Bishop from Detroit ascends to Pentecostal leadership

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Bishop J. Drew Sheard always seem destined to lead a flock.

Even as a child, the Detroit native’s temperament impressed his parents, including a longtime pastor, enough to convince him he could one day head a congregation. Years after playing “church” with relatives and pretending to become a clergyman, he delivered a sermon at age 19. 

Sheard went on to helm Greater Emmanuel Institutional Church of God in Christ, which under his guidance has become among the most prominent houses of worship in the city.

“I’ve always, since I was a little boy, wanted to be a preacher,” the 62-year-old said.

Bishop J. Drew Sheard sits in the front pew of the nave at Greater Emmanuel Institutional Church of God in Christ in Detroit, Michigan on March 25, 2021.  Bishop Sheard was recently elected as the new Presiding Bishop of the Church of God in Christ (COGIC), the largest Pentecostal denomination in the country.

Now, Sheard has ascended to the largest and most high-profile position in his career.

This month, officials announced he was elected the new Presiding Bishop for the Church of God in Christ, considered the largest Pentecostal denomination in the country.

The denomination’s legislative body, the General Assembly, chose him to oversee an organization with some 10,000 churches in more than 112 countries worldwide and millions of adherents.

For a renowned bishop who has preached to massive audiences, spoken out on injustice, welcomed famous figures to his pews and appeared on television, the new role is both humbling and opportune.

“It means that I’ve got to be an example for the young men and to be able to practice what I’m preaching and to live a respectable life,” Sheard said. “At the same time, there are so many people who are looking to us for leadership so as how to deal with the social issues of our world.”

Some of his longtime associates view the elevation as a natural fit for a leader in a community deemed a spiritual hotspot.

“Detroit produces national and international leaders,” said Bishop Edgar Vann, senior pastor at Second Ebenezer Church. “It’s the achievement of a lifetime, but it’s also a great thing for the city. I can just see Detroit becoming an apex, a zenith for national activity from a faith perspective because of his leadership and so many others here who also carry great influence.”

Sheard’s designation caps a lifelong membership in the 114-year-old COGIC, which has about 400 locations in Michigan, as well as generations of pastors with deep ties. 

His grandfather led a church in Mississippi. His father, Bishop John Henry Sheard, who chairs the organization’s Board of Bishops, has long led Greater Mitchell Temple in Detroit.

Sheard graduated from Wayne State University and taught math in Detroit Public Schools, but he felt called to the ministry and started his pastorate in the 1980s, according to a church biography.

Membership swelled as Sheard focused on expanding outreach, including to youths, and shaping his team.

Beyond preaching, part of the appeal was his personal touch. 

When William Adams III sought a new church in the 1990s, he visited one Sunday and noted a stream of worshipers passing the bishop.

“For every member who walked by, he knew them by name and could identify them,” said Adams, now the church’s chief of staff. “That stood out for me and caused me to join. He was not just a person preaching but knew all of his members and was concerned about them.”

As Greater Emmanuel prospered, Sheard’s stature grew both locally and nationally through COGIC, where he gained roles such as overseeing its international youth department and becoming prelate of the Michigan North Central Jurisdiction.

In 2012, Sheard joined its General Board, considered the board of directors.

Traveling around the country and connecting with worshipers helped form a foundation for leadership, said the father and grandfather.

“I’ve been involved in every facet of the church,” said Sheard, who is married to award-winning gospel singer Karen Clark-Sheard. “It equipped me by observing and even being tutored along the way to deal with the church matters as a whole.”

Sheard also gained a broader view shaped by his time working with activists to address social issues such as discrimination, said the Rev. Charles Williams II, pastor at Historic King Solomon Baptist Church in Detroit and president of the National Action Network’s Michigan chapter.

“He has influenced and enthused so many young ministers and pastors all over the city of Detroit and all over the nation,” he said. “The Church of God in Christ will be so much better to have such a committed pastor over the whole institution.”

Even during the pandemic, when Sheard lost his mother to COVID-19, the bishop worked to give money to struggling residents, said Kiemba Knowlin, a longtime associate who now heads a church in Flint. “He has been very strategic in leveraging his influence and the capabilities of those that are close to him to make things better for people. His love for people is so genuine and sincere.”

Sheard has been working to assemble meetings and global prayer calls while pushing for an agenda in the next four years of his appointment.

Among the greatest challenges domestically, he said, are preparing congregations to address the issues that roiled cities in 2020.

“We can’t forget social justice, the Black Lives Matter (movement) and the sudden rise of the white supremacists,” Sheard said, adding related topics are set to be discussed during a virtual assembly planned in coming weeks.

Meanwhile, the bishop anticipates his new global role.

“It’s a tremendous responsibility but I believe that God is going to endow me with the strength and wherewithal to complete the task he has set before me,” Sheard said.