2016-07-27
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PHILADELPHIA, July 26 (RNS)--The Rev. William J. Shaw was making his rounds at the weekly breakfast between Sunday services at White Rock Baptist Church when 83-year-old Leatha H. Carter caught his attention.

The nine-year member had not received her monthly supply of tithing envelopes in the mail, and she hoped he could remedy the situation.

"He is the most spiritual, helpful pastor," said Carter, outfitted for church in a purple dress and matching hat. "He told me, 'Don't worry about it.'"

The 66-year-old church leader dutifully wrote down her address on a piece of paper to ensure she would get her envelopes. Later that morning, dressed in a black clerical robe with three kente-cloth stripes on each sleeve, he announced a change in a selection by the choir, welcomed visitors to the service, and dedicated a baby in a brief ceremony at the close of morning worship.

All these things are normal activities for Shaw, who, in addition to pastoring his 1,200-member church, is president of the National Baptist Convention, USA, one of the nation's most prominent African-American denominations.

"If I had to choose between being president and being pastor, I'd be pastor," said Shaw, who has rarely missed a Sunday in the pulpit since his election to the denomination's presidency last September.

After serving as White Rock's pastor for 43 years, Shaw has added a challenging position to his already lengthy resume of church and community service.

As he begins his five-year term as president of the Baptist denomination, he's hoping to erase the long-term debt on the church's headquarters, foster better relations between young and old clergy, and support efforts to revamp a church-owned college that's in disrepair.

But perhaps his most public task is to move the denomination from under the cloud of a year ago, when former president Henry J. Lyons was convicted and sent to prison for swindling millions from corporations wanting to market products to NBCUSA members.

"We have been exploited, the body has been exploited by economic entities that saw us not as a religious body at all but as a marketing pool to which access could be gained through the structure of the organization," Shaw said in a recent interview after his congregation observed its annual Men's Day service.

"I think that that is not our reason for being."

The bespectacled man with distinctive white sideburns is trying to shape what he calls a new "culture" within the denomination, based on his presidential campaign acronym of VISA: vision, integrity, structure, accountability.

In fact, he already anticipates running for a second five-year term as president because he expects it will take at least a decade to revolutionize the structure of the convention.

"It really is going to take time to institutionalize and change a culture," said Shaw, who has declined to take the $100,000 annual presidential salary and has instead put that money into a scholarship fund.

He has hired auditing firms to begin the process of determining the past mistakes and future operational needs of the organization.

"There were lots of places where things needed to be tightened up," he said of the auditors' findings regarding the 1999 operations. "Some of them are simply procedural--how funds are banked, how records are kept, what verifications are needed."

He has chosen a Dayton, Ohio, pastor as statistician to review the denomination's membership figures, which came into question during Lyons' Florida trial. The NBCUSA had often been called a church body with more than 8 million members, but prosecutors charged the group might have only 1 million.

At present, Shaw said, "I wouldn't dare try and give any figures."

The statistician is getting professional advice on how to go about determining the membership and will begin his work in earnest after the NBCUSA's annual session, to be held Sept. 4-8 in Los Angeles.

The debt on the Baptist World Center in Nashville, Tenn., stands at $2.4 million. Shaw hopes to reduce that figure to zero in September or within the denomination's next fiscal year.

"That has to be taken care of because it's been a drain on us," he said.

Although some improvements have begun, he said the American Baptist College, located near the headquarters, still faces fiscal and physical problems.

"They are improving, though the school is not at the level that it ought to be," he said. "A major challenge for the school ... is its physical rehabilitation because the buildings are not in good repair."

A denominational task force is scheduled to begin developing a strategic plan for the school in September.

Despite all these struggles, Shaw said he is hopeful about the future of the NBCUSA.

"It's the overall challenge that I embrace," he said. "It is a lot of work, but the work is not a burden."

And he doesn't blame the workload solely on Lyons.

"The lack of accountability was something that was a part of the convention structure for a long time," said Shaw. "Brother Lyons' problems really gave the convention a chance to really look at itself."

As Shaw begins to assess the state of the denomination, members are also looking at him.

Some NBCUSA members are just happy their denomination is no longer in the headlines because of Lyons' charges and convictions, while others wish for faster action.

"The longer you go without changing the structure in our convention, the more difficult it's going to be to do it," said the Rev. Riggins Earl, a member of the denomination and a professor of ethics and theology at Atlanta's Interdenominational Theological Center.

But Earl said Shaw made one significant change in the long-standing enmity that can remain after fierce competitions for denominational president. At the midwinter board meeting in January, Shaw chose the two losing front-runners in the presidential race to give the opening and closing sermons.

"He sought to undo for us that painful culture of political rivalry and destruction," said Earl. "He was big enough of a man to practice reconciliation, not just to preach it."

Shaw has also dissolved the younger pastors unit of the denomination in an effort to bring young and senior preachers together. He's also creating a preaching forum that will introduce various preaching styles and feature clergy of different ages.

"I think he's bringing us together more closely as a unified body of Christ, breaking down barriers that have existed through the years," said the Rev. Albert G. Davis Jr., president of the Baptist Ministers Conference of Philadelphia and Vicinity and the NBCUSA's assistant director of registration.

Shaw's work in the church began at an early age.

A native of the eastern Texas town of Marshall, he still remembers the title of his trial sermon at age 11: "Confidence in God's Tried Word."

A high school graduate at age 16 and a pastor of the prominent Philadelphia pulpit by his 20s, Shaw has pushed himself and others to reach beyond the norm.

In his congregation, he helped initiate an "Exodus to Excellence" program that encourages students to continue their education beyond high school.

"He attempts, whether through sermons or through general conversation, to make us reach higher, not to accept something that is less than what we are capable of doing," said Oteria G. Trapp, White Rock Baptist's trustee board chair.

Even in song, he urges excellence.

During a recent Sunday service, Shaw wasn't satisfied with the congregation's first rendition of "The Solid Rock," a well-known traditional hymn.

"I missed some voices on that," he said. "I think we can have more volume and more enthusiasm. That is a testimony: 'On Christ the solid rock I stand. All other ground is sinking sand.' If you were whispering, lift your voices."

Those who know Shaw in Philadelphia and around the country point to past examples of his focus on accountability and financial improvement.

In his own congregation, Shaw has mandated an annual independent audit. And as their former leader, he has helped both the Pennsylvania Baptist State Convention and the Opportunities Industrialization Centers, a Philadelphia-based jobs training program, overcome deficits.

"He's one of these turnaround fellas," said the Rev. William J. Harvey, executive secretary of the denomination's Foreign Mission Board and a Philadelphian.

Harvey said his board's income has improved since Shaw took over.

"There's really been at least a 25% increase in our general income because of the new administration," said Harvey. "People being people, if they're dissatisfied with the leadership, they stop giving, and when they're satisfied with the leadership, they start giving again."

The Rev. Guy Campbell Jr., a Palmyra, N.J., pastor and the fourth vice president of the NBCUSA, said he too sees signs of hope and confidence in the denomination's future under Shaw.

"We lost some persons, but, thank God, we maintained a lot of people, too," Campbell said. "They're steadfast, supporting us, and there's a new spirit of optimism and confidence in the convention."

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