When Dr. Adam McKee III was a 20-something-year-old man in the 1980s after finishing at Bethune-Cookman College, he found himself enjoying a productive and blossoming career in the insurance business in St. Petersburg, Fla.
But he did not feel personally ensured that he was in the right line of work. Ever since he was younger, he said, he had felt a call to ministry.
So he boldly took the step to seminary with the help and encouragement of several other people, and eventually began a multi-faceted ministerial career that has taken him to various churches, denominations and church leadership positions.
And one or two of them have not been typical positions for a black minister in the South, even in this day and time.
But due in part to several touching moments of uncertain futures falling perfectly into place in a positive manner, he has felt blessed and looked after by God all along the route.
That includes his current appointment as the first black senior pastor at Brainerd United Methodist Church, where he has served since last July.
“I am humbled because I feel I have an opportunity to make a difference,” he excitedly said of this church that was once one of the two or three largest United Methodist churches in Chattanooga in attendance but is now more a mid-sized church.
“Who would imagine I would wind up here?”
As Dr. McKee talked one day last week from his office at the church after being asked to recount his ministerial career to date and to offer his ideas for helping Brainerd expand even more in doing the work of Christ, he almost sounded like he was giving an inspired sermon.
It was not just what he said as he chronicled his somewhat unusual story, but the natural enthusiasm with which he said it.
He had grown up in Clearwater, Fla., and was living in nearby St. Petersburg when he ran into a female acquaintance from his youth named Charlotte. They started dating and were married in 1983.
They had grown up in the Mt. Olive African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Clearwater, but decided to start visiting the large Bethel Community Baptist Church. “In St. Petersburg we wanted to find a church we both felt comfortable in,” he recalled. “Bethel was like a magnet and had a bunch of young adults.”
They had visited the church for about five years before actually joining it. Their first daughter, Chelsea, was born during that time, and he fondly remembers Charlotte putting the baby in his arms and being inspired by the holy spirit to walk up and join the church one day.
Dr. McKee also soon joined the church and figured God would leave him alone, but He didn’t. As a result, in 1988 he became a licensed pastor, and through the encouragement of Dr. Howard Jones from the church, he would eventually go to seminary.
He had also felt a pull on his life to serve a smaller church as well, so he also helped out some about this time with Greater St. Paul Baptist Church. Bethel Community Baptist was the bigger church in attendance, but St. Paul, headed by the Rev. Walter Williams, an electrical and construction worker by trade, was big in being led by the holy spirit.
“Rev. Williams, he was a preaching machine and well read,” Dr. McKee said.
While Bethel was more high church in the black Baptist church tradition, St. Paul was definitely not. In fact, Dr. McKee jokingly recalled that he knew Rev. Williams might on the spur of the moment ask him to preach during the service, so he tried to stay prepared and do his reading.
On one occasion, he was asked spontaneously, and the message Dr. McKee preached ended up getting a standing ovation.
In 1990, shortly after being ordained, he began attending seminary at Virginia Union University in Richmond, Va. Unfortunately, as the first year was moving along, he basically ran out of money for school.
But Charlotte would not let him quit. “My wife challenged me to talk to someone,” he said.
He talked to the dean, who talked to a church, and he ended up getting a scholarship named after Adam Clayton Powell Jr., a former Baptist minister and U.S. congressman from New York.
It would be one of several moments during his ministerial life where he felt God was watching after him and protecting him.
Not only did he get a scholarship, but through an acquaintance, he was able to stay rent free in a home in which the owner was simply needing someone to house sit until it sold, which happened to be about right when he was finishing seminary.
While in seminary, he also served as the minister of youth at Great Hope Baptist Church in Richmond.
Upon graduating, he began serving at a church in Gladstone, Va., before being called at the beginning of 1997 to First Baptist Church on East Eighth Street in Chattanooga, his first pastoral job in the Scenic City. Although the church did briefly have an interim pastor, he was replacing the Rev. H.H. Battle, a beloved minister of four decades and black civic volunteer in Chattanooga.
“It was a great place to be, a tremendous challenge,” he said of following Rev. Battle, the namesake of Battle Academy on Market Street. “They called me and my life went on a different trajectory.”
A history at the First Baptist website says that Dr. McKee instituted an early morning contemporary service and was instrumental in selecting the church’s first female deacon.
An interesting bit of church history that preceded Dr. McKee was that Rev. Battle had actually been called to First Baptist instead of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the other top candidate, in 1954 due to his greater experience as a minister. But the then-young Dr. King would soon go to Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., and begin his legendary civil rights work. Rev. Battle had also known the King family from years earlier when he attended Morehouse College.
While Dr. McKee was at First Baptist, one of the deacons asked him if he wanted to earn a doctorate, so he attended Drew Theological School at Drew University in New Jersey, with the people at First Baptist taking up an offering to help him.
“First Baptist blessed me,” he said, adding that he continued serving the church while working on his doctorate.
Drew is an official United Methodist-affiliated seminary, and while there, some people encouraged him to become a United Methodist pastor. And he began to feel a pull to do that, he said.
He had become acquainted with First-Centenary United Methodist Church’s senior pastor, the Rev. Al Bowles, through a downtown clergy group with which he was involved, so he talked to him.
Rev. Bowles helped him set up a meeting with the late Rev. Charles Lippse, then the Chattanooga District Superintendent of the United Methodist Church. The meeting was held at the district office at, that’s right, Brainerd United Methodist.
A later meeting with then-Holston Conference Bishop Ray Chamberlain was held in 2001 to begin finalizing his transfer to the conference as a clergy member from another denomination.
As one who had grown up in the AME church, which had broken off from the forerunner of the United Methodist Church years before the Civil War in the era of slavery and segregation, becoming a United Methodist was touching for Dr. McKee.
“I felt so honored when I had an opportunity to go to the mother church,” he said.
However, he continued to serve at First Baptist, East Eighth Street, through 2002 and was not appointed to a Methodist church until 2003, when he was asked to serve Lennon-Seney United Methodist a mile or so east of downtown Knoxville.
A historically black congregation, but one steeped in the Methodist tradition, he was initially taken aback when the church’s Pastor Parish Relations Committee said it did not want a Baptist minister.
However, after a few scars and a fast learning curve, he grew to love the church, he said. They, in turn, soon began appreciating him.
“They as a congregation poured love on me,” he said, adding that they also helped when he injured his leg during that time. “I’m now crazy about Lennon-Seney.”
Attendance also went up due in part due to a music group called Men of Praise that began becoming part of the Sunday worship experience. Only a small number of the men’s choir members had genuinely strong and talented voices, but they were strong on enthusiasm and sounded great collectively, he indicated.
In 2009, he received word from his wife, Charlotte, that the then-Holston Conference bishop, the Rev. James Swanson, wanted to talk with him. Worried that he had made some kind of miss-step, he felt a sense of dread.
However, he soon learned the call was offering good news – the bishop wanted him to serve as the Oak Ridge district superintendent. In layman’s terms, he was receiving a promotion.
He would go on to work in Oak Ridge for eight years and admittedly learned a lot serving what he called a cross-cultural appointment in a district of mostly white members of United Methodist churches.
He called the position an overall very positive experience, despite the early questioning from someone wondering if he was qualified at that point to be a district superintendent.
Last July, he began serving at Brainerd. Although the first black clergy person to serve the historically white Brainerd church was associate minister the Rev. Linda McDaniel – the wife of former County Commissioner and longtime local minister Paul McDaniel -- he is the first black senior pastor.
Averaging just under 200 in church on Sunday, Brainerd UMC is still viable, despite a drop in membership from the heydays of around the pre-1980s, when the whole community of Brainerd was the happening suburb of Chattanooga.
“This is a community in transition,” he said. “But this church is in a good location and we have a rich history and have good ministries here.”
Among the latter are a food vouchers program and facilities used by Girls Inc., the Chattanooga Girls Choir and the Christian Family Theater group, among others.
Dr. McKee said he spent the first six months observing the goings-on of the church and even gave a state of the church report, which has resulted in the formation of a visioning task force.
“Are we who God is calling us to be, and who is God calling us to serve?” he asked rhetorically of the purpose of the collective soul searching by Brainerd.
He said some initial ideas have included doing some outreach ministries like taking the partnership with Girls Inc. even deeper, and maybe trying to develop a young adult ministry by hiring someone to work with young people through a conference grant.
“We have challenges as a lot of churches do in being able to reach the younger demographics,” he said.
His wife has also started helping with visitation, he proudly added.
Because of how positive the first six months have gone, Dr. McKee feels he is in the right place to do God’s work. That assurance has come about in several ways, including when he was surprisingly overcome with positive emotion when he stepped into the pulpit of the church for the first time.
And he has even started hearing a church member offer supporting words in the background during his sermons, even though he is not sure whom it is coming from.
As a result, he feels blessed.
“I am very excited about being here,” he said with emotion.