By Angelena Spears, 1st Episcopal District

When May 2021 arrives, it will mark 50 years in ministry for the Rev. Terrence C. Hensford, the pastor of Ward Emmanuel AME Church in Philadelphia. In addition to establishing a reputation as a kind shepherd with a profound proficiency in preaching and teaching, he has proven himself to be astute in leading churches through periods of growth and change.

Hensford, who was born in Guyana, South America, came to the United States on a scholarship offered through the AME Church, to attend Kittrell (NC) Jr. College. He was just 16 years of age.

He was appointed to his first church, St. James AME Church in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, in 1971, at the age of 25. Two years later, he was sent to Bethel AME Church in York, Pennsylvania; and while there, he led the church to acquire a new parsonage. In 1977, he was sent to St. Mark AME Church in Elmhurst, New York, where—still under age 32—he rallied the congregation to begin a building campaign. In 1988, under his leadership, a new church was erected in Queens, New York.

In 1993, he was sent to Ward AME Church in Philadelphia. Five years ago, he led that congregation through a successful merger which became Ward Emmanuel AME Church.

Hensford says that for most of his ministry he has talked about the necessity to merge congregations and he points to the current 2016 Discipline that recommends they be considered for “congregations that are in close proximity to each other with memberships ranging from 1-50” (p. 109). “I think Richard Allen did a good thing to walk out of St. George’s and establish congregations,” says Hensford. “But that was 200 years ago and times have changed. Over the years we should have been doing a lot more mergers,” he continued.

“Some of our facilities that were established back then—some by Richard Allen, himself, who traveled by horseback and established them—cannot be sustained today with a membership of 50 people,” says Hensford. “Having a congregation of 50 people in a building that can seat 1,000, is like expecting a single parent without adequate resources to maintain a mansion,” he commented.

Hensford recalls that early in his ministry he preached a sermon from John 21:6 which he titled, “Honorable Failure.” In the sermon, he pointed out how Jesus’ instructions to the disciples to do things differently was a lesson for churches that must look at their failures and what may not be working and choose new strategies. “We need to move past our failures and not repeat them,” says Hensford.

In the case of the Ward Emmanuel merger, things fell into place quite easily. Another asset was that both churches were in the same presiding elder district: the West Mainline District of the Philadelphia Annual Conference.

Before the merger, Emmanuel was experiencing water problems and asked the Ward congregation if they could have services in their building. Ward quickly consented and Emmanuel began worshipping in their building on Sunday afternoons, immediately after the Ward services. This arrangement lasted a year while the repairs were being made to Emmanuel’s church building. During this time, Hensford made it clear that they would not charge Emmanuel any money or fees, instead, he encouraged them to “just come and worship.”

One year later, after returning to their building, Emmanuel faced additional problems and asked to merge with Ward. Hensford believes that the hospitality Ward extended to them, including the decision not to charge them for their usage of the church, is what led to the amiable desire to merge.

The two congregations immediately blended and the vote for the official merge took place at the annual conference in May of 2015. Ward Emmanuel’s presiding elder, the Rev. Dr. Charles H. Lett, Sr. says, “Pastor Hensford’s previous experience—in building a church and leading a church in purchasing a parsonage—came into play in helping Emmanuel and Ward come together as one.”