Myers Park Baptist's minister taking a leave of absence

Myers Park Baptist's minister taking a leave of absence

Credit: Robert Lahser - / Charlotte Observer

Rev. Stephen Shoemaker.


by KAREN GARLOCH / Charlotte Observer

Posted on December 31, 2012 at 9:04 PM

Updated Saturday, Nov 2 at 10:31 AM

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Rev. Steve Shoemaker, longtime senior minister of Myers Park Baptist Church, has entered a 30-day treatment center in Maryland after struggling “over the years with depression and anxiety.”

In a letter to church members, Shoemaker said he had been taking prescription medicines and had recently been “self-medicating with alcohol.”

“I’m physically, psychologically and spiritually depleted, and must get help,” he wrote in the letter dated Dec. 28.

On advice from his physicians and therapists, Shoemaker said he would take a medical leave of absence to enter a residential treatment program. His voicemail at the church said he’ll return Feb. 6.

Richard Pearsall, chair of the board of deacons at Myers Park Baptist, said he was called to a meeting Dec. 26 with Shoemaker and several staff members and lay leaders. The meeting lasted no longer than 10 or 15 minutes, Pearsall said.

“What Steve said is exactly what he said in the letter,” Pearsall said. “It was short and to the point, and we said, ‘Go with our blessings.’ ”

Pearsall said Shoemaker left Charlotte Sunday for the treatment center, where he is not allowed any communication by mail, telephone or electronic device. Although he had not known about Shoemaker’s struggle, Pearsall likened it to finding out that someone needs open-heart surgery. “Hopefully, he’ll get treatment for the depression and anxiety, and then in a month he’ll be back.”

Shoemaker, who has been senior minister at Myers Park Baptist since 1999, also wrote a letter to members of the congregation several years ago sharing that he and his former wife, Cherrie, had separated. They divorced in May 2011.

Dr. Ophelia Garmon-Brown, a church member and ordained minister who has delivered sermons there, praised Shoemaker for being open.

“He’s such an honest person … I think he wanted to do the right thing, and for him the right thing was to be honest and open and transparent.

“Pastors and doctors and lawyers take in a lot of information, and some of it’s not so good, but you can’t share it with anybody. That is hard work … In our society, although we talk about forgiveness and being ‘wounded healers’ … where do people like Steve go?”

Garmon-Brown, a physician administrator with Novant Health, said Presbyterian Hospital’s longtime chaplain, Scott Lindsay, created a pastoral care group for pastors “so they could come and confidentially talk and share with each other. … You’d be amazed at how many pastors have depression.” The group disbanded when Lindsay retired.

In November, when Garmon-Brown had cancer surgery, she said Shoemaker came to the hospital to pray with her before the operation and was there afterward. “A pastor at Steve’s level usually doesn’t even do visits in the hospital anymore. That’s just the way he is. He’s so passionate that he gives himself away so much.”

He also speaks out on many controversial issues, such as same-sex marriage, which some ministers avoid for fear of alienating members of their congregations. “He spends a lot of time outside of the church … involving himself in trying to enhance the lives of others.”

“Being a pastor the way Steve does it, you’re refueling everybody else … but not often do you stop to let the big tanker come and refuel you,” Garmon-Brown said.

She said this is an opportunity for the church to grow and “see how we can all do some things better.”

“Steve’s doing this is a beginning, not an ending,” she said. “If Steve comes back, and he’s immediately right back into being Steve … his progress would be slowed, I think. You don’t just go to a very nice treatment center and then life gets better immediately.”