When telling the story of how he ended up as senior pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, Illinois, Otis Moss III makes sure to point to the figure of a woman named Esther Smith.

Smith, Moss says, was like an adopted grandmother, mentoring his father and eventually paving the way to Moss’ taking a position at Tabernacle Baptist Church in Atlanta even though he was, by his own admission, “really too young.”

Though she wasn’t a pastor or professor, Smith taught students who came to her house to practice sermons, giving them feedback and resources to develop their preaching.

She would have been a pastor, a preacher, a professor if it were not for patriarchy,” Moss said. “She was one that helped me understand the culture of the church before I got there.”

Mentorship is among the themes that Moss mentions when describing his current ministry in a conversation with host Prince Rivers. He speaks about how to be formed to adapt to different ministry contexts and how to take care of oneself during difficult times for Christian leaders.

Moss has published numerous books, including “Dancing in the Darkness: Spiritual Lessons for Thriving in Turbulent Times.” He also serves as chaplain of the Children’s Defense Fund’s Samuel DeWitt Proctor Child Advocacy Conference.

He spoke with Prince Rivers for Alban at Duke Divinity School’s podcast “Leading and Thriving in the Church” about how to navigate the current ministry landscape. The following is the full transcript of the podcast episode.


Prince Rivers: What does it mean to lead now, especially in the church, especially in this political and social climate? I’m Prince Rivers, and this is Leading and Thriving in the Church, a podcast from Alban at Duke Divinity. Our mission is to help you be the leader God has called you to be. It’s been my privilege to serve as a pastor for more than 20 years, and I absolutely love supporting people who lead congregations. It’s one of my passions. But doing ministry in the post-pandemic era has unearthed new leadership challenges, and it has led us to pay more attention to the need for thriving ministers and congregations. This podcast features conversations with some of the most innovative pastors, leaders and authors I know. They’re going to help us do church faithfully and effectively, and in a way that is life-giving to those who lead and the people we serve. I’m so glad you’re listening. I can’t wait to introduce you to today’s guest on Leading and Thriving in the Church.

My guest today, Reverend Dr. Otis Moss III, built his ministry on community advancement and social justice activism. As senior pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, Illinois, Dr. Moss practices and preaches a Black theology that unapologetically calls attention to the problems of mass incarceration, environmental justice and economic inequality. A native of Cleveland, Ohio, Dr. Moss is an honors graduate of Morehouse College. He earned a master of divinity degree from Yale Divinity School and a doctor of ministry degree from Chicago Theological Seminary. Among his many honors and accolades, he gave the Lyman Beecher Lectures at Yale in 2014. Dr. Moss is a prolific writer and sought-after speaker at churches, conferences, and college campuses. His most recent book is “Dancing in the Darkness: Spiritual Lessons for Thriving in Turbulent Times.” Otis Moss III, welcome to Leading and Thriving in the Church. I’m looking forward to our conversation today.

Otis Moss III: Thank you for having me today.

Prince Rivers: And I should say for our audience, for full disclosure, I will mention there is a bit of journalistic bias in this conversation due to the fact that we’re both graduates of our beloved Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia.

You were raised in Ohio — mentioned that. Educated in Atlanta, and New Haven, and a little bit in Denver. You pastored a traditional church in the South and then went to Trinity in Chicago. And so, I have a little bit of background in leadership and leadership studies. And situational leadership, as you know, is an approach to leadership. And so, I’m thinking about the subtle and maybe not so subtle differences in each of your ministry contexts and backgrounds. And I wonder if some of our audience might be interested in hearing about how you learned to navigate and apply your unique gifts in these different contexts. Because some people will move around in ministry and they will find that things that work in one place don’t work in another place. So, how did you adapt while being who you are?

Otis Moss III: Mentorship, mentorship, mentorship, mentorship. Being open to people who can share, you can learn from, and you can go to. So, in Denver, it was Dr. Vincent Harding along with Dr. James Peters. Dr. Peters was the pastor. Dr. Harding was my professor. Going to Tabernacle, of course my father was a mentor, always has been. But there was a woman by the name of Esther Smith, who was like my adopted grandmother, who was actually called Queen Esther Smith — is actually the full name that everybody … you had to put the title on her. But interesting story about Esther Smith, your listeners may be interested in hearing, is she grew up in a time period … she was like my father’s adopted mother. My father’s mother died at a very young age, when he was about five years old, because of medical apartheid. And she became his adopted mother. And she would have been a pastor, a preacher, a professor if it were not for patriarchy. But she was self-taught, went to school as an educator, but had a deep interest in New Testament, Old Testament and homiletics.

And so, my father went to ITC [Interdenominational Theological Center]. He, along with several other students, anytime you had a presentation at school or you were to preach at a church, you had to go to Mother Smith’s house to have your paper or your sermon reviewed. And she would walk through and say, “That’s good, but your exegesis is really poor. So, you need to do some more work. Here are some people that you need to read. The illustration that you gave is great, but you did not cite that that illustration came from this individual.” That’s the type of person she was. And so, she was a large part of the reason that I ended up at Tabernacle because along with her, and a young person actually put my name in the church, and I was really too young. I was really too young to even be considered, because they didn’t want anybody young. They wanted somebody 40 plus years old. And here I was in my 20s.

And so, she was one that helped me understand the culture of the church before I got there. And then once arriving at the church, there were several other elders that helped me understand and became mentors to me. And adopted grandfathers: a person by the name of Hulin Johnson, Jordan Wright, a woman by the name of George Lillian Jenkins who became an adopted grandmother. And they were elders who helped me understand the culture, who I would sit with weekly to understand what was happening in the church. And then there were certain issues they would say, “You do not need to involve yourself in. We will handle this. Because of your age, it will be perceived as you are attacking an elder, that you are tearing down a tradition. Let us deal with that. And then your fingerprints are never on it.”

It was one of the most amazing things to have that relationship with elders of that caliber who literally nurtured me and supported me and encouraged me. And at that stage, you’re starting out in ministry, you don’t know what you’re doing. You need people to assist you. And they understood the potential, they understood the vision. And would pray with myself, with my wife and with my children. It was an incredible experience of the village network within the African American religious tradition.

Prince Rivers: That is a huge gift that maybe not enough pastors get, but it brings new meaning and new life to the “priesthood of all believers.” They really took it upon themselves to be really associated ministers in the church and lead in that way.

Otis Moss III: And I had to be open to it. Many times in leadership, we are not open to mentorship. So, we have the position, we have the name, but we really do not have: one, any type of power. Two, any type of institutional knowledge. Three, we do not have the history of the institution and knowing that moving someone’s landmark can create a storm just because you said, “We need to do X, Y, and Z.” Well, so what? You move someone’s landmark.

I give you a prime example of something that happened that was interesting. We had a painting of a white Jesus up in the church. I was like, “Oh gosh, this is terrible.” Here I am Afrocentric and all this. And many of the elders, they didn’t like it either. That was the other thing: “We don’t like the white Jesus.” But it was given by a particular family. So, we had to plot together to figure out how to deal with Jesus. So, what happened? Well, first of all, we had a renovation and we had to move out of the church. And we got together and I said, “The picture needs to be renovated, too, Reverend.” He said, “You’re right. It’s got tears in it and all this, but it has so-and-so’s name.” They said, “Yeah, if it’s renovated and it comes back Black,” they said, nobody’s going to say anything because pretty much everyone of that family no longer was living. But there are always people who hold on to tradition. So, we sent it out to be renovated.

And when it came back, Jesus started out as if he was from Sweden, and then he came back as an African. And the picture was beautiful because you could not see, because it was so dirty, you couldn’t see the full experience at Calvary. So, all of a sudden all these other characters you could see, and then people were pointing out, “Now you can see the soldier here. Look, it’s like Peter denying. And there goes Mary.”

Prince Rivers: It was a miracle.

Otis Moss III: Yes, and people were so excited. So, the conservative people were like, “Oh, wow, look what happened to the picture.” And then realizing, well, Jesus is Black now, and it became a staple of the church. It was just a simple thing of that nature of building that coalition together, we were able to shift from a European Jesus, to a more accurate Jesus.

Prince Rivers: Yeah, that is so important. You use the language of coalition and mentoring that can help many pastors get through many storms and many adversities. So, thank you for naming that. And then, so you’ve been at Trinity for how many years now?

Otis Moss III: Yeah, actually a total of 18 years.

Prince Rivers: Eighteen years, OK. What are you up to these days? What keeps you motivated in the windy city?

Otis Moss III: There’s always something going on.

Prince Rivers: Got to keep the list short.

Otis Moss III: There’s always something going on in Chicago. We’re in a period where we are reimagining the church. One of the things that was rather a blessing out of COVID is we are having the opportunity, just having a great time returning. And the church has grown tremendously, but in a hybrid way, which is exciting.

No. 2 is we are continuing a project. We’ve been working on a project for over 20 years collectively, the church has had a deep desire and vision around it, but we completed phase one of a project of urban development. Phase one was a medical center, not a clinic, but a little primary medical center. Phase two is the housing aspect of single-family and senior housing. And we’re in the phase two right now. And then the phase three will be a hotel along with a wellness center. And matter of fact, I got a meeting on Thursday. We’ve been in negotiation about this.

And the final phase is an urban farm. So, it’s a cradle-to-the-grave facility where everything that you need in order to thrive will be in this particular community. It’s roughly about 27 acres. We call it Imani Village. It’s about a mile and a half down the street from the church. It’s next to Chicago State University. It’s on 95th Street. And we are really excited about a model of “how do you create a healthy community?” We didn’t just want to create a vision, we also wanted to put in principles of how you do development.

So, this development has three pillars. One for Black economic empowerment, meaning the contractors and the subcontractors are individuals from our community. The second piece is that it is green from the ground up. It has creation care in its design. So, everything that we do design-wise has to ensure that it is sustainable and will take into account creation. The third pillar is mass incarceration. Those hired on this project are people who are returning citizens from institutions that normally when they return home will be locked out because of the way that mass incarceration policy functions. So, we want to be able to knock that pillar down. And then there’s just simple job training. We call it Imani Works. So, we’ll raise food there, train people about entrepreneurship. But also raising food and food as medicine, teaching people. There’ll be a teaching kitchen that functions — actually we’re building that now, that we’re in that phase, where people can learn that, “Hey, if you want to lower your blood pressure, here are the things that you can cook and what you can do.”

And then there’ll be a healing garden. And this garden is a garden. It’s more of a park, that you walk through that in partnership with the medical center, that’s a beta test around “can you prescribe nature over medicine?” So, 20 minutes a day walking through this park, hearing children play, listening to literally the water falling from the waterfall and the art that is designed. And as you’re walking through, it tells the story of people of African descent from West Africa all the way up to, when you get to the end of the park, that you are now in Chicago. So, it gives you an experience where your body can decompress. And that’s one of the projects that we’ve been involved in and we’re excited about. How do you do ministry that impacts community that is not just centered on who goes to your church, but how do you recognize that we are part of a village and a parish, and we want to ensure that our community is well?

Prince Rivers: So much in that that we could spend all day talking about. Sounds marvelous. And I will make a trip to Chicago to see some of this.

Otis Moss III: Please. Please.

Prince Rivers: You’ve been a part of the prophetic stream of Black Christianity really since your childhood. It’s part of your ancestral DNA. And you know that the Black church has undergone significant changes since the days of Dr. King, and we don’t have to go back to our earliest years, but even since the 1960s. So, I’m wondering, in your opinion, in the current social, cultural, and political — you’ve just named a pretty compelling vision. What do you think African Americans need to be thinking about, African American churches need to be thinking about or working on, to borrow the subtitle of your book, to thrive in turbulent times?

Otis Moss III: Reimagining church, reimagining what church is. Reimagining what faith community is. Reimagining what ministry is. Reimagining what it means to be a pastor. Reimagining what the idea of laity is. Reimagining every aspect of what we do in ministry. We’re going to have to break from the model of building pulpit pews and move into what I would call a return back to a Christ-centered model of mobile ministry. Christ, he was mobile. He would function very well in a pandemic because he was not committed to a building. He was going to where the people were — what were the needs? What are the needs for your community? What is happening in your community, not only in and around maybe this building that you may occupy, but in the community that you’re serving? Are you reimagining: what is caregiving like? Reimagining trauma-informed care. Reimagining how you can be of service to people.

You don’t have to do everything but just one thing that becomes the bookmark, the bullet point, the flag in the ground for your ministry. And one of the things that we have to stop doing is we have to stop comparing our ministries and ourselves to other people and to other ministries. The uniqueness that we have been given. Each individual is given a unique and beautiful spiritual signature that we have to live out. It’s just like the preacher’s voice. There is no one who will preach, who will speak, who will teach like you. Lean into it. There’s nothing more tragic than a preacher spending her life or his life trying to be a copy of someone else. And anyone who knows anything about art, copies are always inferior to the original. So, just be who you are. Wherever you are planted, there is a need there. And that need can be transformative for the community that you are in because there is no community, no church, no preacher who can reach a certain group of people except you. Be you. And the unique blessings that flow from that will be extraordinary.

Prince Rivers: When I read “Dancing in the Darkness: Spiritual Lessons for Thriving in Turbulent Times,” you put a lot of yourself — speaking of being you — you put a lot of yourself into this book. What was the inspiration for “Dancing in the Darkness”?

Otis Moss III: Well, part of it is, it’s in the book, my daughter and an experience that I had with my daughter. But it had been always poking at me of being able to share some of the ideas that specifically come out of the African American spiritual tradition. I’m a firm believer that our theology, our spirituality, the manner in which we engage and practice our faith is not European faith in blackface. We have a different theological framework. We created a tradition and a spirituality. And so, when I have conversations with other people, they say, “Oh, yeah, you’re Baptist.” I say, “No, no, I’m not Baptist like you. I love you. But, it’s like, I’m not Baptist like you. I’m not UCC like you.” That is an act of history. I’m Black by God’s activity.

And my Blackness, when I say that I’m not speaking of just color. I’m talking about culture, ethnicity and a spiritual legacy that does not flow from the Reformed movement of Luther. And that is part of what I wanted to bring forth, that there is a tradition. Thurman does it all the time. It’s implicit within his work. What he’s speaking about does not come from his seminary experience. It comes from his grandmother and her deep well of wisdom and spirituality.

Prince Rivers: Yeah, yeah. And that certainly comes through in this book. The first chapter is called “Link Love and Justice,” which are two very powerful ideas. What do you think makes these virtues so significant as we think about Christian leadership today?

Otis Moss III: We live in a world that attempts to jettison and does not believe in the idea of love nor in justice. We live in a world that believes in retribution. And the central value for the American faith system is a form of capitalism or materialism or the market. And so, when you inject love into the conversation, you also reject materialism. When you inject justice in the conversation, you then critique and reject capitalism. You all of a sudden begin to raise questions about how we alleviate suffering and how can people flourish and thrive to their full human potential that God has ordained.

Regardless, it does not make a difference where that person is located, what that person’s ethnicity is, what their religious practice may be, what their racial identification might be, you are raising those questions for all of God’s children because you deeply believe in the imago Dei. And that’s one thing that from the European tradition to the African tradition, to Indigenous traditions, the imago Dei flows across every tradition. We are made in the image of God. And even for those who are atheists, they function out of the idea of all humans have worth. Whether you’re a pragmatist, or utilitarianism, or whatever it may be, we flow within this particular river. And love and justice demand that we swim in that river.

Prince Rivers: Well, speaking of the river and love and justice, we are about to enter into what will likely be and is already a hyper-polarized election season in our country. So, I’m thinking about, “What does love and justice look like in this context?” I’m in the pulpit every week, and leading a congregation, and my people are watching the news. How do we navigate this space of love and justice in the world where we’re seeing anything but?

Otis Moss III: The difficulty for this moment is that anyone who does ministry, you have been given — really forced upon you, forced upon all of us — we have co-pastors and a choir, one we did not vet nor recruit and did not ask to come into our space. And that primarily is from social media. So, our congregation has already, and our village has already heard from an algorithm. An algorithm that leans and has a deep proclivity around negativity, hurt and hate. And then we show up. And then we start talking about this brother named Jesus, who’s talking about love and justice, and it’s like cognitive dissonance. This world doesn’t make sense, but we’re still called to help rewire our spiritual receptors. That’s what we have to do. So, there’s a deep need and a desire among people.

The scrolling that we experience that people have before they come to church, or whatever faith community that they may be a part of, is really about a spiritual need. People scroll because they’re looking for something, something that will feed an emptiness. And we scroll more, and then we show up on Sunday. And we scroll more, then we show up on Sunday. And we have to be sensitive to the fact that in many ways, we are a collective group of people who are consistently trying to get into recovery because of the drug of the algorithm. And the recovery tool is this idea of love, of self-worth, of the power of this idea of grace, which boggles the mind the idea that you don’t earn it, you don’t deserve it.

There’s nothing within the American justice system or civic society that speaks about grace. It’s always rooted in the idea of “you did this, therefore, you receive this. Oh, it’s a meritocracy.” Well, it’s really not a meritocracy, but that’s a whole other conversation. But we have these ideas. But this idea of grace coupled with mercy, self-discipline, coupled with the idea of loving myself so that I can love my neighbor and loving God. And then the idea of righteousness and justice, which are connected together: the idea of justice, not as retribution, but as restoration. How do I restore or distribute justice that even if 10 lepers get blessed and one comes back, you don’t go running after the other nine and saying, “I’m taking the healing away from you.” Or if I show up late to work in the field, I get the same blessing as everybody else. And then the workers come together and say, “Wait a minute, wait a minute, a minute, he’s getting the same as me.” And I say, “Wait a minute. I’m the owner of the field.”

Prince Rivers: That’s right. That’s right.

Otis Moss III: You don’t tell me how I distribute my grace. “Did you get what you asked for?” “Yes, I did.” “Well, then go home, enjoy your family.” I have the right to bless even the ones who show up late or don’t show up at all.

Prince Rivers: That’s right. That’s right.

I was struck by one of the stories you told in the book about a young man named Jojo, who was murdered. And I thought back to the episode in season one of this podcast. We had Dr. Thema Bryant on — a clinical psychologist, president of the American Psychological Association and a minister — and she talked about vicarious trauma, that clergy are drawn into the trauma that happens around us, and then we experience it vicariously. I’m quite sure that there’s never a dull moment in the city of Chicago. How do you take care of yourself? And how do you talk about leaders taking care of themselves as we’re out here trying to be agents of love and justice in a world that is built on retribution and hate in some spaces?

Otis Moss III: I share with people — I am also someone who stumbles along the idea of self-care. I think with everyone else who tries to say, “I’ve got the answer.” No, you stumbled, too. Let’s be honest. And one of the things that I know that is helpful to me personally, along with meditation and prayer, is for me, working out, music, and a good book, and movies and laughter. I mean, that is just so helpful for my own emotional and spiritual health.

But when you’re doing this work, it is so dangerous because, and I love the way that Dr. Bryant puts that, this vicarious trauma that you experience is on a consistent basis, but it’s consistently inconsistent. In other words, it hits at the most peculiar moments. You’re having a celebration with your family, and then you get the call that there’s been a murder of a young person at your church. Or you are celebrating this wonderful 90-plus-year-young person at your church, and then you find out about the violation between a caregiver and the person that they’re caring for in a horrific way. And you’re thrust in the middle of these things. And having tools, but also be willing to talk with people about the trauma you experience and how that trauma affects you. You just have to. You just have to.

Prince Rivers: Yeah, I think you’re right. It’s about finding that safe space to have those conversations. Clergy are not known to overshare in some spaces. But if we don’t share with someone, all that stuff bottles up and comes out sideways. And as someone has said, all preaching is autobiographical. So, we have to be careful because it comes out in the messages and everything else.

Otis Moss III: And we have to be honest that a lot of harm that comes from just preaching in churches, there’s a lot of church hurt and church trauma that is just very real. Part of it is rooted in the fact that we have too many men in positions of power and the way we’re socialized. You don’t talk. You don’t talk. Hey, we can talk sports. We can compartmentalize this, that and the other. Then it comes out in other ways. And the pastor becomes someone who is destructive or the pastor becomes predatory. And when I say predatory, I’m not just speaking in the kind of completely horrific way. I’m just saying that judgmental and hurtful in the language that someone uses in engaging with other human beings in general, it comes out. And we have to be aware of that, but we also have to know that our systems of privilege and patriarchy can also contribute to a lot of pain and trauma. And we have to be a part of taking down those systems if we truly want to see a healthy community.

Prince Rivers: Yeah. That is good advice. Good counsel. I truly enjoyed “Dancing in the Darkness” —

Otis Moss III: Thank you.

Prince Rivers: — “Spiritual Lessons for Thriving in Turbulent Times.” I hope you’re working on the next book because we need to hear your voice.

Otis Moss III: I appreciate that. Well, we’ve got a few things we’re trying to do that hopefully down the road, a few other things will be created.

Prince Rivers: That’s great. Well, one more question. As you look to the future, what’s giving you hope these days, Brother Moss? And what do you see as the role of faith communities in shaping a more just and equitable world?

Otis Moss III: I’m just deeply excited about a new generation of people who are just breaking all of the norms, who are doing digital ministry, who are doing deconstruction. Or people who are saying, “We’re doing church, but we’re just a homeless shelter.” There’s a wonderful gentleman, Pastor Joe, over not too far from a church in Roseland, and it’s a homeless shelter. That’s what it started out. It’s a homeless shelter. He said, “But we do ministry and we do church. But our primary thing is we house the unhoused. And that’s church.” That to me is ministry. And their idea is, “We don’t want you at our church forever because our job is to get you housed.”

And so, they have rituals of celebration when someone moves from being unhoused to getting their keys and moving into their house. I mean, it’s just a wonderful, incredible ministry, and they’re reaching so many people as a result of taking this approach that they’re going to be a house of prayer for all people. Literally a house of prayer for all people. And it’s really absolutely beautiful to witness that kind of ministry thrive in spaces like Chicago on the South Side and Roseland, and the beauty that it is just bubbling up all over the place.

Prince Rivers: Well, like you said, Jesus had a mobile ministry and it certainly sounds like they are on the move and working with the folks that are on the move as well. So, Otis Moss III, senior pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, Illinois, I thank you, thank you, thank you for being my guest today.

Otis Moss III: Thank you.

Prince Rivers: And just continue to do what you’re doing. And I hope this project that you’re working on, all four phases come to fruition. I know they will.

Otis Moss III: Well, please, I would ask that everyone who’s listening just say a prayer for us and say a prayer for Imani Village that it would fully come to fruition and it would benefit intergenerational families.

Prince Rivers: Thank you for being on the show today.

Otis Moss III: Thank you.

Prince Rivers: Thank you for listening to this episode of Leading and Thriving in the Church. This podcast is produced by Emily Lund and recorded in the Bryan Center Studios on the campus of Duke University. I’m your host, Prince Rivers. If you want more great leadership content, be sure to check out our website alban.org, where you can sign up for the Alban Weekly newsletter, and make sure you subscribe to this podcast on your preferred podcast platform so we can keep you informed as we release new episodes. Until next time, keep leading.