A flesh-and-blood response to ministers caught in scandal

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“When high-profile preachers fall into well-publicized scandal, what can we say in defense of Christianity?”

Critics of Christianity love to talk and write about anything and anyone that scandalizes our faith. While they have more ammunition than we might want to admit, we do not need to be on the defensive. In fact, we have every reason to talk about how there are many more pastors who have not only not fallen into scandal, but have climbed the heights of real and admirable ministry, true helpfulness that has earned the respect and love of those who have known them.

Today I want to write about such a pastor, an African American minister whose funeral on August 11th may well have been the largest attended memorial service in the history of First Baptist Church on the Square in LaGrange.

I have never seen as many ministers seated down front nor scattered throughout the audience, nor a processional that lasted perhaps ten minutes (which is why I was almost caught flat footed when it began ten minutes prior to the scheduled start time). After the heart-warming and soul-stirring service that included music, Scripture readings, testimonies, and a eulogy, Harris Malcom of the Georgia Baptist Mission Board suggested I write an article about what we had experienced that afternoon. I am happy to write not only a testimony to Rev. Jerome Shipman’s life and ministry, but as one that represents the countless ministers whose faith and faithfulness must not be eclipsed by well-publicized lapses of faithfulness.

Aaron McCullough, director of missions for Troup County Baptist Association, brought the eulogy in a majestic and historic “white church” that on this Saturday enjoyed a congregation more black than white, yet ever-so-joined together in faith, grief, and love for our Lord and Savior and His “man of God: Rev. Jerome Shipman.”

Jerome Shipman’s life and ministry… represents the countless ministers whose faith and faithfulness must not be eclipsed by well-publicized lapses of faithfulness.

There was, as Pastor Cade Farris noted in his Scripture and comments, a spirit of unity. Aaron talked about how he had first met Jerome and what had transpired since. His brother had invited Jerome to attend the Troup Baptists’ Monday Morning Pastors’ Prayer Fellowship. He did, knowing no one since Aaron’s brother was not there.

As only Aaron could tell it: “Pastor Shipman walked into the church, dressed to the nine’s, sharp as a tack, looking as though he just stepped out of ‘LOOKING GOOD.’ He said: ‘My name is Jerome Shipman!’”

From that moment on his presence made a dramatic difference. Aaron testifies: “God used Pastor Jerome Shipman to ‘singlehandedly’ do more to pull down the racial walls that divide us than anybody I know … he led the New Macedonia Baptist Church to become the first African-American church to join the [Baptist] Association. Time after time he would have a joint worship service with a white church [in which] he would preach and his choir would sing. Because of him, there are now seven African American churches in the Association.”

Aaron and Jerome shared a dream that “one day there will no longer be a Black Church and a White Church – that there will just simply be The Church.”

For many years my associate pastor, Paul Blair, and I had lunch each Tuesday with Jerome, who often left us speechless with his strength of character and absolute honesty! He loved to talk about how he had hovered on the edge of eternity 15 years prior when Aaron, Paul, and I were convinced he would not emerge alive from an Atlanta ICU where is loving “First Lady” Peggy sat praying. However, he did.

And, he went on to preach the strongest sermons you can imagine in which he did not mind one iota if he was stepping – if not stomping – on some toes and feet. For years he voluntarily ran our church’s community-wide benevolence ministry and before my retirement became the benevolent minister on our church staff.

That was just many of his helping ministries. While dining with some friends Saturday night a lady who had been involved in a homeless shelter was so taken aback by the news of his death, remembering and cherishing what he had mean to that ministry and to all who knew him.

In my choice of New Testament Scriptures, one stood out above all else – II Cor. 5:17-18: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old things have passed away, and look, new things have come. Everything is from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation.”

Anyone who knew Jerome knew he was in Christ, and it was Christ who inspired and empowered him in his marvelous and matchless “ministry of reconciliation” that brought people together as one in Christ. He set the example for real reconciliation that lifts us up and beyond anger and hatred, misunderstanding, and misinformation. Every town in America and our world needs his kind of life and ministry.

…it was Christ who inspired and empowered him in his marvelous and matchless “ministry of reconciliation”…

With a twinkle in his eye and his indefatigable smile Rev. Shipman gave himself the nickname “the Ship.” Not surprisingly Aaron imagined him arriving in heaven with this joyful announcement: “Hello! The Ship is in the house! Each vessel in the British navy bears a title HMS meaning His or Her Majesty’s Ship. We who knew Jerome can testify he was “His Majesty’s Ship”! We are so thankful to have known him and his witness for Christ!

Just knowing him and those like him is the best answer to ministerial scandals.

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