Thoughts from Hampton University Minister’s Conference 2018
This was my third year attending the famed Hampton University Minister’s Conference. My thoughts and reflections are still somewhat of a jumbled mass in my mind. What follows is my attempt to make sense of disorderedness in my brain in a coherent way that gives clarity to the Hampton experience.
There’s a difference between a sermon that is mechanically and technically good, and one that possesses transformative capacities. Just because a sermon is good doesn’t mean it’s transformative. I would argue, in part, what helps close that gap is the ability to have what Walter Bruggeman recognizes as a prophetic imagination. A preacher needs to be able to 1) look forward and catch a glimpse of the future and 2) they need to be able to end the sermon with some semblance of communicating to the people what they saw. The innate ability to see the ordinary, pick it up, turn it around—and help the listener see what you saw—then set it back down, is clearly a gift that is sorely lacking these days. The preacher can’t claim to be prophetic if she or he can’t see past the room they plan on killing when closing out the sermon.
Being able to cast out a long line in the deep waters of prophetic imagination and reel it back in requires hope. An orientation focused on hope is also what aids in closing the gap between simply a good sermon and a transformative sermon. However, it seems many are comfortable fishing in familiar waters with their theology in order to prepare a sermon. The same perspectives will (re)produce the same theologies; no wonder so many black folks who sit in churches week after week haven’t found a way to be agents of transformation in their own lives.
Unfortunately, far too many sermons this year at Hampton were built on respectability politicking or half-heard definitions and unpacked themes. (How do you miss the Holy Spirit connection in the wind or employ partly-used metaphors never visited again; or attempt to pack a three-part sermon from six verses into one sermon; or utilizing confessional theologies as the sermonic fulcrum that’s more equipped for Sunday school than a major conference.) It was clear that many preachers were relying on their whooping abilities to “kill” the room, rather than employing their prophetic imagination to close the gap from good to transformative.
I’m concerned that this is the best we have to offer out of the historic African American preaching tradition. Given that there is a strong contingent of millennials, especially those under-30 who grew up hearing great stories about Hampton, is this the legacy that Hampton is leaving for millennials to inherit? Is this what hope looks like to some preachers? Seriously, I felt like Erik Killmonger and wanted to stand up and say “Is this your king?” to a few people who graced the microphone.
When preaching is more bewitched by the acclaim and applause that happens in the phenomenon of call-and-response, it will never go past being just good preaching. And for far too many, the judgement of a sermon is—rightly or wrongly—based on congregational response. But, a quiet house can sometimes tell an incomplete story. Maybe, just maybe, the people are listening. Active listening, I’d argue, doesn’t happen when people are breaking out in “You better preach!” and “Come on Doc!” exclamations. Generally, those cheering points only happen when the preacher is already affirming previously believed theologies. If the preacher is saying something new—having had cast their net into the deeper waters of prophetic imagination—it would stand to reason that the congregation is going to engage in more active listening.
Notwithstanding the politics of standing at the end when the preacher is closing also weighs in on how good someone’s sermon is perceived. Perhaps, as some bastardized offshoot of respectability politics, to stay seated while a preacher is whooping is to communicate that you don’t like what they’re saying or you don’t support them. The inverse is also true, to stand is to give your full support of what the preacher is saying and of them in general. Watching who stands first makes a difference; who stands last is just as important. All of which should not have influence on how good or transformative one’s sermon is, but this seems to be a cultural standard of judgment. A sermon could be outright trash, but between who’s standing and how well-executed the whoop is, too many would walk away saying “He killed the house, Doc!” And less than a week later, no one would be able to say what the sermon was about anyway.
Finally, it is a significant institutional statement when someone who’s never been accused of being a preacher is assigned the task of being the main conference preacher. No one has raved about Bishop Paul Morton’s preaching in the social circles that attend Hampton. The fact that rumors of Joel Osteen’s name was originally floated as the conference minister tells the story of how Hampton seems to be making a shift away from focusing on the historic African American preaching tradition. That dynamic in the air functioning as the zeitgeist of the conference ultimately makes a difference in the second round of Late Night when it was clear that the vast majority of millennials present didn’t even bother to attend the evening service simply because of the preacher.
In the hazy gray light that filled the sanctuary, the colors of Hampton University’s Memorial Chapel were washed out like a book cover left in the sunlight too long. Yet in the grandeur of the architecture, it was a sight to behold watching a man challenge the authority of Hampton’s chaplain in her own pulpit.
This exchange was brought about because of a re-vote that occurred when it was determined that Rev. Cynthia Hale’s recommendation for a nomination to run as president of HUMC’s executive board was not accepted. The narrative thus emerged that Hampton was a place of patriarchal rule even in 2018. It’s hard to counter this narrative when the number of women who had the opportunity to speak on the mainstage is pitiably few compared to the men. It’s hard to counter this narrative when only one woman was invited to participate in Late Night—and she was titled “Minister” despite the fact that she’s fully ordained, pastoring a Baptist church, and ran for a statewide Baptist office. It’s hard to counter this narrative when there’s only been one woman as president of HUMC in its 104 years of existence.
The chaplain of Hampton University is Rev. Debra Haggins. The man who challenged her was Superintendent Linwood Dillard. Dillard is the pastor of Citadel of Deliverance Church of God in Christ and is chair of COGIC’s AIM convention. The exchange between the two seemed to illuminate all of the reasons why the re-vote was called: the absolute failure for men to simply respect women in ministry. It took Haggins being very direct, as she stood on the rostrum, to elucidate to a crowd divided by tradition and denominational allegiance that this was a conference and not a convention; this was not a place for delegates to vote, but rather for attendees to voice their choice.
The issue of Hale’s nomination, in favor of having a woman lead HUMC, was never addressed in the open floor. It was the big elephant in the room no one seemed or cared to address. Absent from the room was Hampton’s venerated president, William Harvey. Also absent from the room were the 51 votes needed to make Hale the next president. Bishop Joseph Connor was elected by majority vote for a two-year term. During the next two years a special commission appointed by Harvey, will review and recommend changes for the HUMC handbook; a handbook that no one in leadership over the last era seems to have been following with any level of diligence.
Whether for political reasons or not, those that chose to vote for Connor or simply abstain, are no better than those who voted for Donald Trump. Not that Connor is the same as Trump, but the mindset behind voting against Hale is similar. Rather than vote in favor of progressive history, 321 decided to vote for the status quo. (I politely told a few of my friends who voted for Connor that if any of them decided to complain about his sermon next year that I would tell them “Well, you voted for him.”) Overwhelmingly, the millennial contingent, especially those under 30, voted for Hale.
I ran into the lady who was designated as a vote-counter in the elections at Cracker Barrel immediately following the election. She smiles warmly at me as I’m walking to my car in the parking lot. I knew a conversation was coming. She asked me, more or less, about what’s going to happen when she and her generation aren’t here anymore. Her friend chimed in saying “I’m almost 70, I ain’t got another 30 years to go.”
The in-your-face grappling with the reality of such a statement is something we, as the institutional Black Church haven’t done well. Black church culture still reveres pastors who celebrate their thirtieth, fortieth and even fiftieth pastoral anniversaries. Far too many don’t have viable transition plans in place as they preach from walkers, wheelchairs and hobble about on walking canes in failing health. God forbid the pastor drop dead in the pulpit. Even though many of us are familiar with the story of C.L. Franklin and how the church was in limbo until his ultimate death—the five years between the shooting incident and his death were years of grave tumult over leadership—there still hasn’t been a shift in black Christian culture to implement feasible plans for retirement and leadership transition.
As easy as it is to see how few women are in leadership amongst the executive board of HUMC, it’s just as easy to notice how few millennials are present as well in the decision-making process. The selection of Bishop Morton is proof positive that authentic millennial voices aren’t present. Or even, the structure of Late Night still doesn’t appear to be inclusive enough of the diversity within the African American preaching tradition. How many millennial preachers were present at late night who don’t identify with whooping as a homiletical requirement? Given that the oral tradition of African American preaching is varied, why aren’t there other opportunities for spoken word offerings, the visual arts or even laboratories where feedback is given to perfect the craft?
If Hampton this year is a sign of things to come, then the future doesn’t bode well for millennials having a voice. In addition to other convocations that young ministers need to attend because of denominational commitments, there are other conferences out there competing for millennials’ time and money that may take the place of Hampton. The Pastor and Leaders conference and Issachar Church Growth & Development (IC3) conference held by Bishop T.D. Jakes and Rev. Ralph West respectively are growing by leaps and bounds. Not to mention Elder Mark Moore’s Young Leaders Conference—who himself is a millennial—is attracting the under 30 crowd in a significant way. Meanwhile, this year, Hampton didn’t even have a working app to download onto your phone. And there was no major marketing push toward millennials when it came to programming or workshops offered. Even on the music side, the majority of the attendants aren’t millennials nor Gen X’ers, but actually baby boomers!
I will say this: if millennials are interested in reclaiming historic spaces, it’s going to be an uphill journey and it will take political savvy and a knowledge of institutions. On the other hand, institutional power brokers ought not be shocked when millennials choose not to deal with them: why sit around and wait for someone to die when you can just go out and create your own? No institution was formed ex-nihilo. There is always an idea or a collection of ideas that has a starting point. And those who created our venerated churches and historically black schools didn’t choose the “wait and see” option, but rather they seized the opportunity in the moment and made it work. But it should be of no shock when millennials decide to take the path of least resistance by either creating their own space or inhabiting a space that’s less hostile to new thoughts and modes of being. Lest we forget, tradition is just the most recently implemented new idea.
Did anyone ever find out who Veronica Coleman was and who nominated her? This was the third person nominated for president from the floor.
Also, poor Bishop Millicent Hunter: she got nominated for everything but dog catcher and won nothing.