Staying the course while steadying church’s finances is Rev. James’ mission

Jeremy M. Lazarus | 11/30/2023, 6 p.m.
The Rev. A. Lincoln James Jr. still isn’t ready to use the “R” word. Rev. James still has a spring …
The Rev. A. Lincoln James Jr. reviews a document as the Rev. Wendy Bullock, deputy minister and minister of Christian education, looks on. Photo by Jeremy Lazarus//Richmond Free Press

The Rev. A. Lincoln James Jr. still isn’t ready to use the “R” word.

Rev. James still has a spring to his step, an energetic approach and plenty of words to share with the Trinity Baptist Church congregation he has led for 43 years, or most of his 53-year ministry career.

But at 78, Rev. James, Trinity’s fifth minister since its founding in 1906, knows that the time is approaching when he finally will speak the word “retire.”

“My father led a Chicago church for 52 years,” he said in an interview as he and the congregation prepared to mark Trinity’s 117th birthday. “I have no plans to match his longevity.”

High Notes

Five choirs and The Herbert Sisters quartet will take part in a gala public celebration of Trinity Baptist Church’s 117th birthday 3 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 2, in the 1,000-seat sanctuary at 2811 Fendall Ave. in North Side, it has been announced.

Along with the singing sisters, the featured groups will include the First African Baptist Church Mass Choir, the Rock Hill Baptist Church Mass Choir, the St. Elizabeth Catholic Church Mass Choir, the St. Paul Baptist Church Male Chorus and Virginia Union University’s Gospel Choir.

Minister Latonia T. Dean Thomas will serve as the worship leader for the event that is open to the public, according to the church that was launched in 1906.

The production will precede the anniversary celebration that will take place during Trinity’s 10 a.m. worship service Sunday, Dec. 3.

Rev. James actually began “mulling the idea of retirement” after he turned 70 and after the death of his first wife, Mary P. James, in December 2020.

One reason for staying, said Rev. James, who has since remarried, is to help steady the church’s finances.

Trinity, which is among Richmond’s larger North Side congregations, has felt the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in the form of reduced membership and giving, he said.

The church lists 1,000 members on its rolls, but records suggest that only about 600 are active, far fewer than during the church’s peak when the numbers were nearly double.

The Barton Heights area surrounding the church also has undergone dramatic change as new investment, renovation and soaring home prices have attracted newcomers who are less interested in joining a pre-dominantly Black church.

A major chunk of the church’s monthly income, Rev. James said, is directed toward paying off the note on the Trinity Family Life Center, a 29,000-square-foot multipurpose building located on Dill Road, nearly two miles northwest of the main sanctuary at 2811 Fendall Ave.

Trinity Family Life Center

Trinity Family Life Center

On its attractively designed website, the center lists the Trinity Village Child Development Center among its services. The development center, designed for children ages 2½ to 12 years of age, “promotes spiritual, social, and cognitive development,” to expose youngsters to a world of learning through play and exploration as well as a structured classroom setting.”

Other programs and services include a wellness center, venue rental, motherhood and co-parenting classes and various “cafes” to help empower and energize young people and others in the community.

Although Rev. James considers building and opening the center in 2009 as a highlight of his tenure, paying off the $3 million debt is more of a struggle than he and other congregational leaders expected.

It will be several years until the center’s last payment is made, he said. Though known for his optimistic approach, he no longer is certain that he will be Trinity’s pastor when the center’s mortgage is burned.

However, when he decides to retire, Rev. James can point to a career of which he can be proud.

Ticking off a list of accomplishments through the years, he includes a successful, years-long campaign to get the lay leadership and congregation to accept female deacons. Today, he also has a female minister, the Rev. Wendy Bullock, as the No. 2 at the church as well as the minister of Christian education.

Rev. James is a past president of the Virginia Baptist State Convention, served on the boards of Richmond Virginia Seminary, the University of Lynchburg and was an officer of the National Congress of Christian Education.

He also has served as an adjunct professor at several universities, including the seminary at Virginia Union University where he earned his master’s of divinity degree.

He has honorary doctorates from McKinley Theological Seminary in Jackson, Miss. and Baltimore Seminary and College in Maryland.

The scion of a family that has produced multiple ministers, Rev. James was born in San Antonio and grew up in Chicago, where he was determined to follow in his father’s footsteps into ministry.

He earned his bachelor’s degree in psychology at North Park College and Seminary in Chicago before coming to Richmond to take graduate courses at VUU where an uncle, Dr. Allix B. James, served as president.

Rev. James said he was still at student when he was called to lead his first church, Calvary Baptist in Kilmarnock.

Before assuming leadership at Trinity in 1980, he served simultaneously as pastor of Tabernacle Baptist Church in Petersburg and Pleasant Grove Baptist in Prince George County.

If and when he steps down at Trinity, he wants to continue to minister at a rural church similar to Calvary or Pleasant Grove, he said, recalling the warm embrace both churches gave him as a young part-time minister.