Sharp, pastor of Faith Tabernacle Baptist Church in Chicago, graduated with a doctor of educational ministry degree, calling it "the fulfillment of a lifelong dream."
"Education has always been something that has been appealing to me," said Sharp, who, as the youngest of five children, was the first to finish elementary school. He later received degrees from DePaul University and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and started taking master's-level seminary courses at Southern's extension campus in Chicago 14 years ago.
Sharp, who has twice served as president of the IBSA board of directors, was Faith Tabernacle's organizing pastor 47 years ago and has led the church ever since.
Pursuing further education was "something I felt like, if nothing else, for the sake of the family, I needed to do," Sharp said.
It also has had an impact on his congregation. "That has been the response I get from some of the folks: 'You really inspire me, I need to get back in school,' particularly from the young people in our congregation," Sharp said. "It becomes significant for us ... when such a high dropout rate among African American young people, especially boys."
Sharp began pursuing his doctoral degree wholeheartedly five years ago, completing his coursework and beginning work on his doctoral project. His studies were sidelined by triple bypass surgery last year, but he credits his professors with graciously working with him so he could receive his degree during Southern's winter commencement in December in Louisville, Ky.
Sharp's final project was titled "A Strategy to Strengthen African American Families at the Faith Tabernacle Baptist Church in Chicago, Illinois." For the research component of his project, he led a 12-week seminar exploring the concept of the African American family through history, including how the church has traditionally related to those families. His findings, based on pre- and post-seminar surveys, already are impacting how he leads his church.
"As I began to work on my project and material for it, it really reinforced the notion that the church has to address the issue of family," Sharp said. "Now, of course, when we talk about family today, it's not the Cleaver family. You've got single-parent families, either divorced or never-married heads of household, multi-generational families where you have two or three generations living in the same household."
His studies helped him identify issues facing his church as it relates to families, such as "How do we say to the single mom, 'There's a place here for you, and you also have worth, you also have value,'" Sharp said. "How can we as a church love you where you are, and help you in your struggle?"
Sharp said his educational experience also added freshness to the details of pastoring, from the technology he uses (he preaches from an electronic tablet) to his communication style.
As the pastor of a multi-generational church, Sharp preaches every Sunday to the children and grandchildren of some of Faith Tabernacle's first members. "Some of those who were teenagers years ago, they're now grandparents. I'm now like a great-grandparent to some of them. How do I communicate with them?" the pastor said.
Maintaining freshness in communication is just one of the challenges pastors face in staying up to date, Sharp said, especially if they've led the same church for many years. "One of the issues confronting long-term pastors is the routine of pastoring. One has to be very, very careful. It's very easy to fall into routine," he said.
The benefits of education, Sharp said, far outweigh the small drawbacks, like having to learn a new writing style or measuring tiny discrepancies in the margins of his final paper. The process was "really just simply fantastic," Sharp said. "It was a learning experience in and of itself. It was a challenge; it was a good challenge."
Meredith Flynn is associate editor of the Illinois Baptist, newsjournal of the Illinois Baptist State Association.
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