By Cherri Gregg
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – Members of the historic Zion Baptist Church in North Philadelphia voted to dismiss their pastor this past weekend after months of turmoil. The young pastor’s ousting could be part of a sign of a growing trend among historic churches.
When Reverend A. Carl Prince was tapped to join Zion Baptist Church in 2012, media reports called him a 21st century pastor. The hope was that he’d help the 132 year old church grow, by attracting new, younger members. But he still had huge shoes to fill even though it had been decades since the church had been led by legendary civil rights leader, Rev. Dr. Leon Sullivan.
“Reverend Leon Sullivan is what makes us a historical church,” says Ronald Harper, Esq., chair of the Board of Trustees and a 55 year member of Zion. He says members voted 221 to 166 in favor of immediate dismissal of Prince after months of disagreements.
“With every new pastor you expect change, but many of the changes that he was in favor of was not approved by the various members,” says Harper, “so it amounted serious dissatisfaction.”
A deacon’s report released last month recommended Prince’s termination, calling him “ineffective” and saying he had a “domineering spirit” and does not “model The Good Shepard.”
Prince filed a lawsuit against the church, joined by dozens of supporters.
“They feel they are fighting for the soul of their church,” says Rosalind Plummer, an attorney who represents the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. “But this pastor is a pawn. He’s done nothing wrong– he’s done nothing to justify the way he’s been treated.”
Plummer says the ousting violates church bylaws and Prince believes he was fired because he asked for an audit of church finances.
“This action came after his request for information about financial affairs,” she says, “there is no evidence of any misconduct by this pastor.”
Other historic churches, like Bright Hope Baptist Church and Salem Baptist Church, have also had turmoil between longtime members and new pastors.
“The older members will tell you, this is my church,” says Rev. Terrence Griffith, pastor of the historic First African Baptist Church and leader of the Black Clergy of Philadelphia, “they say, ‘you just got here and you’re trying to change things around.'”
Griffith lead Pennsylvania’s first and the nation’s third Black Baptist church for 13 years and says he received some push back initially, but worked things out with church members. He says young pastors must bridge the gap with older congregations or else.
“A lot of churches are dying because they really cannot keep up with the times,” he says, “younger, more progressive pastors are going to change things in a way that attract younger people. That is how older churches survive.”
He says pastors and church members must put God first. He says he hopes Zion and other troubled congregations work to move toward healing and the future.