There is a balm in Gilead. That place in the heart of Detroit, Michigan is Greater Emmanuel Institutional Church Of God In Christ. The classic song made famous by the First Lady of the same church describes the place of spiritual refuge thousands call home.
As one of Detroit’s largest and best known churches, GEI is a beacon of light to the broken and burdened. The responsibility of bringing that freedom and faith to its flock falls on the shoulders of its shepherd, Bishop John Drew Sheard.
This 2nd generation bishop from one of America’s oldest denominations holds credentials that includes a Master’s degree, a reality TV star and a popular theologian in the city he was born and bred. John Drew Sheard is also the business partner and engine behind Karew Records, the independent music label responsible for rich recordings by David Daughtry, Jonathan Nelson, his daughter Kierra Sheard and his wife, the legendary Karen Clark Sheard.
Most recently, Karew released its first church album – GEI Live – a scintillating, sanctified, Sunday service project that captures the heart of Greater Emmanuel in worship. BlackGospel.com spoke with this charismatic figure about faith, music and even politics. The soul of a shepherd was unveiled for our readers to revel in. Enjoy!
Christopher Heron: Why did it take so long for Greater Emmanuel Institutional to release its project with so much talent under its roof?
Bishop J. Drew Sheard: Well, the truth is that we went through a transition with our ministers of music and choir directors. Abut three years ago, my former choir director informed me that he was relocating to Dallas and so at that point, I had to find another minister in music. We did our search and found the right person who happened to be the minister of music for the late Andrae Crouch. He’s originally from Detroit, so we were able to move him back here. He went to work for a couple of years and about a year and a half ago, he told me that he wanted to do a live recording. I asked him if he was sure and he said, ‘’Yeah.’’ And so we went to work, and everything worked out just fine.
Christopher Heron: You have an illustrious resume which includes choir directing for the C.O.G.I.C. Did you think about stepping in and substituting?
Bishop J. Drew Sheard: No. I know when somebody hits a bad note, but I didn’t want to step back into that. That’s about 5 or 6 years since I even attempted to direct a choir. It hasn’t even been that short. It’s more like 10 years ago. I didn’t have that desire. I’m one of these pastors where I want to include as many people as we can into the process. I don’t want to seem like I’ve got to do the choir and preach. My church is run a lot differently, we have a lot of talented people. If you come to my church on Sunday morning, you’ll find out that the whole service runs smoothly. I get up when it’s time for me to preach. We empower people.
Christopher Heron: Your ministry has had enormous success, flourishing as a church ministry in a difficult environment and times. What do you attribute to your success?
Bishop J. Drew Sheard: The one thing, of course, is that God is the center of everything. I want to make sure I say that. Then the other thing is timeliness. I want to give people a quality worship, not necessarily quantity. We don’t have long services, we’re a timely church, and people appreciate you respecting their time. So that’s been one of the great successes of our church. We just go on and do what we’ve got to do.
Christopher Heron: A lot of the success churches today are non-denominational. So, how does Greater Emmanuel Institutional thrive in the midst of this reality and remain so relevant as part of Church Of God In Christ, one of the oldest Christian denominations in America?
Bishop J. Drew Sheard: The great thing about the Church Of God In Christ is that it does not dictate how services or the church is run. Every Church Of God In Christ pastor has to do what’s relevant for his area. There are plenty of churches in the city of Detroit. I had to carve out our identity as far as what makes us unique and we were able to do that. We emphasize the Word of God; we talk about quality singing, and of course, we do it in a very timely manner. I believe in the doctrine.
I am fully-fledged in the Church Of God In Christ. I embrace the doctrine but by the same token, our ministry, Greater Emmanuel, has to be relevant and it is. We have to make sure that ministry meets the needs of people. That’s my definition of ministry here at Greater Emmanuel…that ministry meets the needs of people. So sometimes when you’re building ministry you have to ascertain what’s going on in your community. You have to develop your ministry so that you meet the needs of the people that you’re trying to reach.
Christopher Heron: Detroit has its own share of social and economic challenges and adversities. Based upon those realities, how do you make your ministry relevant while meeting the needs of its people, given the harsh circumstances Detroit faces?
Bishop J. Drew Sheard: I never bought into this recession thing, in the city of Detroit. I keep telling our people this and if you have influence with your members, they’ll listen to you. I kept telling the people, ‘’We’re not participating in the recession. We might face some difficulties and challenges, but they’re only temporary. We’re not participating in the recession.’’ And through the recession, we’ve been able to maintain. It got tough at times but God saw us through, and God honored what I was teaching the people. I think if I did a survey of how the so-called recession affected the members of our church, I would dare to say that a very small percentage were affected, no more than 10% to 15% of our congregation because we kept preaching faith and that we’re not participating in the recession.
A lot of times, the condition that you’re in is because of your state of mind. So if you can tell your mind that, ‘’I’m not participating in this bad thing, God is going to make a way for me.’’ He will. If you’re actively above the fray of what everybody else is being, then you’ll start making a way. We’ve got people that developed their own businesses during the so-called recession. They’re just so many other things that you can do rather than just sit back and accept what life throws at you. It’s about making something happen for yourself.
Christopher Heron: Your speech is beyond just the word of God; you’re giving us some practical application. And in this politicized era, where we even saw presidential candidates go to Detroit, did you get involved? Do you begin to mobilize your members to become politically active and to make a decision about what would impact not only the city but its country?
Bishop J. Drew Sheard: We have several politicians that are members in our church, however, I very seldom mobilize the people to do political things. I speak every now and then about different political issues, I do address them, but it’s got to be for the welfare of the people. It’s interesting you asked me that. Many weeks ago, on Sunday I made it very clear where I stood as far as being involved with some of the politicians. The whole thing is that I as a leader of God’s people, the responsibility that’s given to me is to make sure that I do what’s in the best interest of the people that God has blessed me to lead.
Therefore even though sometimes the politicians will promise or make a commitment for you to do something that will benefit me as an individual, sometimes I have to turn that down because I can’t do something that will benefit me but will hurt the people that I lead. So that’s where I stand. I don’t subscribe to everything the politician says because the people are expecting me to make a decision that’s going to benefit them as a whole. So I can’t be a part of everything, I’ve got to prayerfully pick and choose what I’m supposed to do.
Christopher Heron: I’m going to wrap up this interview with the album. With the release of the Greater Emmanuel Institutional (GEI) what is your hope and expectation for this album?
Bishop J. Drew Sheard: My hope and expectation is that it does extremely well. Now, I say that, and I guess you would say that most people would say that but here’s the thing. Here’s a project that’s really a church project. There’s something there for the young people, for the contemporary saints, for those who are not so contemporary or traditional, there’s something there for traditional people, there’s something there for praise and worshipers, this album encompasses a church in service. Just think about it. Derrick Starks is such a genius. A lot of the songs was inspired by sermons I preach.
The single, Hang On In There, comes from my tagline. Whenever I talk to somebody, and I’m getting off the phone I say, ‘’Hang in there.’’ If I email you, my tagline is, ‘’Hang in there, J Drew Sheard.’’ If I text you it’s, ‘’Hang in there.’’ It’s an encouragement to people that things may not be going the way you want them to but just hang in there. This album was compiled by songs that Derrick Starks and my son J Drew Sheard wrote that will minister to people and tell them to hang in there, it’s going to get better, God is going to bless you. That’s the message I’ve been preaching for just about my entire pastoral ministry. So we’re praying that that message will resound to the nation and beyond, that if you just hang in there, God is going to do something good on your behalf.
Follow the dynamic Detroit ministry and its seasoned shepherd, the senior pastor, Bishop J Drew Sheard, @ its official online home, www.geicogic.org.