In a television interview shortly after his projected win, the Rev. Raphael G. Warnock made it clear that he planned to stay in the pulpit at Ebenezer Baptist Church.
Now that he has made history as the first Black senator from Georgia, what does it mean for the historic Atlanta church and its members?
How will the 51-year-old senior pastor mesh his duties as pastor of the more than 6,000-member church, which is located a few blocks from the home where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. grew up, with his role helping set national policy?
“I intend to return to my pulpit and preach on Sunday mornings and to talk to the people,” he told CNN.
He added that the last thing he wanted to do was become “disconnected from the community and just spend all my time talking to the politicians. I might accidentally become one and I have no intention of becoming a politician. I intend to be a public servant.”
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Warnock could not be reached for comment, but in a previous article in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, he harkened back to other politicians who have held full-time jobs elsewhere.
For now, members seem content to bask in the fact that Warnock, who has run a vibrant and effective ministry from the pulpit, is going to Washington. And, for sure, Ebenezer, which is already a popular site for visitors, is likely to be even more crowded on some Sundays when in-person services resume.
“We will be here,” said Roz Barnes of Decatur, a corporate communications writer and member of Ebenezer’s choir. “Ebenezer has been here 134 years. We have excellent visiting pastors and an excellent staff who will sustain us. We’ll be fine. He may not be here every Sunday in the pulpit and I hope that he isn’t. Some of the older members may disagree with me, but we’ve really got to look at the bigger picture and what’s more important for the United States and for Georgia. There are more important things than just being in the pulpit on Sundays.”
Credit: Phil Skinner
Credit: Phil Skinner
The church has a team of ministers and has for years. Lay leaders aid in the work.
Last year, the church brought in the Rev. John H. Vaughn as executive pastor, filling an existing spot that has been vacant for a while.
Before coming to Ebenezer, Vaughn was the executive vice president at Auburn Theological Seminary.
Since the pandemic, Warnock generally tapes his sermons a day or two before Sunday airing.
Barnes said she wouldn’t be opposed to more virtual sermons, even when in-person worship services are held again.
“I want him to concentrate on bringing jobs and health care to Georgia,” she said.
Another member, Shanti Das, holds a similar view.
Das, a 25-year music and entertainment veteran and mental health advocate, said as pastor of one of the most prominent churches in the nation, Warnock is sometimes asked to speak at conferences and other churches, so not being there a few Sundays is fine with her.
“We know that the pastor may not be there sometimes, but we know he is there in spirit,” she said. “We will still be the same dynamic church serving the Atlanta community whether or not he is in the pulpit or in Washington. I believe him when he says he’s still going to be committed to Ebenezer.”
Ebenezer, like many houses of worship around the nation, is holding virtual services, which allows Warnock to still deliver his sermons virtually and could also let him do so remotely from Washington.
“This is a demanding job. Can you do this and still pastor a church? That is the question,” said Anthea Butler, an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania. “ ... I think he can do this for a time. In the virtual world, yes, he can.”
She questions, though, what happens in 2022 when Warnock will likely seek reelection.
“They have to think about what that means for the congregation,” she said.
Credit: Rebecca Wright
Credit: Rebecca Wright
Warnock will have to take care to separate his roles. His church very much follows a social gospel. Warnock has spoken out on a number of hot-button issues such as mass incarceration, police brutality and voter registration and suppression. How he will marry that with his work as a senator remains to be seen.
As a politician, there are strict compensation guidelines, and the church is likely to get greater attention.
He would not be the first faith leader to hold elected office.
U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II of Missouri balanced his United Methodist pastoral duties throughout a long political career that once included being Kansas City’s mayor. He retired from his church in 2009, five years after joining Congress.
It was much easier as mayor, said Cleaver because he was in the same city and he could have his staff block out times for Bible study and services.
Once he got to Washington, it was much harder.
His church was growing and he was still trying to make Sunday services, do Bible study and officiate at weddings and funerals.
“That’s the part that’s going to create the most pressure,” he said in an interview. “When people you know, and have known for years, (die) and the family wants to you do the funeral.”
He would write his sermons on the flights from Washington, D.C., to Kansas City.
“It forced me to be very organized,” he said. “The last thing I needed was for someone to say he didn’t preach as well as he used to.”
At some point, he realized there was no way he could still pastor and handle his congressional duties, he said.
He is confident, though, that Warnock, whom he knows, and Ebenezer are prepared.
“It can be done,” he said. “It’s going to be painful, but he can do it. He can do it.”
There were others.
The Rev. Robert F. Drinan, a Jesuit priest from Massachusetts, served for a decade in Congress in the 1970s until Pope John Paul II issued an order that forbade priests from holding elected office.
Another was William H. Gray III, a third-generation pastor. He successfully ran for Congress and served for 12 years. According to a bio on the United States House of Representatives website, Gray became the first Black majority whip in the House, while continuing to serve as pastor of Philadelphia’s Bright Hope Baptist Church.
Bright Hope’s William R. Raymond, 62, a former deacon, said Gray got the blessings of the church’s leadership and members before seeking office.
“I was there,” said Raymond. “He committed to coming every Sunday and committed to still doing funerals and weddings. He kept that commitment and promise and was there 90% of the time.”
Raymond, who also worked for Gray in his local congressional office, would sometimes pick Gray up at the train station when he would return to Philadelphia or else the congressman would drive the roughly two-and-a-hours back home.
“He had the energy and he was committed to Bright Hope and committed to the people,” he said.
Gray eventually left to become head of the United Negro College Fund.
“We’re going to keep an open mind because this is new territory for us,” said Isaac Newton Farris Jr., a longtime member and the nephew of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He said he was happy with Warnock’s success. “We feel optimistic things will work out.”
Robert M. Franklin Jr., a former Morehouse College president and currently a professor at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, is also a member.
He’s curious how long Warnock can sustain commuting and his pastoral responsibilities, “but he has the next half year to full year to sort of figure this out.”
“I think he has what is absolutely essential: the infrastructure for the continuity of his ministry and a supportive flock,” Franklin said. “People are excited about what he is doing. One without the other won’t work and I believe both are in place. Even if he is not present every week, he will maintain a strategic presence.”