The pastor of Saint Phillips Baptist Church in Hamilton, Joseph E. Woods, describes his sermons as having a “Martin Luther King aura and style, with a little more energy.”
Woods is himself the son of a pastor, who served for 24 years at Bright Hope Baptist Church in Montclair, where Woods was born and raised. In 2010, Woods became pastor at Saint Phillips, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year.
Looking at common threads for black Americans a hundred years ago and today, Woods cites the consistency of God and the importance of the church. “Historically in the African American community, the black church has played a dominant role in the life of the community and individual families, and it hasn’t changed.”
That’s still the case at Saint Phillips, which serves as a spiritual, civic and social hub for its 300-member congregation. Under Woods’ guidance, the membership has grown significantly, the church became debt free, and the church house was gutted and renovated. He has improved organization at the administrative level, advanced the church’s use of technology, and strengthened its financial base. He has started several new ministries: the Seasoned Saints Ministry for members 60 and over, the Joshua Generation for members under 35, and the Brothers on the Bridge to minister to the men. He has also expanded the number of women appointed to positions in the church.
Woods has also served as general secretary of General Baptist Convention of N.J., instructor for the National Baptist Congress of Christian Education, and is founder and moderator of the Higher Ground Association of Baptist Churches of New Jersey.
Recently, he was named to serve on the Hamilton Township economic development commission. He serves on the minority recruitment team for Hamilton Township School District. He has strengthened the relationship between the church and the Wilson Center, and now serves on its board of directors. In 2015, under his aegis, the portion of Parkinson Avenue where the church is located was officially designated “Saint Phillips Drive.”
Saint Phillips works hard to develop a partnership between its members’ homelife and the school system. Six years ago, Woods received data from the school district that many black students were behind, particularly in reading and math, although an achievement gap existed in all areas. He met with the superintendent of schools and the principal of Grice Middle School to talk about how to combat the achievement gap. They decided that tutoring offered at Saint Phillips might make a difference.
At first tutoring was on Thursday afternoons at the church, but today it is at both Grice and Wilson Elementary School; volunteers include volunteer teachers from the two schools as well as leaders from the church.
Woods himself is chair of the district’s Community Committee, comprising members of the Board of Education, teachers, administrators, parents, students from the district, and concerned community members who meet monthly to discuss issues in the schools. A subcommittee that is looking at the disparity in school suspensions among students of different races. While black students constitute 19.1 percent of Hamilton’s school population, Woods said they receive 60 percent of school suspensions.
They are still working through the numbers and evaluating policies and procedures, and exploring the source of the disparity. Woods said one issue could be “teacher sensitivity.”
“If I’m a teacher who may not understand black students, is my tolerance level lower?” he said. “When they express themselves, it may appear to be anger, but it could be excitement that I don’t really understand. Could that end up with that child finding himself in school suspension or in the principal’s office and could that start the process of this pipeline from school to prison?”
The subcommittee on suspension is also addressing minority teacher recruitment and retention.
“We want to see administrative and teaching staff that is as diverse as our population so that a white student knows how it feels to interact with a black staff member—in addition to a black child going into a class and seeing somebody who looks like them,” Woods says.
The church works hard to encourage parental engagement with their children’s education.
“We collect report cards and acknowledge students on fourth Sundays; and if they are not doing as well, we have the tutoring piece,” Woods says. From the pulpit they also announce events like back-to-school nights and school board meetings, and urge parents to attend. The church’s message is “be educated and informed parents so you can help your child be successful and navigate through this crazy world,” he says.
Woods saw that, as a pastor, ‘your life is not your own. You are called to be a servant of God and a servant of others.’
Woods also regularly visits school assemblies so that children in his congregation know he is interested in their education.
Woods draws the energy for all this from his own upbringing.
Woods’ parents moved to Montclair, in the late 1950s from their native Louisburg, North Carolina, about 30 minutes north of Raleigh, to find work. His father, William E. Woods, a welder and a mechanic, was called to the ministry in 1978 and retired in 2002. His mother was a nursing assistant at St. Vincent’s Hospital, which is now a nursing home.
Woods, who says he was thinking about the ministry from his early teens, learned a couple things about being a pastor from his father. First, he saw that the call to the ministry is “some experience that you can look back and say God has placed on my heart a desire to serve him and serve mankind in a unique way.” He also saw that, as a pastor, “your life is not your own. You are called to be a servant of God and a servant of others.”
Woods, the youngest of three, says Montclair was a great place to grow up, with its mixture of cultures and ethnicities. School was also a positive experience for him. He was part of a gifted and talented program and was student government president from elementary through high school.
“As long as I can remember, I have always had a leadership role,” he says. “Most times it just seemed to emerge; I show up and the next thing I know I was president. That is part of the call and giftedness that God puts in me.”
Woods’ political engagement started at 18, when he was civil rights commissioner of Montclair; at that time he was also being considered as a candidate for mayor of Montclair.
He attended Montclair State College from 1991 to 1993, majoring in political science and minoring in journalism. While in school, he came down with double pneumonia, a more serious development from the bronchitis he experienced each winter as a child. At that time, he was a full-time student, civil rights commissioner, active at his church, and running a youth center connected to the church; his doctor told him in no uncertain terms that he was going to have to give something up, for health reasons.
Committed to the youth center, where he was also earning money, he decided to leave Montclair State for a semester, but also made a critical decision for his future.
“In the midst of prayer, I decided it was time to shift from political science and dive fully into my call,” he says.
As people were waiting for him to announce whether he would be running for mayor of Montclair, he transferred to Lancaster Bible College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, a 98-percent white school, where he focused on pastoral ministry, theology, and Christian education. Planning to focus on his schoolwork and not get involved in community events, he was elected as chaplain when a girl he didn’t know pointed to him at a class meeting and said, “We think you would be the perfect chaplain.”
He had been commuting weekends back to his father’s church, and preaching there monthly on youth Sunday. But in September 1993, he decided the commute was too much and joined Bright Side Baptist Church in Lancaster, where he was promptly invited by the pastor to organize the youth ministry.
A year later, Woods says God led him to run for student body president at the traditionally conservative Lancaster Bible College, and he became the first African American to hold that position. But the black worship experience he was accustomed to made his fellow students uncomfortable, and he even saw them shunning the similar approach of a white Pentecostal student.
He felt an obligation to present them with “a different approach to the ministry.” As student government president, he spoke twice a year at chapel, which was an opportunity for him to use song and piano, along with the guitars they brought along, to offer a different way of worshiping God.
“It was like night and day in the atmosphere,” he said. “In chapel they would clap and be engaged. I think it opened some eyes and hopefully some hearts in a different way.”
In May 1994, he preached his last sermon as youth minister at Bright Side Baptist Church, ready to focus more on preparing for a senior pastoral role. The night before, at a community event at the church, dressed in jeans, a choir member asked him to substitute for a missing choir member at a different church, Union Baptist Church of Morristown.
The organist at Union Baptist, who had previously played at Woods’ father’s church in Montclair, asked Woods whether he would be willing to preach one Sunday, because they were looking for a new pastor and needed to fill a few sermon slots. They asked Woods to preach on Memorial Day weekend, when attendance is typically slim.
Woods preached “my normal fiery sermon,” but the expected response was not there.
“I’m used to, ‘Amen, hallelujah,’ call and response,” he says, but “they’re sitting there looking at me, and I feel like I’m in a theater.” They did give him a standing ovation at the end, but he left feeling like the sermon had been “a show.”
Cornered on his way to changing his clothes after the service, the chair of the pulpit committee told him the congregation had enjoyed his preaching and asked if he was interested in submitting a resume for the pastor position. He was flummoxed and told the chair he needed a minute.
“I literally ran out of the office to my car, to get out of this place,” he says.
But at his car he found the pulpit committee chair, who he was certain had been walking in the opposite direction. The man handed him the application despite the rule that a candidate had to request an application. “We’re going to break the rules; fill this out.”
Woods drove up to Montclair, where he shared his feelings about the church with his family. His sister told him to fill out the application: “Since you’re not excited about it, you won’t be hurt if you don’t get the job.” He completed it on the spot and dropped it at a mailbox in Morristown so the church would get it by the deadline.
‘I love what I do, and I love who I’m doing it with. I know without a shadow of a doubt that I’m supposed to the seventh pastor of Saint Phillips Baptist Church.’
Somehow, the application got waylaid. Since it was postmarked on time, they invited him to come back and preach as a candidate. This time, he says, “there are more people, and there are ‘Amens.’” He learned that the previous pastor, there for 28 years, had not only preached in a monotone, but also taught the congregation that clapping in church was wrong; so the ovation he had gotten had broken a 28-year tradition. Although he was only 21, he accepted the position when about 92 or 93 percent of the congregation voted in his favor.
In his first year, the membership grew from 122 to 400 and after three years to 906 active members and more on the rolls, but Woods was feeling “a void and emptiness.” He says, “I felt as though the church was growing tremendously but I wasn’t; the role felt mechanical.”
He took a one-month leave at a resort area in Pennsylvania where he prayed, fasted, and read the Bible, focusing in particular on the book of Acts, which follows the history of the church. He concluded that “a lot of what I see being called ‘church’ doesn’t look like what I see in this book, so I resigned.”
Woods spent the next 12 years “planting churches” that were community-oriented, Bible-based, Christ-centered, and focused on “bringing the heart” to prayer. A recent sermon reflects how he was feeling then.
“I think a lot of people miss God by 12 inches—the distance between our head and our heart,” he said. “When you leave your heart out, church becomes mechanical, ritualistic, and religious to the point that sometimes what should be at the center and what should be major becomes minor. I didn’t want to pastor a church like that, and I still don’t.”
Although many thought he was crazy to leave such an established position, he says, “little did they know how much I would gain here in my heart. I think the compassion, the love that I have for God and serving people, came out of that decision and that 12 years.”
The first church he “planted” was Tabernacle of Faith in Morris Plains, and that’s where he married his first wife; they divorced in 2010. The next, Eagle Faith, was back in Louisburg and Henderson, North Carolina, where Woods moved to help his retired parents settle in. The third was Antioch in Morristown.
While in North Carolina, Woods says, “I had an encounter with God that He wanted to send me back to whatever I had left.” Woods interpreted this as a sign that he should return to “a more seasoned, established Baptist church, and the last phase of my journey, which I’m hoping will be a long one. It was spoken to me about a year before I knew there was a place called Hamilton, New Jersey, or Saint Phillips Church.”
He happened to be invited to preach at Saint Phillips first in 2009. The moderator of the area Baptist churches knew Woods was back in New Jersey and in transition and suggested him to Saint Phillips, which was looking for someone to preach on a church anniversary in 2009 who was not a candidate for their open pastor position. After the service, a deacon surprised him by saying, “We have never gotten a response for a minister like we’ve seen today. Have you ever thought about coming here?” That was October 2009, and in May 2010 he was elected the seventh pastor of Saint Phillips.
Phillips has four children. His oldest, a stepson, is 26. Woods adopted his second son after his mother, Woods’ secretary at Tabernacle of Faith, died suddenly and tragically of kidney failure when the boy was 6 or 7; he had joint custody with his son’s grandmother. His second son is now working on a master’s degree at New Brunswick Theological Seminary. His two youngest children, 14 and 16, live in North Carolina with his first wife. On May 25, 2013, Woods married Heather Woods, who works in customer service for Bank of America.
Speaking about the role of God in his life, Woods says, He has ordered my steps and has been a real tangible part of my life. He is not just something do on Sundays; he is not a concept or a theory in a book. He is a living being who has directed my steps; he has been the extra one in all the heated moments and challenges of my life. It hasn’t been a perfect journey, but it’s been a good journey.”
And about his ministry at Saint Phillips, he says, “I love what I do, and I love who I’m doing it with. I know without a shadow of a doubt that I’m supposed to the seventh pastor of Saint Phillips Baptist Church. I’m not here of my own will; it is a divine leading.”