A Closing Bow: The Reflections of a Legendary Leader

Rev. Donald L. Perryman, D.Min.

By Rev. Donald L. Perryman, Ph.D.
The Truth Contributor

  You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get others interested in you.
Dale Carnegie

Bishop Robert Culp will punctuate an illustrious career as leader of the First Church of God Church when he takes a joyous and electrifying curtain call on Saturday, May 20, at the Hilton of Toledo.

The gifted storyteller, inspirational pastor, and community leader will step away from the spotlight after 61 years of shepherding the historical First Church congregation at 3016 Collingwood.

Although Culp steps out of the limelight, don’t expect him to sit in a rocking chair and do nothing. As a transformative leader, his schedule continues to be active, and he has already planned his next act, even if he has not publicly revealed his plans.

Instead, Saturday’s curtain call symbolizes the culmination of a lifetime of dedication, passion, hard work, and service to his congregation and community.

I spoke with Bishop Culp to discuss his reflections on his impactful career. Here is our conversation.

Bishop Culp

Perryman: your schedule is still active, so what does retirement mean for you?

Culp: It means that my successor asked me to stay on as what he calls his spiritual advisor. I am at church three or four days a week. It’s not doing what I usually would, so my most significant task at church has been aiding the transition to a new pastor.

Perryman: What advice would you give to ministers starting as pastors?

Bishop: For the first five years I was here, I attended church on Sunday, but the rest of the week, I spent it out in the community. I was part of the IMA and the NAACP in the 1960s because I had time to devote to those activities. Plus, it allowed me to look at what I thought of in terms of good successful pastors. Samuel Coleman at Mt. Pilgrim and Elijah Benton took me under their wing; they were encouraging and helpful. CJ Johnson was a good friend and helper who taught me how to deal with white folks. You can’t simply disagree with them, protesting and the whole bit. If you’re going to make headway, take private time with them, and become their friends, which helped me terrifically.

That probably was it, that I could be effective with the community, not just my own church. As a result, the church grew and became significant in the community. The first few months I was here, people had never even heard of the First Church of God and didn’t know where we were or what we were about.

Perryman: What will you miss most about pastoring?

Culp: Probably the interaction with people. From childhood, I’ve always liked people, even strangers. I’d start conversations with them when I was a kid. That’s what I will miss the most, but I’m permitted now to do it still, and I enjoy the community events and things. I still show up as much as possible now because I enjoy people. My dad taught me to make every person your friend, even if they’re your enemy, and never raise your voice when you’re talking to them. He said if you treat people that way, you disarm them. You’d be much more effective in dealing with them, and it’s been part of my strategy here with my church.

Perryman: Please describe what you are most proud of and your biggest regret.

Culp: The thing I’m most proud of would be fulfilling a plan, a dream I had when I came here of what the church could do and what it could be. My successor said, ‘It seems like the community meets here at the church more than you go out into the community.’ And, so it’s the fact that the church is not some isolated place where you show up on Sunday morning; it should be the center of a person’s life. So, we’re not just an add-on.

Preachers and others would be cussing when you’re meeting in a restaurant somewhere. Still, when you meet in the church, they’re careful about their language, and really, their ideas are much better. So, one of the things that I’m proud of and pleased with is that the church has been just that, a meeting place where people in the community feel like I can contribute or I can be helped; that is what the church is all about. It’s not a Sunday institution; it’s seven days a week, whatever the community needs.

That, by the way, was a part of the things Dr. Martin Luther King introduced us to as college students in the 1950s that helped me see and understand. I thought I had to beat the saints over the head and tell them we’re not separate from the community, but I had to teach enough principles so that people understand what the church is and what it’s about. Then, they will invite others to worship and utilize whatever the church offers.

Perryman: Any regrets?

Culp: Yes, a few. One would probably be not having adequately involved my children. On the other hand, my wife stepped up well with the school she founded, which impacted as many people as the church did. Folks would stop us almost every time we were out and say, ‘Thank you for the discipline of First Church Christian School.’ It was the kind of compliments that we got.

My wife was an excellent principal, and it gave her a very fulfilling career. She did not spend much time telling me how to pastor the church. She’d answer my questions but found ways to contribute to the well-being not only of the church but of the community. I regret not using her more, especially after she retired as the school principal.

There were others, same fashion, that I didn’t move quickly enough or strong enough to take advantage of their gifts and abilities. Some did do some excellent things where, people like Juanita Green or Judge McConnell, but others were in the church.

When you gather the right people around you, the good Lord helped me avoid making many mistakes with that; they add immeasurably to your ministry.

Perryman: What can we do to foster more unity among the churches?

Culp: Yes, the first thing is that God’s helping us move toward that. I have heard Ben Snyder, pastor of CedarCreek Church, say recently: “You know, the good Lord is making us not only forget denominations but forget all of those theological things.” He said, “If I say to a man do you know Christ Jesus? That’s all I need to know for him to be my brother in the Lord.”

We are increasingly realizing the importance of being Christian and having unity; Christ’s prayer that we all be one is essential for us. Even now, with all the violence, nobody seems to have the answer. I see times forcing us to come together, and I believe that God will help us to be effective with things like violence.

Perryman: How has ministry evolved since you began pastoring?

Culp: Then, churches were so self-centered. We had what we called ministry, but it was almost programming that required our people to be in our buildings so much. So, we had Sunday morning church, Sunday night church, Bible study, and then we had the other groups of choir rehearsal and everything else going on all week. We were so independent and so local church and inward focused.

Perryman: Please further elaborate

Culp: There was a time when you had a good crowd come into the church. Now that crowd, even before the pandemic, other than Easter, I haven’t had a full house since the pandemic. We were running two services before; now, we can’t even fill up one service. But yet, I look on Facebook and see a nice group coming to service, but they’re doing it if not from bed, at least from their home. And times have just changed, so churches have to learn how to adapt.

Perryman: As you know, the black church has practiced what’s called a dialectical model of ministry or balancing the polarity of our priestly and prophetic functions, between maintaining congregants’ spiritual life and speaking truth to power. We occasionally witness the fruits of our labor in the spiritual growth of our members, but is achieving justice even possible?

Culp: There was a time when I really believed that. I read a book called The Color of Compromise. I bought a dozen copies and gave them to 6 black and six white pastors. We’ve been meeting once a month. After a year, the black pastors quit on me. They gave me nice excuses, but I knew the real problem; they said, ‘We’re not making any headway with these white folks in this group.’ They’re all well-versed and great friends, but they kept repeating the phrase ‘I have not met a pastor that we’ve got into an excellent discussion that Black Lives Matter. I haven’t met a prominent white pastor in this town who can even accept that phrase and understands what it means.’

It’s the first doubt I’ve had. I’ve always believed that the in the next generation of the brotherhood, that justice would be more than a legal thing; it would become a social actuality. I’m beginning to sour a bit on that. It’s just making me wonder, no matter how many laws we get, in the history of America, racial separation is so solid that the church isn’t even able.

When I was young, we used to say it’s our different worship style, but I found out no, it ain’t! So that’s where I am these days. I’m still going to work at it, but I know in my lifetime, I’m not going to see it; I pray the next generation will.

Perryman: What are the keys to a long, fruitful ministry?

Culp: As I said, I learned the principle picked up from Martin Luther King, Jr.; you go to a community not merely to build a church; you go there to impact that community’s culture and make a difference. You need to do that to be effective. As you know, clergy can build a church with 5,000 members, and crime, sin, and evil can be worse in the town when they get to 5,000 than when they have a few people. So that has been my goal from the beginning.

Perryman: Finally, your official retirement event is called The Legacy of The Man. The term legacy can refer to an inheritance, reputation, impact, tradition, or values. Overall, legacy is often the lasting effects or experiences one can have on others. What are you and your wife, Dr. Maggie Culp, leaving to this community and your congregation that you hope is lasting?

Culp: The best thing is that your pastor doesn’t have to be somebody you place on a pedestal. My wife has been excellent at just being a friend to our folks. Sometimes I think they loved her more than they loved me. She was just so good with people. One reason I married her way back then was that she didn’t raise her voice, she didn’t have a temper, and or make hasty judgments and decisions. So I said, ‘Boy, that’s what the church needs as well as I need, her patience.’

We liked people and believed that you could contribute to the good of a person’s life, but they don’t owe you anything for it. So, for me, probably the best thing we’ve left is that a preacher is just another man or woman striving to fulfill God’s mission and purpose in the world and being satisfied that one day we’ll hear those words “Well done, thou good and faithful servant!”

Contact Rev. Donald Perryman, PhD,  at drdlperryman@enterofhopebaptist.org