Progressive Baptist Church pastor retires after 48 years


Rev. Dr. Earl F. Miller, pictured here with his wife Eunice Miller, is retiring after 48 years in ministry, 24 of which were spent with Progressive Baptist Church on the East Side.

Rev. Dr. Earl F. Miller’s son will take over leadership of church

 

The change isn’t easy but Rev. Dr. Earl F. Miller, 76, who has been the senior pastor at Progressive Baptist Church for 24 years and leading ministry for almost 50 years, says it was time.

His son, Rev. Melvin Miller, will be leading the church after his father’s retirement on May 28.

Miller helped to establish Progressive Baptist Church on the East Side in 1992 and grew the church’s membership to more than 1,500 members. 

When congregants and those who worked with Miller talk about him, the first thing they mention is how caring he has been and that he has always put the church’s members first. 

Miller doesn’t know any other way, as he says being a pastor isn’t just about leading what happens in the church, but the whole community. 

While he seems to fit the role perfectly today, he says it wasn’t a position he chose for himself.

 

Growing up in church

 Miller was born in 1941 and raised in Jackson, Mississippi, during the height of segregation. His great grandfather, Richard Thomas, was a former slave and established a church and school, St. Thomas Baptist Church, in a town outside of Jackson. His great grandfather was able to accumulate land and deeded some of it for the church and school. 

It was here that Miller grew up and was “intimately involved” in the church. His family would drive out every Thursday for prayer nights and every Sunday for church. His mother was the Sunday school teacher and his father a deacon.

“I grew up in the church,” he says.

After graduating from high school, Miller attended Jackson State University and majored in music. For a while he worked as a high school band director and directed his church’s choir, Farish Street Church in Jackson. 

However, he says he was always asking his pastor questions, calling him and meeting him at church to discuss parts of his pastor’s sermons. He says his pastor would “reluctantly” meet with him to discuss his questions and thoughts about the sermons.

“It seemed that every Sunday when he preached he was preaching directly at me,” Miller says.

One day while meeting, Miller says his pastor shared a thought with him. “He said ‘You know what’s happening to you? The Lord is calling you to preach.’”

“I said no no no, no way, that’s not me. I can’t do that.”

“I had my plans laid out for me,” says Miller, explaining he planned to farm on some of his family’s land.

“From that point forward I couldn’t get that off my mind. I wrestled with that for the next three years.”

Miller says “the Lord brought me to a point of surrendering” and he went on to become a preacher, first attending Virginia Union University for his masters of divinity and then onto Union Theological Seminary for his doctorate of ministry. He was the first African-American in Union’s doctorate program, an experience he describes as being “tough and isolating” as he was the only person of color in the program at the time. 

 

Finding home in St. Paul

 While completing his doctorate program, Miller was the senior pastor at Mount Olivet Baptist Church in Glen Allen, Virginia.

He also served as Dean of Student Affairs for a few years at Virginia Union University.

Eventually, through connections and friends, he was called to be the pastor at Pilgrim Baptist Church in St. Paul.

When he arrived in St. Paul he says he “knew this was where the Lord wanted me.”

He served as the senior pastor at Pilgrim for 15 years before starting Progressive Baptist Church, initially meeting at a chapel at Macalester College with 75 people. 

They then met at the YWCA in St. Paul at the corner of Selby and Western avenues on Easter Sunday, 1992, with 96 people officially joining the church.

Membership was steadily growing and the Progressive Baptist Church congregation began looking for its own building.

A member of the church, Otis Clark, saw a church for sale near his home on Burns Avenue. 

It was exactly what the congregation was looking for, except the property cost $500,000 and Progressive Baptist Church had no money.

Because the church building had formerly been a Baptist church, the owners struck a deal. They wanted the building to stay in the faith, and told Miller if Progressive could raise $25,000, they could have it.

Progressive raised $40,000 and had a home. On the third Sunday of August 1992, Progressive Baptist Church held its first service in its new home.

Membership kept growing. Miller added additional services, but the church knew it was going to have to build a larger sanctuary, which was estimated to cost about $5 million.

The church raised about $3.7 million and was able to get a letter of commitment from a bank for the remaining $1.3 million. 

With the commitment letter, Progressive broke ground in 2007 and finished the addition in 2008, just as the banking crisis hit. The bank pulled the commitment and the church was left owing the remaining $1.3 million. 

On the eve of foreclosure a friend of the church, Richard Copeland, founder and owner of Thor Construction, came in to Miller’s office with a check to cover the debt. 

“The church has been a blessing,” Miller says.

 

‘It’s time’

 After 48 years of practicing ministry, Miller says he knew “it’s time” to retire. It wasn’t just ministry that he practiced over all these years: he also served as a political and community leader, explaining that the black church has always served at the center of the African-American community

“We still feel the wrath of racism,” Miller says, explaining that serving as a pastor at a black church means he is also “fighting for the rights of my people.” Miller served as president of the St. Paul NAACP for a number of years.

Many church members describe Miller’s unwavering devotion to his congregation — meeting with people when they were sick and baptizing multiple generations within families.

“He’s had a powerful impact, not only has he impacted me, but he’s impacted my family,” says Carrie Johnson. “He’s been a part of our lives for three generations.”

“He’s a kind person, he’s all about his members,” says Jo Ann Clark, a a church member and its director of educational ministries.

Otis Clark, Jo Ann’s husband and a deacon at Progressive, says Miller has always been “very compassionate, very selfless,” explaining he would often travel far to attend funerals for former members and visit people in the hospital. 

Miller and the church have celebrated his retirement all week and he will be officially “passing the baton” onto his 46-year-old son Melvin, who will take over as senior pastor after a May 28 celebration.

Miller says he has a lot of confidence in his son, explaining that he has “all kinds of creative vision,” a connection with the younger generation and that members of the church are drawn to him. 

“He has served the church and community well,” Melvin says of his father. “He is loved by many.”

“God has been good to me,” Miller says.

 

Marjorie Otto can be reached at 651-748-7816 or at eastside@lillienews.com. Follow her on Twitter at @EastSideM_Otto.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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