Lisa Collins, Staff
A monthlong series of events held this month have been set aside to mark the retirement of Bishop Kenneth Ulmer as senior pastor of one of L.A. County’s largest churches, Faithful Central Bible Church. For four decades Ulmer has shaken up the region’s church scene and transformed not only the way faith leaders do church, but the way people view church—with bold moves like the purchase of the Inglewood Forum, the hiring of a gospel superstar to revamp his youth ministry, partnerships with white evangelicals, a controversial church name change that followed his high-profile Bapticostal transformation as a co-founding Bishop in the Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship; and his masterful synchronization of music to the pulpit with the aid of the late Barbara Allen.
Along the way, he’s authored a string of books including “The Champion in You” and “Spiritually Fit to Run the Race”; preached in the Orange Bowl before an audience of over 100,000 white evangelicals at Promise Keepers; taught an annual summer course at London’s Oxford University for the last 25 years; and currently serves as Presiding Bishop of the Johannesburg, South Africa-based, Macedonia International Bible Fellowship. All of which has made him an international force in the global faith community.
Locally, nothing major happens in the city of Inglewood—where he has been considered a key stakeholder—without his knowledge. He’s prayed with Whitney Houston and Britney Spears, stood for the likes of Madonna (who while performing at the Forum aided the church when the unions were trying to shut it down), been a key stop for politicians seeking office, and in his quest to build a congregation of champions has helped to transform the lives of thousands through the more than 75 ministries and outreaches the church operates.
“Sometimes you can be so close to greatness that you don’t really see the impact until you step back”, said one pastor. But that is not really the case with Ulmer, who has been dubbed by Bishop Charles Blake as “one of the most premier Pastors in the Los Angeles church area and the Kingdom of God”, while adding that his preaching of God’s word surpassed the boundaries of denomination, race, gender and geography.
“Bishop Kenneth Ulmer changed the way our generation of leaders thinks of the black church,” observed Pastor Michael J.T. Fisher of the Compton-based, Greater Zion Church Family. “The purchase and sale of the Forum encouraged young pastors like me to think beyond offerings and bake sales to sustain the vision and the church.”
Dr. Frederick K. Price of Crenshaw Christian Center called him, “A scholar of scholars and a pastor of pastors, “who has transformed so many lives through his teaching of the Word and counseling God’s people.”
“Bold, brilliant and beloved; he’s a leaders’ leader. He’s not only a pillar in the Inglewood community; he’s a prophetic voice to the nations of this world. I thank God for the Bishop of champions,” noted Center of Hope Pastor Geremy Dixon.
And Pastor Joseph Carlos Robinson said of Ulmer, “If there was an ecclesiastical version of Mt. Rushmore, Bishop Kenneth Ulmer’s face would deserve to be carved in it.”
Yet for all he has accomplished, nothing has come easy and while the accolades flow freely now, Ulmer can readily recall the resistance that came with his ascension in Christendom, which began in East St. Louis with a mother who raised all three of her children in church and a young Kenneth Ulmer who got his first check as a musician playing for Sunday School at the age of 12.
Looking back, he laughs, “While most of my friends started [preaching] in high school, I was old…in my 30’s. My journey was always through music.”
True to his word, he accepted his call to ministry while serving as minister of music at Mt. Moriah Baptist Church.
“My father in the ministry, Dr. Melvin V. Wade Sr., was preaching a sermon on Jonah titled “You Can Run, But You Can’t Hide”. I had been running for two years because what I saw as a model of effective ministry — the style, ambiance, and culture—were all pictures of a different kind of gift. Some folks even made jokes about me. They would say he’s a pretty good Sunday school teacher, but he’ll never be a preacher.”
More to the point, his gift was not so much preaching as it was teaching and just as importantly, discipleship, a word he says he never heard growing up.
Undeterred, he organized Macedonia Bible Baptist Church in 1980 with his wife, Togetta sister, Kathy and a friend as its first members. Two years later with the death of then Faithful Central Missionary Baptist Church Pastor W.L. Robinson, his name was floated as a possible replacement.
Though skeptical at first, in 1982, he took over as pastor of the church named for its “central location and faithful folks”.
In those early days, Ulmer said active membership was between 140-150 members with the church nearly half full, but with his fiery and colorful delivery of the word, that wouldn’t be the case for long.
But not everyone was happy about the church’s explosive growth over the next two years or some of the moves Ulmer was making, including the discontinuation of a Baptist staple, Sunday School.
“People were saying hateful stuff,” Faithful Central Associate Pastor Jordan Allen recalled. “One woman said, ‘You mean to tell me you’re going to cut off another man’s work,” as if Pastor Robinson had invented Sunday School.
“What they didn’t understand,” Allen continued, “is what he was basically saying is we need to teach the word in a Bible study format.”
Things got so bad that another minister was called in to mediate and bring peace, but some of the members closed the doors and wouldn’t let the minister in.
As peace was eventually restored, the church quickly outgrew its Hoover location and while believing for a larger location, began holding services at Washington High School. After two years, the church secured a deal to buy what is now its Trinity Building complex in the heart of Inglewood.
“We came over and did the Old Jericho march around the property,” Ulmer recounts. “We named it, claimed it and I announced one Sunday that God had given us this property. Well, a few weeks later, we were outbid, and the deal fell through. In what was one of my lowest points in ministry, a lady came up to me at Washington High School, put her finger in my face and said, ‘You are a false prophet. You said God gave us that property.’
“Here’s why that was the lowest point”, he explained, “because I know God said we had that building and if I missed God on that, what else did I miss God on?”
Hundreds of people left the church as did that very woman.
“Two years later,” Ulmer picks up the story, “I’m driving to the airport and I get a phone call. The voice says, ‘Well, Reverend, you can have your building now. The deal fell through and the property’s back on the market’.
“Now, we marched around that property ready to pay $5.2 million. Two years later, we bought that building for $2.5 million. I’m still looking for that woman that called me a false prophet,” he jokes.
He can laugh at it now, but with every major move he made, the church lost people.
“When we left San Pedro, we dissolved that [existing church] corporation. That was the first time—wouldn’t be the last—that I was accused of following the devil.”
As the church grew, so did his popularity among White evangelicals, —a door opened by the late Dr. E.V. Hill Sr., who initially recommended him as a speaker for Promise Keepers.
“E.V Hill taught me the power of portability. He could preach for white Presbyterians in the morning and come back and speak to Church of God in Christ in the evening,” Ulmer notes.
The “portability” Ulmer went on to perfect would garner him invites to platforms that included the likes of Robert Schuller and lifelong friendships with Lloyd Ogilvie, Rick Warren and the late Jack Hayford, who would take $100K out of his retirement to help Ulmer close the Forum deal.
Ulmer’s exposure to different expressions of faith subsequently sparked a spiritual journey that led to a theological shift.
“That shift change started with a personal hunger for more of God,” Ulmer reveals. “It started when a friend of mine told me that I was going to Hell because I didn’t speak in tongues. That sparked the personal, private journey and theological shift.”
With that shift Faithful Central Missionary Baptist Church became Faithful Central Bible Church, sparking yet another controversy.
“When I made the shift from being traditionally Baptist to being more charismatic, more Pentecostal, speaking in tongues and gifts like that, I got shut out of a lot of places and ex-communicated from a lot of circles,” Ulmer said. “In fact, I had friends who stopped speaking to me, literally.”
And yet every step of the way, he says God kept telling him, ‘it’s bigger.’
So too, was his growing membership and once again, there were plans for expansion.
The goal was 5,000 seats but constructing an edifice to accommodate that on this current property was projected to cost them $44 million, according to developers, and even then, seating would be tight. At about the same time, Ulmer heard the Forum was up for sale and its price tag was just $22 million.
That was the first of several reasons the Forum deal made perfect sense for Faithful Central. Seating was another given the arena’s capacity of 17,500. They could also operate it as a business and at the same time, help the community of Inglewood considering that losing the Forum—one of Inglewood’s “Big Five” driving businesses—would have meant economic ramifications for the City of Inglewood as well as a loss of jobs for some of its residents.
“We were told the sale was a done deal,” Ulmer said. “That there was a contract signed and sealed to tear the Forum down. It was going to be like a residential area with a beautiful park. But, they said, if you can get the developer to change his mind, we’re okay with that. So, I went to the guy and we cut a deal.”
Then, came the hard part—funding.
“Preachers made jokes about us,” Ulmer recounts of one of his most trying times. “The church community laughed at us. The business community laughed at us. Nobody wanted to fund the Forum sale. No one bank would take the deal.
“One banker told me, ‘I don’t want any parts of this. This deal will never happen. This meeting is over and put me out of his office.’”
But the church had no plan B. So Ulmer dug in deeper and the battle cry for Faithful Central members boiled down to one simple word: “Believe”.
Says Ulmer, “We had to put together a consortium of six banks to do that deal. That’s how we got to buy it.”
With the final documents signed on December 31st, 1999, the sale of the Forum to Faithful Central made headlines across the nation and marked the first time a church had purchased an arena of that size. The L.A. Times wrote, “One of the state’s largest churches plans to announce today that it has acquired the Great Western Forum in Inglewood and will convert the storied arena into one of the largest houses of worship in the country while continuing to operate it as an entertainment venue.”
The move, for many, exemplified the power of the Black church.
“It showed the strength of what a church could do outside of their four walls, bringing communities to prosper, becoming part of the economic upswing of Inglewood and the entire region,” stated Gerard McCallum, a Board of Director on the Inglewood Chamber of Commerce and former Executive Vice President of Forum Enterprises.
But, says Ulmer, the story of the Forum has not been told well and he wanted to take this opportunity to set the record straight.
“First of all, we never bought the forum to turn it into a church,” he states unequivocally. “We never put a cross in there. We never put a pew in there”.
“Number two, we never bought the forum to keep it,” he continued. “I wanted to keep it ten years and because of the dip in 2008 in the economy, we kept it 12 years before selling it to Madison Square Garden.
“We operated the Forum as an entertainment venue. There is not a group from 2000 to 2012 that did not play that room, including Madonna and Prince who played 13 dates. But on Sunday morning, something transformed that venue into the holiness of God.”
Ironically, one of the key factors Ulmer attributes to the church’s sustenance during the Forum years was what was happening in his 1,850-seat Tabernacle with his youth ministry.
“There was a different generation in there—a generation I could not reach,” Ulmer confesses.
In yet another bold move, he reached out to gospel superstar Kirk Franklin, who for the next five years would serve as youth minister of what was dubbed as “The Takeover”.
“I came over one Sunday and there were over a thousand kids on their faces weeping to the Lord,” recalls Ulmer, who pauses for a moment before continuing his thought. “This church would not be what it is now if God had not sent Kirk Franklin.”
Those youth —now grown up—are key to Ulmer’s thriving membership of more than 10,000, now holding worship at The Tabernacle.
The church’s return to the Tabernacle after selling the Forum was thought by some to be a step down. A notion that might have been fueled by an August 2010 L.A. Times article titled, “Forum’s struggles turn it into a financial drain on the church that owns it”, detailing the legal wrangling between the church and the management company it partnered with to acquire concerts, but would later accuse of scaring—and or steering— business away from the Forum.
Ulmer, however, insists, “It was not a step down. It was a change of seasons and God kept moving.”
Today at 75, he doesn’t have a lot of regrets.
“It’s been a good ride,” he maintains. “I did my best and I’m comfortable in that because number one, I know those seasons have changed. Number two, because I really believe that God has sent the right man [in John-Paul Foster] and my first responsibility—which I see as a call— is to pastor the pastor. I want to be to him what I did not have.
“The second thing: I will be the spiritual advisor to this ministry,” he went on. “He’s the pastor, but I will be honored to be a Paul to this young Timothy. I’m not leaving the church. I’ll be advisor. There are many people who are not going to ask him to do their funeral or weddings. He didn’t go to the hospital and visit them. He didn’t bless their babies. We both are okay with that. I want to be there for the people who are there so that he can have time and room to bring the people who are not there.”
While his last official service is on February 19, he will preach again on Father’s Day and every Father’s Day thereafter. In the meantime, he says he’s “repositioning” in the kingdom.
“I’m senior advisor to the president of Biola University,” he points out. “And some of the classes that people have paid $2000 for at Oxford, I’m going to do some of those same classes at Faithful Central now.”
Then there is his Macedonia International Bible Fellowship (MIBF) of more than 300 members representing 120 pastors, through which he has inspired a whole new generation of leaders.
States MIBF member, Bishop Van Moody, “Part of the reason he’s impacted so many leaders in our country, but also globally, is not just because he’s a great preacher, and he’s one of the greatest preachers of our generation; not just because he’s an academician par excellent (and yes, he is one of the greatest thinkers of our time) but it’s bigger. He’s a great man, a great husband, a great father. Those are the intangibles many in my generation look for as a sign of hope that we can make it and do it the right way.”
Pastor Touré Roberts, whose OneLA is one the city’s leading multi-ethnic churches, concurs.
“Over the course of my pursuit of God and His plans for my life, I’ve been blessed to learn from many great men and women of God”, Roberts says. “But there is one servant who stands out a great deal from the rest, and under his leadership I discovered the voice of God. That discovery would change the trajectory of my life forever. That servant is Dr. Kenneth C. Ulmer who has not only impacted my life in a truly transformational way, but the lives of an entire generation in this great city of Los Angeles and beyond.”