Wesley, are there any traditions, rituals, habits, strange aspects of your job that people who are outside of it just don’t even realize? Like, something that you do every day that no one else—it wouldn’t even occur to anyone that this is what you would do?
Wesley: There are probably a couple of things that come up through there. One: you would never guess the issues that come into this office that I have been exposed to. You would not believe some of the boundaries that are crossed with members. And this is a sensitive subject, but members can become obsessed with a personality, and trying to manage that at times when someone wants to cross a boundary almost sexually.
You wouldn’t believe some of the heated debates that happen on church ground around certain issues. I have a great board. I have a great deacon ministry, but it’s gotten hot at times and personalities come out, and anger, and trying to calm those moments. You would think you wouldn’t deal with that in a church.
I tell people that for the majority of my job, I carry pacifiers and pampers. There are people who are crying who need to be quieted, they’re causing a fit. And there are those who have made a mess that needs to be cleaned up. And I referee fights between individuals. The majority of the tensions in church are between competing programs, or ministries, or members, and I referee fights to make certain that they are kept well. But, those are some of the dirty sides of the job that people probably don’t know anything about.
Plotz: So, when someone makes an inappropriate advance, what’s your response?
Wesley: You’ve got to be definitive up front of what’s inappropriate, and name it as such. You have to say, “That’s inappropriate,” so that it’s clear. Because of that, I don’t meet behind closed doors with any female members. If I have a meeting with a woman, the door is always open, always, so that there—my secretary can hear what’s going on. And if she closes the door, I will open it again. So, just keeping those boundaries correct and not allowing myself to be available to members on a personal level like that.
Plotz: You’re a pastor just outside of Washington, D.C. This is a political town. I’m sure your constituents have wide-ranging political views. There are hot social issues, you know, gay rights issues, marriage equality, I’m sure is one that’s come up. Where do your personal beliefs coming into it? Where do you take your church on those issues? What happens when where you want to take the church maybe differs from what your parishioners believes?
Wesley: Yeah, a very good question. One, we do have the gamut from way right-wing, GOP, Tea Party, to way left-wing liberal, within the church. And therefore some guest preachers who’ve come have really shot themselves in the foot, because they assume African-American, they automatically assume liberal Democrat, and that’s not who we are. I recognize this: there are people who are more versant in political issues in the pew than I can ever be in the pulpit, and one of the worst mistakes you can make is to be ignorant of an issue and bring it forth as if you’re an expert in it.
This isn’t an environment where people want to come to church to hear politics, not at all. We may allude to what’s going on politically, but we respect the different opinions. And so, one statement I make continuously when I broach out into an issue that may be relevant in the world—you’ll hear this repeatedly—my job is not to make you think what I think, but just to make sure you’re thinking, right? And that you’re asking these questions of yourself, so you know where you stand on this issue of gay rights and gay marriage. And just understand—make sure you understand the other side, and validate that political life in America is not black and white. It’s gray. And to me, the most dangerous people are the ones who take the extreme—it’s either this or that—and don’t recognize that there is a whole grey area of viable alternatives, so that I can stand here, you can stand in a different place, and we respect why we stand where we do. So, I was a supporter of same-sex marriage. I will not perform one, but I understand the civil rights issue involved. I understand that this is about American freedom, and that we can’t cross church and state, and that the state shouldn’t have to legislate my faith beliefs.
There are members who are absolutely different on that, but they understood why I stand where I do, and I understand why they do, and we’ve learned to love each in difference. That to me is church at its best, when you and I can say, we think differently—but you know what? We love each other and we believe that there is something greater that unites us, than our different thought around same-sex unions.