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Another Chapter in the Sad Story of Jeremiah Wright and Trinity United Church of Christ

By Mark D. Roberts | Monday, June 9, 2008

I’ve been following a story that has scarcely been reported in the news. So far, I’ve only seen it at the TIME and Fox News websites. No doubt this story has been ignored by the media because it has little impact on the presidential candidacy of Barack Obama, who has now withrdrawn his membership from Trinity Church. But for those of us who care about the church of Jesus Christ, this next chapter in the Jeremiah Wright/Trinity story is both sad and worthy of our attention.

According to news sources, two years ago, Jeremiah Wright began a process that would lead to his retirement from Trinity Church. Following a course that was not standard in his denomination, Rev. Wright hand-picked his successor, Rev. Otis Moss III. Rev. Moss was full of promise as a brilliant, winsome, caring pastor. I heard Rev. Moss interviewed on the radio a couple of months ago, and I was most impressed with his discretion and quiet wisdom . . . a far cry from the histrionic Rev. Wright. (Photo: Rev. Otis Moss III)

Sunday, June 1, was the day Jeremiah Wright had established for his official retirement. We would become the Pastor Emeritus of Trinity Church and Otis Moss would assume full authority as the new Senior Pastor. But this did not happen. Instead, Rev. Wright hung onto his role as Senior Pastor, while allowing Rev. Moss to be merely the Pastor. Rev. Wright also told his protégé that he needed additional “supervision,” and that he had to fire one of the staff people he had hired. On June 1, which was supposed to be Rev. Moss’s first day as Senior Pastor, Rev. Wright didn’t even show up. A few hours after the worship services, Rev. Moss left for a vacation. No kidding!

According to TIME, Trinity church officials are mostly playing mum about this story. Many members of the church are understandably distressed by what seems to be a flat-out power play by Jeremiah Wright.

Now I freely admit that there is much I don’t know about this situation. But, on the surface, it looks like a classic case of an older pastor who is unwilling and unable to let go of his church when the time is right. This often happens in churches where the pastor is the church founder, or in cases like Trinity Church, where a pastor has had a long and influential ministry. During Rev. Wright’s thirty-six years at Trinity, the church grew from 87 to over 6,000 members.

As someone who recently had to let go of a beloved church I pastored for sixteen years, I can understand some of what must be brewing in Rev. Wright. Yet I am deeply saddened by his actions and their impact on this church. Unless something is seriously wrong with Rev. Moss and his leadership, for which we have no evidence, then Jeremiah Wright seems to be injuring something he worked long and hard to nurture . . . not unlike what his actions may have done to the political future of Barack Obama. From my admittedly underinformed perspective, it seems like Rev. Wright is once again letting his ego get the better of his judgment.

Today I’m praying for Trinity Church, that God’s peace will be granted to them. I’m praying for Jeremiah Wright, that he will have the wisdom and grace to step down as he had promised. And I’m praying for Otis Moss III, who must be terribly hurt and discouraged. May God work his will in this church!

Topics: Church Life |

5 Responses to “Another Chapter in the Sad Story of Jeremiah Wright and Trinity United Church of Christ”

  1. Bill Goff Says:
    June 9th, 2008 at 10:32 am

    Since Sen. Obama is now not a member of a church, let’s hope he reads your series on choosing a church home. It will be an important decision for the man who may become our next President.

  2. solomon li Says:
    June 10th, 2008 at 4:39 am

    dr. roberts,

    i’m curious as to your perspective on the importance of theology in this election series. first, we’ve heard about the ploys against mike huckabee as being “too conservative” because he was a southern baptist minister. then we hear the gripes from the political right on the mormon faith of mitt romney. most recently, we’ve heard about the discarding of endorsements by john mccain from the likes of broadly evangelical ministers who have made questionable statements…

    with barack obama being such an exposed figure now, it seems that there is much to think about the nature of theology and its connection to the person running for the presidency this year. is this guilt by association? or a legitimate line of questioning? if one is to sit in the pews for 20 years, is there a question as to how seriously he embodies the theology preached from that pulpit?

    then again, as Christians choosing between two different candidates is this merely a default to luther’s, “i’d rather have a smart turk than a dumb Christian…”?

    the pronounced exposure to such a small sector of theology in “black liberation theology” has done a lot of damage towards obama’s brand, but does it affect how we vote? do we not do as we believe? or is james cone merely a theologian to brush aside as lacking influence in his own circles?

    indeed, it seems these “city of God” and “city of man” issues are complex.

  3. Jeremiah Wright and Otis Moss Clarify the Reasons for the Delay in Rev. Moss’s Installation as Senior Pastor | Says:
    June 11th, 2008 at 12:02 am

    […] Another Chapter in the Sad Story of Jeremiah Wright and Trinity United Church of Christ […]

  4. REM Says:
    June 11th, 2008 at 11:13 am

    Dear Rev. Roberts, I thought you would like the see the attached article.

    Chicago Defender
    Rev. Wright’s retirement is firm, Rev. Moss says
    by Kathy Chaney

    The retirement of Rev. Jeremiah Wright still stands, leaving Trinity United Church of Christ under the pastorate of Rev. Otis Moss III, contrary to a published report last week, Moss told parishioners Sunday.

    “Don’t believe everything you hear, everything you read,” Moss said before the conclusion of the church’s 11 a.m. service, referring to a June 4 article by Time magazine that suggested that Wright was reluctant to give up his full duties as pastor, leaving Moss recognized as still as pastor or “senior pastor-elect.”

    “According to sources within Trinity, Wright, 66, who began the process of retirement two years ago, is resisting fully relinquishing his duties as senior pastor, hanging onto power in the church…On church bulletins on June 1, Moss was identified simply as ‘pastor’ rather than ‘senior pastor,’ even as Wright assumed the title ‘pastor emeritus,’” the article stated.

    The article also stated that sources said Moss was told May 27 during a meeting attended by Wright and other pastoral officials that, “Wright suggested the board declare Moss ‘senior pastor-elect’ because the younger cleric needed ‘supervision’–effectively ensuring Wright remains Trinity’s preacherin- chief,” leaving many Trinity members “baffled.”

    Setting the record straight, Moss told parishioners, “On May 30, 2008, Trinity’s board of directors, in response to the enthusiastic request and recommendation of Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright, and the pastoral relations committee, by unanimous vote, bestowed upon Rev. Otis Moss III the awesome responsibility and honor of being named senior pastor-elect.

    This was contemplated by the leadership succession plan and adopted by the board of directors in 2005.” “The truth is now out,” a member said after the service, and declined to comment further. Parishioners were asked to not speak to the media regarding church matters.

    Moss, 37, an ordained Baptist minister from Cleveland, Ohio, said the designation as senior pastor- elect is accurate because he must meet certain requirements of the United Church of Christ before he can be installed as head of the church. He expects to fulfill the UCC’s obligations this fall. In the interim, he has been assigned full pastoral and administrative management responsibilities set forth in the bylaws, Moss reiterated during his second service as lead pastor.

    And speaking about the church’s bylaws, Trinity’s new leader said the title “senior pastor” is an informal one and is not reflected in the bylaws. The designation was bestowed upon Wright by the late Rev. Barbara Allen. The title was unofficially adopted by the church, and the board of directors will amend the bylaws at its July board meeting to include “senior pastor” as an official title.

    Wright’s title is also expected to officially become “pastor emeritus” at that meeting, Moss said. Wright could not be reached for comment. Moss, the son of a well-known Cleveland pastor, and heir to the throne of Olivet Institutional Baptist Church there, was handpicked by Wright to succeed him at Trinity.

    Trinity, the largest of the 5,700 UCC congregations, was under national and international microscopes during the presidential campaign. Wright, the former pastor of Obama and his family, has been under fire for months after excerpts of a videotaped sermon delivered about seven years ago surfaced on the popular social Web site, YouTube, and was repeatedly aired on newscasts.

    Obama initially denounced the pastor’s statements, but after Wright’s media appearances in Detroit for the NAACP and in Washington, D.C. in front of the National Press Club, the senator cut his ties with Wright. When the media frenzy’s dust settled around the church, political controversy paid another visit.

    While a guest pastor on May 25, Rev. Michael Pfleger of St. Sabina Catholic Church on the South Side made accusatory remarks from Trinity’s pulpit about Sen. Hillary Clinton D-N.Y. This time, Obama severed his ties with Trinity, a decision that he and his wife, Michelle, contemplated for a while, he said.

  5. Dave Claassen Says:
    June 14th, 2008 at 4:56 am


    I’m beginning to look at this process of transition seriously. I have pastored the Mayfair-Plymouth Congregational Church here in Toledo for 32+ years. I came fresh out of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in 1975. It’s been the only church I’ve served as an ordained minister. I originally thought I might pastor here until well into my 70s, or beyond. Becoming a grandparent has changed all of that! I’ve come to believe the Lord will have me retire from this ministry, He willing (James’admonition on plannning the future being kept in mind) after serving 40 years.

    This means I have just over 7 years left. It is my hope and prayer that we will be able to call an associate pastor with about five years of my ministry remaining who will work alongside me, preaching more and carrying more of the administrative/leadership as time goes on. Though he can’t be my clone, yet he will need, I feel at this point, the same basic communication style and the same general gift-mix for ministry, especially pastoral care and style of leadership/management, as I do. It seems to me it’s when a successor has a significantly different style of pastoring that the transition is so abrupt as to be a formula for failure.

    I hope I’m not dreaming the impossible when I anticipate a smooth transition. Fortunately, both of our children and their families are living at a distance, our son and his family in Indianapolis and our daughter in Mexico raising foster children as a mission. Our plan is to sell our home here and divide our time between the two kids.

    I believe the key is to leave the area. My hope is that it will not be the death of my relationship with the people but a transition to a long-distance relationship where they can keep connected through my ministry of writing via my blog and web site.

    I want to, even now, begin focusing more on legacy. Strangelay, I feel a growing sense that this church is not MY church. There is, already, a small but real sense of the beginning of a letting go process. I have, for several years, prayed for my successor, whoever he may be. I want to reach a point where I can rejoice when he takes the church beyond where I could have, if I had stayed around.

    Am I being realistic? I earnestly pray I am! What are your thoughts, Mark, or anyone else?

    Dave Claassen


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