A look into the ministry of the Columbia Union’s longest serving pastor—and where Henry Wright goes from here
Story by Benjamin J. Baker
The packed church waits in anticipation, sensing what is coming. The tall, stately man sits on one of the steps leading up to the pulpit. “I’ve pastored this church for 20 years and six months,” he says in a rich, baritone voice. “June will mark my 50th year in the ministry.”
Since turning 70, he has felt the Lord impressing him to move on. He reminisces with pride on his years with them. Then in a charged voice he declares, “I say before you and God: I have done my job here.” The congregation, silent thus far, breaks into applause, standing as one to its feet. At this, the stern man’s eyes begin to water, his stoic demeanor breaking. After the people return to their seats, the man, now composed, declares, “The next leader will take you higher and further. This church has not yet reached its potential.”
Click here to read about the Wright's love story
“All I can say is I love you,” Pastor Henry Wright says as he rises from the steps of Potomac Conference’s Community Praise Center (CPC) in Alexandria, Va.
A Grounded Faith
Henry Monroe Wright was born to William and Zoe Wright on February 3, 1942, in Cincinnati, Ohio. Although he entered the world amidst World War II, Wright grew up in a world far removed from the mayhem. When he was 6, his grandfather insisted the end was near so the family must live away from the cities. Germantown, a tiny community in Southwest Ohio, fit the bill.
“Growing up in that little farming community shaped me,” Wright says. “It was rural, it was family, it was Adventist and it was pure.” This early atmosphere grounded Wright in the Seventh-day Adventist faith. “Grandma taught me the Bible at her knee and, at age 10, I could explain the 2,300-day prophecy without notes,” he says. At 18, Wright headed south to Oakwood University (then a college) in Huntsville, Ala., where he blossomed.
A natural leader, he became freshman class president. Yet, he was still undecided about what he wanted to do with his life. It was only after pulling a youthful stunt and being expelled for two weeks that Wright recognized God’s call on his life.
“I told the Lord, ‘I’ve run from You, now I’m saying yes to You,’” he remembers. Oakwood is also where he met his lifelong companion, Carol Lindsey. Teaching and Learning Wright’s initiation to the ministry was as a pastor in Mississippi. Most of his parishioners lived in dire poverty, yet, even though many of them only received $50 a month from welfare, it was faithfully tithed.
“They taught me way more about myself than I taught them,” Wright says. Wright ran tent meetings every summer and was constantly pushing forward. His churches grew along with his family. In 1969 Wright was diagnosed with bullous emphysema. “The doctor told me to stop preaching or I’d be carrying an oxygen tank around with me very soon,” says Wright. “I said, ‘Doc, I don’t know how to do anything else.’” Wright chuckles, “God taught me dependence through that.”
At 29, Wright was called to pastor the Ephesus church in Columbus, Ohio, the headquarter church of the Allegheny West Conference. Back in his home state, Wright’s ministry took off. Ephesus was a hive of activity during his four years as pastor. Although an exceptional pastor, Wright was attaining real distinction with his preaching.
“Absolutely riveting,” is how one person described his messages. “His words and pathos shake you to your very core.” Indeed, the deep content of his sermons, combined with an absolute belief in what he says and a potent delivery in an arresting baritone continues to make Wright one of the most sought-after speakers in the church.
A Turning Point
In 1978 when Wright returned to Oakwood to teach, this time he had a complete family of five, including three sons, Henry II (Hank), Michael and H. Marcel. As with his first stint at the school, the 35-year-old Wright flourished. Students flocked to hear the charismatic professor. In 1981 the graduating class even voted him professor of the year.
Leaving Oakwood in 1983, for the next ten years Wright served in higher administration in the Columbia Union. His time at the helm of Allegheny West was marked by an emphasis on youth ministries, community outreach, and evangelism. As secretary of the Columbia Union Conference he was instrumental in the reorganization of its eight conferences. In early 1992 Wright was asked to be the Secretary of the General Conference Ministerial Association.
But, it was here that the upward trajectory of Wright’s career was abruptly halted. “There was a moment in my life when I did not do what was best and wise,” Wright says. After nearly 30 years of church work, Wright resigned and left the ministry.
It is no exaggeration to say that thousands of Adventists around the world were stunned and heartbroken at the news. “Some people counted me out for good,” reflects Wright.
After nearly a year out of the ministry, Wright received a phone call from the Potomac Conference president asking if he’d consider pastoring a tiny, struggling church in Northern Virginia.
August 21, 1993, Wright stepped to the pulpit to preach his first sermon at Community Praise Center. “There were so few people that you could lay on the pews and not touch anybody,” Wright quips. “After the service, I knelt in front of the altar and prayed a very simple prayer: ‘Lord, do not make me a success here; defend Your name.’” Success was the Lord’s, but Wright knew that he and the 35 faithful attendees would have to work hard to save CPC. “I sat with the board, and we developed a five-year program to turn things around,” he says. Whoever stepped foot inside the church was immediately incorporated into the program and put to work.
A year later, CPC started averaging 150-200 people each Sabbath. It was at this time that Wright hit upon an idea. “I started a series on the parables of Luke 15. Word began to spread,” he says, eyes lighting up. “By the end of that summer, our attendance had doubled.”
He adds, “More than anything, the success of CPC encouraged Carol and I that the Lord would still use us in ministry,” Wright states. But, tragedy was to visit the Wrights again.
October 8, 1997, Michael, their middle son, was killed in a car accident. “Neither Carol nor I have ever gotten over it,” Wright says, tears forming in his eyes. Although unbearably painful, the tragedy humanized the couple to the congregation. “It made us more real to people,” Wright says. “It gave people a hallway where they felt comfortable knocking on Henry and Carol’s door … and we’ve never turned anyone away.”
Growing and Expanding
In the first decade of the 21st century, CPC took its place as one of the premier congregations in the Columbia Union with a thriving membership nearing 1,000. Wright believed it was time for them to spread out and win others for Christ.
About 25 miles away in Bowie, Md., a group of 10-15 people met to study the Bible after the close of a Revelation seminar in 2006. Led by Naeem Newman, the believers soon drew the interest of Melvyn Hayden, III, then CPC’s youth pastor. Hayden and others approached Wright about adopting the remnant and establishing a “lighthouse” in Bowie, a D.C. suburb with no Adventist church. Wright readily agreed—in fact, he had just the person in mind to pastor the fledgling flock.
Like Wright, Paul Graham had been out of the ministry for two years and didn’t think he would ever return. However, when Wright called to ask him if he’d pastor the believers in Bowie, Graham knew that God was calling him back. “Elder Wright believed in me,” Graham says. “He is the person most responsible for my return to ministry.” The Lord quickly blessed CPC’s first campus church, initially called the Bowie Project and later Restoration Praise Center (RPC). Now five and a half years past their first official service, RPC claims nearly 600 members with over $1 million in annual tithe.
Other campuses have followed. There is a group in another part of Alexandria, and, in September 2012, Jennifer Deans joined as the pastor of CPC’s Dulles campus, a sprawling suburban area around Dulles International Airport in Northern Virginia, which had no Adventist presence.
About Pastor Deans, Wright is effusive: “She is extremely talented. Her ministry has no limits.” CPC’s largest campus, however, is online. Each month nearly 2,000 people from 24 countries view the Sabbath service streaming on the CPC website.
Additionally, Wright’s sermons have second lives on sites like YouTube and Vimeo, where tens of thousands have been enriched. “The online campus is immeasurable,” Wright notes. “I get letters from Brazil, Australia, the Far East, England—all blessed by our church services on the Web.”
Currently there are plans for yet more sister campuses in Temple Hills, Md., and Lorton, Va. Now just past Wright’s 20th year at CPC, the church boasts some 1,200 members engaged in more than 60 ministries, tithing over $2.5 million annually, with an international reach.
What is Wright’s response? “I’m leaving,” he states. Why? “You don’t leave when something’s falling apart. You hand someone something worth having.” When asked if he is retiring, Wright, with shock on his face, responds, “Retire? Oh no! That word has no meaning to me.”
Instead, after Wright’s final Sabbath at CPC May 3, he will go on to his next assignment as senior pastor of the Takoma Park (Md.) church and developer of an intern ministry for Potomac. In this new task, Wright will train interns and pastors of Potomac and other participating conferences. Wright will also continue to teach at Washington Adventist University in Takoma Park, Md., where he molds the minds of ministers-in-training. As with his students at Oakwood, this new generation of ministers taught by Wright is now in leadership positions across the Columbia Union and around the world.
After 50 years of ministry, it’s as if Wright is just starting out. “I’m chomping at the bit,” he says excitedly, leaning forward in his chair. “I’m going to go to Takoma Park and do what I’ve done here: work hard. If you work hard and pray, results are in the hands of God. I can’t wait to see what the Lord will do.” Benjamin Baker, PhD, is the assistant archivist at the General Conference.
Read the April 2014 Issue of the Columbia Union Visitor