Ministers Who Marked My Ministry III

Ministers Who Marked My Ministry: Dr. E.E.Cleveland

He was no more than 6’3, but to the world he seemed larger than life. Dr. E. E. Cleveland. I actually heard him before I saw him. As a child, we’d listen to the recording of his 1966 evangelistic campaign in Port of Spain, Trinidad. At the close of that meeting over 1000 people were baptized – a first for the Seventh Day Adventist Church.

Born in Huntsville Alabama in 1921, he was a man of amazing gifts and scholarship. He authored 15 books, lectured regularly at prominent universities, trained over 1000 ministers, and served the church effectively at several levels. He was the most prolific evangelist in the SDA church, baptizing over 16,000 people.

He had a passion for people-especially people of color. He organized a campus chapter of the N.A.A.C.P. at Oakwood College when he was a student. He participated in the historic March on Washington in 1963. He crossed paths with Dr. Martin King and Dr. Ralph Abernathy during the civil rights movement and he was clearly the equivalent of Dr. King to the Adventist Church. He was the co-founder of the Human Relations Committee for the General Conference of SDAs. He was a tireless champion for social justice inside and outside the church.

But the personal encounters and connections are what marked me. Four of them influence me to this day.

Encounter Number One

Dr. Cleveland left the General Conference and came to Oakwood University in 1977. His class on Public Evangelism was probably the most popular class on campus. Attended by religion majors and non-religion majors alike, it was literally standing room only in the classroom. The class was already full when I registered in 1979, but they told me to just go to class and perhaps someone might drop out.

I could hardly get in the door for the press. Somehow I was able to enroll in the class and everyday was amazing! It was part revival, part evangelistic campaign, part college class. The stories, the testimonies, the humor, the passion, the insight. I had never had a classroom experience like that and I’ve been trying unsuccessfully to reproduce it in my own classroom ever since.

Encounter Number Two

As a religion student, I got to know Dr. Cleveland well. Frankly, I was in awe of him. I would soak in every suggestion and hang on every word. In the late 70s the campus and church community were always struggling with some legalistic teaching or off-shoot group- Shepard’s Rods, Brinsmeads, you name it. I set up an appointment to speak to Dr. Cleveland about salvation and sanctification.

He spoke about grace in a way that I’d never heard it before. Tears rolled down his face as he told me:

  • “We are justified, before we are qualified.”
  • “We are accepted, before we are acceptable.”
  • “We are trusted, before we are trust worthy.”
  • “We are declared perfect, while we are being perfected.”

This from a man who preached passionately against sin and who many felt was amazingly arrogant. They didn’t quite get him. As powerful a figure as he was, he was sensitive, almost overly so. What I saw was a man who was so grateful for what God had done, that he had no filter sharing it. He was so confident in his salvation, that at times it could be mistaken for overconfidence in himself…… and he could be a bit arrogant.

Encounter Number Three

When Dr. Cleveland retired from Oakwood, I was the Director of Church Growth and Discipleship in the Southeastern California conference. For a couple of years, they split his courses across the faculty, but in 2007 they asked me to join the Religion faculty of Oakwood University. My concentration is Church Growth and Evangelism, so I was effectively Dr. Cleveland’s successor. I taught his classes.

That year, I accepted the position after the class schedules were printed. Dr. Cleveland’s name was still on the class schedule when the students came back from summer break. In short, the students came to class expecting to see E.E. but instead they saw me! It took a minute or two for the students to realize the cruel switch, but when they did….it was Not pretty!!

I knew how they felt. There was no way anyone could fill Dr. Cleveland’s shoes. Certainly not me. But he was always there for encouragement and counsel. I spent hours listening to him. Even as his steps slowed, his mind remained sharp and he was a blessing until the time of his death in August of 2009.


This year I became the Director of the Bradford, Cleveland, Brooks, Leadership Center on the campus of Oakwood University. Our lives intersect again.  Today we are teaching a changing church the unchanging principles that marked these men’s ministries. There will never be another E. E. Cleveland, but his contributions live on. I’ll make sure of that.

Ministers Who Marked My Ministry

Ministers Who Marked My Ministry

Memphis, Tennessee is a city of churches. Always has been and always will be. At one time, it was listed as the city with more churches per capita than any city in America. Churches large and small dot the landscape of my hometown, but the denomination that is perhaps the king of the hill in Memphis is the Church of God in Christ whose international headquarters are based in the city.

The Church of God in Christ (COGIC) is the largest Pentecostal denomination in the world with more than 6 million members worldwide.  On November 14, 2000, the city of Memphis was excited because Bishop Gilbert Patterson, for years one of the most creative religious forces in the city, was elected Presiding Bishop, the top position of leadership in the church. The world was about to see what we’d seen for years. Bishop Patterson was a unique gift to the body of Christ that doesn’t come around very often.

In the late 70s, I was home for the weekend from Oakwood College and we decided to catch a Friday night service at Temple of Deliverance church. It was the fastest growing church in the city at that time and Bishop Patterson was the pastor. I had attended the church on a number of occasions, mainly for concerts and choir rehearsals, but I’d never met Bishop Patterson. So it came as a complete surprise to me as we walked into the balcony of the church to hear his words directed at me from the desk, “Good to see you Reverend.”

No formal introduction, but he obviously knew more about me than I was aware. Ironic, because I never had the opportunity to explain to Bishop Patterson how his ministry influenced mine. Let me share it with you. These are some Patterson characteristics that influenced me.

He had a heart for social justice

In 1968 Dr. Martin King came to Memphis to support the sanitation workers strike. It became the setting for his assassination on April 4 of that year. Bishop Patterson was a major player in that strike that changed the city and tragically impacted the world. He was never a very visible or vocal front line civil rights figure in Memphis, but he was always strategically and financially involved.

He was an amazing administrator

Bishop Patterson began his ministry in his teens. He became the co-pastor of the Holy Temple COGIC with his father W.A.Patterson in 1962.  He left that little church in 1975 to establish the Temple of Deliverance near downtown Memphis. The membership grew to 15,000 people with an active membership approaching 7,000.

He seemed to be able to juggle a number of prominent projects at the same time; day care, Podium Records, WBBP radio station, academy, radio broadcast, and television ministry. In 1978, the congregation opened its new sanctuary to accommodate the explosive growth. At the time Jet Magazine noted that it was the first million-dollar church built by African Americans in Memphis.

He was a gifted preacher

Before he passed in 2007, Bishop Patterson was one of the most sought-after speakers in the country. He turned the stereotype of the uneducated, unprepared Pentecostal preacher on its head. His specialty was unpacking the narratives of the Old Testament. And for those who don’t appreciate the African American folk art and spiritual passion of “ whooping”, they’ve never really listened to Bishop Patterson.

He was a strategic church programmer

In 1996 the book Natural Church Development by Christian Schwarz was released. It became an international manual for growing healthy churches. It identified characteristics and growth factors that most healthy, growing churches possess.

Two of the growth factors are energy transformation and interdependence. The idea is that church ministries and programs are not islands. They function best when the energy and resources of one program seamlessly lift up other programs. Some pastors have a gift for creating a church calendar that is not just busy but creates a tide that takes other ministries up with it. Dr. Carlton Byrd is an example at the Oakwood University church. Bishop Patterson was a master.

The church calendar was carefully choreographed to generate movement and momentum. It kept the staff and volunteers busy but it created an atmosphere that attracted visitors and kept members connected, excited, and involved.

Those are just a few of the characteristics of Bishop Patterson that marked my ministry. We never really know the impact our lives have on others. Next week, Pastor Robert Willis.