Charles Jenkins: transformational leader

By Rez Gopez-Sindac

Senior Pastor | Fellowship Chicago | Chicago, IL


At 24, Charles Jenkins took up the pastoral reins of Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church (Fellowship Chicago) following the retirement in December 2000 of its legendary founding pastor the Rev. Clay Evans, who served the church for 50 years.

How did Jenkins handle the comparisons and criticisms during the early years of his leadership? “With common sense,” he replies. “I was secure about who he was and who I was not.” When criticized for doing things differently, Jenkins says he understood that anybody who has eaten at the same restaurant for 50 years might have something to say if he changed the tablecloths.

But change some things he did. And, 13 years later, Jenkins remains a vigilant transformational leader, using God’s message, marketing and music to bring holistic change to people’s lives and their communities.

What prepared you for the senior pastor role at age 24?

I don’t think there’s any way anyone could be fully prepared for a responsibility of that magnitude no matter how old they were. But, to a degree, I think I was prepared in ways that I wouldn’t realize until later.  One of those ways was that my mother raised me around senior citizens.  She took me to nursing homes to visit the sick.  I learned how to pray for those who were in need.  She took me with her to give them food, money, shoes or whatever was needed.  She took me to funeral homes to comfort families we didn’t even know. I grew up actively involved in church. Also, I think attending Moody Bible Institute and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School was a preparation.  But the most profound of all was the three-year apprenticeship with my predecessor Rev. Clay Evans, who allowed me to have an inside track to pastoral leadership every single day. I was able to see what it looked like on the inside, and then over the course of time he handed over the reins while he was still present.  So, again, I was able to learn by precept and example in a hands-on kind of way.

What was the leadership transition like for you?

It was tough and easy.  It was tough because so many people – not just in the church, but around the country – were rooting against me. They knew of the church and of my predecessor; they thought I was too young.  So many things were said like, I wouldn’t last a year.  There were people who were resistant to change.  It was tough to be strategic, thoughtful, prayerful and methodical with every move that I made.  I was trying to maintain the long-timers while trying to welcome newcomers.  I was trying to keep a seasoned generation while bringing in a younger generation. At 24, youth begets youth; just managing multiple generations was tough.  So, trying to cook for the whole house was tough.  Trying to cater to multiple preferential perspectives was tough. The easy part of it was the Rev. Clay Evans.  He was so brilliant and, during my apprenticeship, I was able to be prepared for a great deal of it because I was exposed to a great deal of it.  He said to me, “When you’re where you’re supposed to be, there’s nothing that can come up that you and the Lord can’t handle.”

What fresh ideas did you introduce when you became the lead pastor?

Because we had a large population of seniors, and thousands of new people – mostly young adults – had joined the church in my first two years, we sought to bring generational unity. We found creative ways to pair up leaders from different eras. We didn’t necessarily get rid of tradition; we just added some contemporary elements to various facets of our ministry. We wanted reinforcements, not replacements. We wanted to reach the young generation, so we launched into guerrilla-style marketing, such as buying time on secular radio and paying disc jockeys in clubs to invite people to be a part of our programs. It’s funny because while people were dancing, the DJ would come on and say, “This Wednesday night you’re invited to Fellowship. It’s a night of praise and worship, and you’re going to be inspired, empowered.”  Interestingly enough, people came. In one instance, 80 gang members threw down their flags and left the gang. At one particular event, so many people came that we ran out of room – about a thousand people spilled into a park across the street from our church.  It was all because we marketed to the people we were trying to reach and went to where they were.

We also studied our neighborhood’s demographics. We went door-to-door with a survey and asked the people what they thought were the needs in the community and what would they like to see in a church. The people were so excited they gave us lots of good answers. Based on the information we got, we created opportunities for community engagements and we invited the same people to participate. Many of them came to Jesus, joined our church and became actively involved in these ministries.

We went to the streets and handed out small gift bags with information about our church and the Gospel message.  We gave away bottled water and tracts. We gave away Krispy Kreme donuts.  We did small acts of kindness because we wanted our church to be a blessing. It was really important for us because the community had seen our church as transient, with no concern or care for its community.

We hosted nontraditional conferences, such as about health, business, education and real estate. These events changed the lives of many. They became good stewards of their resources. Some people started their own businesses. Then we started a monthly worship gathering in the downtown business district of Chicago.  God had put on my heart that with such a rigorous business culture and a draining political culture, we needed to create an oasis in the middle of the desert.  Hundreds of people today come to Macy’s Department Store downtown on State Street – about 500 business people – to worship for about 50 minutes and they get a bag lunch at the close.  We’ve seen hundreds of people come to Jesus over the years through this ministry.

You were known for your holistic approach to social change, church growth and community outreach.  Tell us more about it.

Jesus calls us to share the Gospel, but He also calls us to show the Gospel.  Jesus didn’t just preach to people. When He saw 5,000 people who were hungry, He fed them first; then He taught them.  When Jairus’ daughter was sick and about to die, Jesus didn’t teach a Bible study; He attended to the sick child and healed her.  By holistic approach to social change, church growth and outreach, the idea is to consider what God has given us as a church, and what do people need as a community. I believe that Scripture speaks to every area of our lives. Jesus says we’re to feed the hungry, put clothes on the naked, visit those in prison. Those are very basic, practical actions, which, in my mind, are holistic: food, clothes and the ministry of presence – being there for people.

You’re also a GRAMMY Award winning songwriter and recording artist.  What role does music play in your personal life and in your ministry?

Music plays a huge role in my life.  I took classical piano for seven years as a child.  As a child, I was the minister of music for a large choir, about 300 youths.  I eventually ended up minister of music at two or three churches as a youth.  It’s always been in my veins.  I have an uncle who played with a band called Earth, Wind and Fire. My grandmother and aunt played for all the churches in the city.  I’ve been around music all my life.  I started writing songs when I was 14 or 15 years old.  I’ve come to learn that music is one of the most influential mediums in our culture. For me, it’s a legitimate tool that I use to inspire, uplift and to empower, using God’s ideas for biblically inspired thoughts to both teach people and be a blessing to people.  We’ve seen millions of hits on a song I wrote called, “Awesome,” and tens of thousands of people purchased the album. I’ve learned that people will listen to a song more times than they’ll listen to a sermon. I believe music is a powerful tool that God wants us to use, not just in the church but outside of the church to impact people in positive ways.

CharlesJenkins-cVShare some strategies that can help other churches succeed in their succession plans.

Embrace succession and transition. Church members need to hear that succession is an anticipated vision. The church needs to understand that it’s a biblical model.  It’s being a good steward of both the ministry and the leadership mantel.  It’s about making sure the baton doesn’t fall to the ground.

Embrace applied change. Applied change is change with intended positive results in mind.  When succession takes place, when new leadership comes in – change is inevitable.  If you don’t change with the times, the times will change without you and mark you irrelevant or obsolete.  To be transformed by the renewing of our minds is change. To be in Christ means to be a new creation – that’s change. Change is a biblical model. We must know that the results and the fruit will bear out in a positive way.

Magnify the blessings of transition. If you’re going to influence people to follow you on a meaningful journey, you’ve got to put the benefits in front of them.

Know what to tolerate and what to eliminate. We keyed in on things that weren’t really hurting aspects of our ministry. It might have been just something traditional, a style or a method, or a program. We realized that we might need to change it down the road.  On the flip side, we needed to know what was stunting our growth.

Employ spiritual disciplines. It’s really important to know that succession and transition is a God-thing. Inviting God to lead the journey is important. Church-wide fasting and praying helps people to understand that succession is not just a physical journey; it’s a spiritual journey, and we depend on God for His grace, mercy and power to see us through.

What do you want to see accomplished at Fellowship Chicago before you pass the leadership baton on to your successor?

I would love to see a very firm discipleship culture in our church. Many of those who join our church have no spiritual point of reference.  They’re brand-new to church, that’s why discipleship is a big need.  When it comes to discipleship and community, I would like to see Fellowship run on “automatic” – systematically, structurally and culturally. I would like to see a strong biblical academic arm in Chicago and in urban inner cities, particularly within the African American community. Also, I would like to see the completion of our expansion project, the Legacy Project, which is our commitment to building people and building community.  The last thing that I want to see is a financial endowment that will promote generosity and philanthropy, with an emphasis on efficient stewardship to serve the poor, the sick and our youth.



Year church was established:  1950

Average weekly attendance: 3,500

Affiliation/denomination: Baptist

Campuses: Two

Annual budget: $4.4 million

Full-time staff: 15



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