The Rev. A Richard Dent is stepping down as pastor of First African Baptist Church of Darby Township in Sharon Hill, bringing an end to more than three decades of leadership described by members as hands-on as it is spiritual.
Dent announced his intentions on Sunday.
“I thought it was time to step down and enjoy what’s left of my life and I want me and my wife to enjoy the time we have left,” Dent said. “I’ve been pastor for 34 years. I just feel like sometimes you have to know when to hold and when to fold.”
Dent added that he has “mixed emotions” about stepping down, stressing that as his role and legacy at First African has grown deeper with time, it is important to him that he leaves on a high note. First African was his first pastorate when he graduated from Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary.
“It was very emotional when I made the announcement last Sunday,” Dent said. “It was very emotional for the congregation and my family. When you’ve been apart of something for so long it’s hard to walk away. I came to First African and I had never had been to Darby township before. The lord led me there. As soon as I pulled up, I said this is where the Lord wants me to be. I gave everything I had to give.”
Under Dent’s leadership, First African grew its outreach ministries, enhanced its relationship with the community, ordained its first female minister, the Rev. Margaret Quarcoo, and built a brand new church, which eventually had its mortgage paid off by an anonymous donor.
Every week, the congregation is giving in some way. Members host an after-school program; operate an emergency food cupboard on Thursdays to feed the community; y visit the emergency centers at hospitals to share Scripture and food with family and loved ones; and host a special event for teachers every year before school begins.
Members say those works are a direct reflection of Dent and his approach.
“He’s brought a lot of assets not only to the church, but to the community. He’s been a great leader and a great mentor,” said Steven Scott Bradley, a member for 50 years and chairman of the African-American Chamber of Commerce — Pa., N.J., Del. “Instead of prioritizing himself, he prioritizes God and the ministry.”
Bradley noted that Dent will personally visit sick members or those in the hospital, rather than “sending deacons,” and that he’s been there for him when he was going through his own struggles.
“I will never forget I had to go to court — I was being sued by a third party…and I will never forget him and his wife were sitting in the front row,” Bradley said. “It’s one thing for someone to say ‘I’m going to pray for you.’ It’s another to walk in the courtroom and see him and his wife there. He’s done that for a lot of families.”
Deborah Wray, the church clerk and a member for 32 years, shared a similar story saying what has stood out to her about Dent’s leadership is his concern for the people.
“He is just so human and he is so down to earth but he also does what he needs to for his flock,” she said. “You can call him anytime of the night or anytime of the day and he will call you back. We have a list and once a month he calls each and every person on the day of their birthday. We are a mid-size church and he knows most of the members by their names. Our members are going to miss that.”
Wray said first lady Beatrice Dent, leader of the women’s ministry, will also be missed.
“It is Mrs. Dent who works behind the scenes very quietly,” Wray said. “She’s just like Pastor Dent. She has empathy, she is very concerned. She has empathy for the [congregation]. The young women can call her at any time. Even around the office, when we have things that need to be proofed, it’s not above her to ask, ‘what do you think?’ She is behind the scenes, working right beside Pastor Dent but in the background.”
Pastor Dent said he will continue to serve until the end of the calendar year. First African granted him the title of Pastor Emeritus and he will continue to be a member. He also plans to serve on the pastoral search committee.
“I’m very intimate with my congregation, they’ve been very good to me,” he said. “I’m leaving the church in good shape. But I’m not going to get in the way once a pastor is selected. I’m going to step aside.”
Bradley said that Rev. Dent is leaving the church in a “strong financial position” and with a “stable” membership. He and the other members said that although his rest is much deserved and needed, the pastor will be missed.
“We are all sad that he is leaving but we understand he is starting a new journey in his life and it’s time for that,” said Kenneth Baines, chairman of the deacon board. “We are going to miss his compassion, his teaching — he’s just a straight Bible teaching, preaching man. He always shows love for the congregation, for everyone. We’re going to miss him. I hope the next pastor can be half the man Pastor Dent is — someone who preaches and teaches the Gospel and has the same convictions.”