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New Season of Ministry

called to New Season of Ministry

Moody Board of Trustees member James T. Meeks retiring after 38 years as Salem Baptist's founder and senior pastor
  • Jeff Smith
  • December 21, 2022
  • ~ 6 minute read

The Rev. James T. Meeks has been an inspiring speaker at Founder's Week conferences in Chicago. Photo by Lawrence Bohlin

By Jeff Smith

January 15, 2023 will be an emotional day at Salem Baptist Church on Chicago’s south side. After 38 years as its senior pastor and 43 years of pastoring, the Rev. James T. Meeks will preach his last sermon inside Salem’s venerable 10,000-seat auditorium before retiring from the church he founded on January 13, 1985.

The Rev. Meeks’ passion, wisdom, and leadership enabled Salem to blossom into the largest African American church in Illinois, welcoming 20,000 members at the height of its growth. Yet, when asked what he’d most like others to remember about his memorable tenure at Salem, his response revealed the heart of a man who knew the Lord's ultimate mission for him.

“That I know God, I know His Word, and I know how to lead others to Him,” said the 65-year-old Meeks, who pastored Beth Eden Baptist Church in Chicago’s East Wilken Park for six years before founding Salem. “That I met God, I learned the Word, and I know God for myself.”

Rev. Meeks’ commitment to studying, obeying, and teaching biblical truth made him a natural fit for Moody Bible Institute’s Board of Trustees, where he has served since 2016. While Rev. Meeks is retiring from Salem, his work as a trustee at Moody will continue for years to come.

“The one main thing that is our passion as a board is to make sure that there is no biblical drift in anything we do at Moody,” he said. “We want to make sure that the Bible is always at the center of all that we say and do. The authority of Scripture is paramount to what we do at Moody. There are so many institutions today where so many other things become their authority. We want to make sure the Bible is always front and center as Moody’s primary focus and that we experience no biblical drift going forward.”

As he prepares for retirement from Salem Baptist—though he will remain active guiding Salem's philanthropic ministry and mentoring younger pastors—Rev. Meeks took time to share his thoughts on a variety of topics with the Alumni & Friends Journal.

A&F: What made you decide that 2023 was the right time to retire as Salem Baptist Church’s senior pastor?

Rev. Meeks: When you look at biblical acts in history, David was only the king of Israel for 40 years. His son Solomon was king for 40 years. Moses is the great exception, but his leadership went on in Israel for three periods of 40 years. It appears to me that 40 years of leadership—it seems as if that amount of time is when you can go your strongest and run your furthest and your fastest. God has allowed us to build such a great congregation. I feel the congregation doesn’t need a leader that’s slowing down. The congregation needs a leader who is catching his stride.

Do you believe God is calling you to a new season of life and ministry?

Rev. Meeks: In the seasons of your 20s to your 60s, that’s your season for building, to plant your flag and build. But after you reach 60, that’s your season for mentoring. You grab the next generation and you pour into them all that God has taught you. After I reached that season of 40 years of pastoring, it’s time to pour into the next generation and mentor them. Those that are mentoring shouldn’t be doing the main work. When a guy gives it up at age 75 or 80, you don’t have much time or energy left to mentor the next generation. It happens across the board. In sports, a 40-year-old athlete can’t compete against a 20-year-old athlete. Those people have to move on and allow the next generation to thrive.

When you look back over almost four decades of pastoring Salem, what amazes you most about all that God has done through you and your church?

Rev. Meeks: I’m amazed at how eager people are to understand the Bible. You hear it said frequently today that we live in a generation of nonbelievers now who don’t believe in the authority of Scripture, but I don’t buy it. The reason I don’t buy it is that most people haven’t been introduced to the book. When they are introduced to the book and learn and apply what they learn from the book, they are amazed at how it can change their lives. They simply need the opportunity to comprehend it, apply it to their lives, and see it work in their lives.

When God’s Word changes people’s lives, those people will go and get other people and bring them to church—their family members and friends and coworkers who watch this metamorphosis take place in their loved one’s life. Then they know there’s something to it because they know how their loved one once was, and so they come to see what it’s all about because of the change they saw in the life of their loved one.

In your time as pastor, what are the two or three most important ways that God has grown you?

Rev. Meeks: God has grown in me two things. One is soul winning. When I look back, I’ve figured out that everybody in church can be a soul winner if everybody is properly instructed on how to win souls and does it with a soul-winning mentality or spirit. One year our church won 25,000 people to the Lord. The reason we won so many souls to Jesus is because we taught the whole church how to win a soul. Most people in our church can win a soul to Christ. I’m excited about that.

I’m also excited about the fact that people will volunteer. They just have to have a message. There’s a passage in Scripture where Peter’s mother-in-law is sick. Jesus heals her, and the mother-in-law then ministers to their needs. When people are touched by Jesus, their next act is to minister to volunteer or serve. A lot of pastors have not learned to use the Scriptures to teach people what their spiritual gifts are. There are a lot of untapped people in the church who have not been taught how valuable their service is to the body of Christ and what their spiritual gifts are. The key is to make room for them to serve.

What is the most important lesson that God has taught you as a pastor?

Rev. Meeks: God has taught me that everybody is flawed. There’s not an individual on the face of the earth who is not flawed. Everybody brings his or her own issues or baggage with them when they come to a church. It is up to me and the members of that church to love flawed individuals. The church is a hospital. No matter how well-dressed anybody is, they all have issues. Jesus died for flawed humanity and loves flawed humanity, so we have no choice but to love flawed people, embrace them, meet them where they are, let them work through whatever issues there are, and love them.

How has this lesson played out in your 43 years as a pastor?

Rev. Meeks: This sounds morbid, but when a person loses a loved one and they’re at their absolute lowest, I love being the person who walks in the room to remind them of God’s ability and love in the midst of our weaknesses. I like being there for people and with people as they lay their mother to rest and they’re holding their hand and I’m reminding them that God loves them and will always be there for them. I understand that people need somebody who can be strong for them at that point.

At Christmas I have been doing a ritual for the last 35 years. I call everybody at Christmas who has lost a mother that year. Last year I think I called 79 people who lost their mother that year. I call and say, ‘This is Rev. Meeks. I’m just calling to let you know that I understand this is your first Christmas without your mother and I wanted to remind you that your mother is in heaven celebrating Jesus’ birthday.’ What greater joy is there than to remind people of such a profound truth?

Can you tell us about Charlie Dates, your successor as senior pastor at Salem?

Rev. Meeks: I feel Charlie Dates is more than ready to become successor. I think the reason a lot of people don’t retire is the successor is not apparent. In my case Charlie served for eight years as my preaching assistant, then pastored a church in Chicago (Progressive Baptist Church) for 10 years. I always knew in my heart of hearts that God had chosen someone to fill my role when I retire. It’s not fair of me to hold on and make him wait till he’s 50 or 55.

About the Author

  • Jeff Smith

Jeff Smith is editorial manager for Marketing Communications at Moody Bible Institute.