by Yvonne Chiu Hays
not even a year of seminary coursework under his belt, Simeon Spencer
decided to apply to become head pastor of
Union Baptist Church in Trenton, New Jersey, where he had been leading a
Bible study for the few months since having arrived at
Princeton Seminary. Prior to Princeton,
Spencer worked as a legislative aide to Senator Richard Shelby (R-Ala.)
and as a Baptist minister in Washington, D.C. To type his application for
the job, he borrowed a computer from Steve Baker, a fellow student Spencer
had met in his first few days of seminary.
Eight years later, the two friends are still collaborating—a little
farther south on Route 1. Spencer was elected Union Baptist’s pastor when
he was a middler. Baker, who had intended to pursue a doctorate in church
history after seminary, then joined Spencer’s staff before the two
graduated from PTS in 1998. Marella McMillan-Holmes, who graduated a year
earlier, also joined them.
The church’s staff of six associate pastors is a testament to its growth
under Spencer’s leadership. While many of America’s older, established
churches struggle to retain members, Union Baptist continues to thrive in
its urban community. Baker said most of the congregation’s regular
worshippers probably have only started coming to Union Baptist in the last
six years—this despite the church being more than 100 years old. On a
typical Sunday, one could easily worship with 600 to 800 people in a new
assembly hall built next to the original church. The addition also
provided offices, meeting rooms, and classrooms.
According to Spencer, there were 300 people on the membership rolls when
he was called to the pastorate, with less than half of them active. Today,
there are almost five times that number, and about 200 people of all ages
attend Bible study weekly.
“We’ve had tremendous growth in every dimension,” the 37-year-old pastor
said. “Our ministries have multiplied both within and out of the church,
both inreach and outreach. And certainly this is possible because our
upreach has deepened; the church has deepened its spirituality.”
The more profound faith he has witnessed in the church is evidenced by
“evangelism both by word and deed,” Spencer added.
In addition to increased membership, Union Baptist also stands out in its
ability to preserve its Black Baptist identity with a diverse,
multicultural congregation. The number of white and Hispanic members is
not large—they are but a “sprinkling,” as Spencer describes it.
Nonetheless, their attendance is notable, along with Baker’s presence, to
“I am, of course, a bit of an anomaly as a white man ordained and
ministering in a predominantly African American church,” said Baker, 31,
associate minister of church administration, which includes teaching
Sunday school. “However, I have never felt any opposition or hostility
because of that. In fact, from the beginning the church was especially
warm toward me, as if to demonstrate emphatically that I was welcome.”
Spencer said neither he nor the church ever intentionally set out with a
multicultural agenda. “I heard
Dr. Cleo LaRue [PTS homiletics professor]
say once that your church will have some of whatever is in your community.
That is indeed true for us.
“The gospel of Jesus Christ does indeed break down all barriers. If
barriers, be they racial, gender, or what have you, are not being broken
down in a congregation, then the gospel is not present,” Spencer said.
While committed to raising a voice against racism and oppression, Spencer
also is devoted to “maintaining and strengthening the institution commonly
known as the ‘Black Church,’” which is why he considers the presence of
those from other ethnic groups “a miracle.” He was recently honored by the
Trenton branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored
People with an NAACP medal for his service to the Trenton community.
"If barriers, be they racial,
gender...are not being broken down in a congregation, then the gospel
is not present."
Baker, for his part, also does not take for granted his position in the
church and the potential statement it makes, but he never saw his
participation as an experiment or as a vehicle for activism. “I’m just at
the church where God placed me. I think people appreciate the fact that I
am, as Pastor Spencer has said, ‘a visible reminder of God’s ability to leap over every boundary,’ but I don’t feel like a novelty or a token. If
my presence draws attention to the fact that Union is willing to be a bit
unconventional in its approach to ministry, that is great, but my role is
really the same as the rest of the associate ministers: help make the
ministry vision happen,” Baker said.
Spencer and Baker are both adamant that their seminary education prepared
them for their current roles and continues to wield considerable influence
on their ministries.
I have never written a sermon without trying to imagine how Cleo LaRue
would critique and improve it. His preaching courses were invaluable to
me, particularly as ‘an outsider’ working in an African American church,”
Baker said. “And Patrick Miller was a model of scholarship in service of
the church. His Old Testament lectures have stayed with me.”
Both encourage students who intend to become pastors to maintain an open
mind. “You never know what direction your ministry is going to take you,”
“I wish I could teach students not to be too ‘context obsessed’ in the
preparation process,” Spencer said. “Of course, we must be sensitive to
the context in which we minister. But, in my time in seminary, I found
that some of my classmates felt it was a waste of time or somehow
irrelevant to read about and thoughtfully consider the faith heritage,
experiences, and expressions of those from whom they were culturally,
religiously, socially, and economically distant.
“Learn how to celebrate, appreciate, and validate
something other than that which is yours! We must do that, for we affirm
God as creator of all.”
Yvonne Chiu Hays has a master’s degree in psychology and is currently a
child development researcher in the University of Medicine & Dentistry of
New Jersey Robert Wood Johnson Medical School’s Department of Pediatrics.
She lives in Princeton, New Jersey, where her husband, Chris, is an M.Div.
senior at PTS.