To understand the old adage that “timing is everything” is know that it was without a doubt, God’s timing for the Rev. Dr. Joe B. Fleming to arrive at Third Baptist Church (Ports., VA) in 1981 and to serve continuously as pastor until fall, 2016 (35 years)! Originally from Holdenville, OK, Pastor Fleming came richly equipped not only to preach and pastor but to go beyond the walls of the church’s sanctuary to serve and minister to the wider community. HAVING CHURCH spoke to Rev. Fleming (now Pastor Emeritus as of Fall, 2016) at length just recently and this is a greatly condensed summation of our conversation.
HC: Do you recall your FIRST sermon? Do you remember how it felt to preach that very First sermon?
REV. FLEMING: It was the First Sunday in June, 1959 and I was 17 years old and it was “What Do You think of Christ?” I talked about what Christ meant to me. I had grown up in a Christian home and my family (Grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, etc.) were always involved in church and I shared that. I always sat on the front pew in our little church and was involved in most of the activities in our church. I remember feeling very comfortable preaching that sermon.
HC: How old were you when it became clear to you that God had called you to preach AND pastor?
REV. FLEMING: It slowly evolved for me that I would preach and pastor. So much of my life was already laid out for me. When I graduated from high school, I learned that a scholarship to Bishop College (TX) had already been arranged for me through the husband of an aunt of mine and with a National Defense Student loan and a job in the President’s office, I arrived there. I majored in Religion and Philosophy and found myself constantly surrounded by preachers. There was a Minister’s Lyceum on campus and a minister that had a church not too far from the school gave us the opportunity to preach. I really didn’t realize that I would pastor until after finishing Bishop College and I came to Virginia Union by way of Dr. James (President Emeritus of Bishop College) who was then at VU. I learned that there was a 2-Sunday a month church in Mathews County (VA) in need of a pastor. It was suggested to me to go and preach there to help them out. I ended up staying at Antioch Church for 12 years! From there I went to Quioccassin Bapt. Church (Richmond, VA) then Third Bapt.
HC: Has the role of pastor changed over the years? In what ways?
REV. FLEMING: The role is determined by the pastor himself and his/ her understanding of that role. For me, I had very limited understanding of what it meant to be a pastor due to the fact that I grew up in a church where I saw the pastor come on Sunday morning, preach, leave and then return the next Sunday. There was some programming but it was very limited. As I grew, went to college and became more exposed to other pastors, I began to see how that role played out with different pastors and their churches.
While in college, the pastor of the Mt. Tabor Church (near the campus) had started that church 5-6 years earlier by knocking on doors. The church grew quickly. I began to understand the need for programming and Christian Education. As I began to pastor at Antioch, I began to see the need to hire a church musician who could also develop programming for our youth who needed things to do. When I went to Quiocassin, we hired our First Youth Pastor (Rev. Keith Jones, now at Shiloh, Bapt. Church, Norfolk, VA). We had a summer program that lasted 6 weeks and every week had a different focus. I learned how important it was to strengthen the Church School and bring in professionals to assist with programming for the church – youth, seniors, etc.
Coming to Third Baptist expanded my appreciation for the role of a pastor by going beyond the church walls and getting involved in the life of black people in Portsmouth. When I arrived, there was only one black person in city government. In 1982, after arriving the prior year, we formed the Martin Luther King Steering Committee with the purpose of mobilizing the black citizens of Portsmouth to elect city offcials that had their interests in mind and at heart.
HC: What 3 pieces of advise/ wisdom would you give to younger pastors?
REV. FLEMING: I’m greatly concerned about their being closed minded and not serving the larger community. Where will the homeless or the hungry go? Isn’t it the church’s obligation to become involved in these situations?
1) They appear to not have camaraderie with older pastors and the older pastors don’t appear to be open to listening to younger pastors. The younger are dealing with technology in a way that older ministers can learn some new things but the younger can learn from the experiences of the older pastors. Our traditional churches are getting smaller and the younger pastors have growing ministries. There is so much to be shared and to be gained both ways.
2) I’m also concerned about younger pastors and their lack of interest in missions. They appear to be more interested in their buildings and their own internal a airs. There must be a better understanding of their being able to bring there is so much to be shared and to be gained both ways.
3) I’m also concerned about younger pastors and their lack of interest in missions. They appear to be more interested in their buildings and their own internal affairs. There must be a better understanding of their being able to bring about change here and across the world. Change for a better world can happen with them and their involvement.