Brian Thompson is starting off the new year by continuing to settle into a new position with a new title. His new responsibilities include adjusting to a schedule that requires frequent transcontinental travel.
A fresh start and life-changing circumstances? Hey, Brian Thompson has been there before. He’s quick to share that his inauspicious early years certainly were no indication of his current success.
“I think the gift that I have is my experience and being able to communicate that,” he said. “I just let it all hang out.”
Thompson recently completed 20 years as the dynamic leader of Simon Temple AME Zion Church on Yadkin Road. He ended his tenure there last month after being elected in June to the Board of Bishops of the Worldwide African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. As Presiding Prelate of the Western Episcopal District, he’s one of 12 people who oversees the general supervision of the church.
It’s an impressive title with responsibilities to match. But his story is also one of resilience, faith and the hope-restoring fact that struggles need not define a man’s life. In fact, Thompson’s earlier experiences include bad decisions that today help others relate to his ministry.
“I share that I used to be able to drink people under the table,” he said.
Thompson grew up in a rural area in Chapel Hill, where he loved sports and the North Carolina Tar Heels but hated farm-related chores. He wasn’t too fond of school either.
“My grades would be good while basketball was going on,” he said. The rest of the time he struggled with what he looks back on as likely an undiagnosed learning disability.
While his eloquence and outgoing personality led to his election as student body vice president, he dropped out of Northwood High School his senior year when he realized he didn’t have enough credits to graduate.
“I had the gift of gab,” he said. “But not the gift of grades.”
His parents, however, believed that “you either earn or learn,” so he went on to earn a community college GED, then enrolled in St. Augustine’s University in Raleigh.
“The only school that would accept me,” he said. “St. Aug took a chance on me when no one else would. It was a great time for me to mature.”
He was chosen as president of the school’s chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity and graduated with honors in 1991 with a 3.6 grade point average.
Despite the fact that his communications degree had required him to take few math or science courses, he donned a suit and tie and went to an on-campus interview with Bristol Myers Squibb.
The company representative raised an eyebrow at his transcript.
“She said, ‘You don’t have any science or math,’” Thompson said. “But I told her, if you don’t hire me, you’re leaving the best candidate on campus.”
Once again, the gift of gab paid off. He got the job.
While growing up, Thompson said, the ministry was the furthest thing from his mind. Over the next few years, which included career moves that eventually landed him with Alltel in Durham, he kept feeling a persistent nudge toward preaching. Toward using that gift of gab to inspire others.
“The Lord kept asking me to preach,” he said. “I kept saying that I ain’t doing that because then I can’t have fun.”
He remembers the exact moment that all changed. He had a 12-pack of beer in his car and intended to watch a big game on TV and drink every bit of it. Instead, something made him stop in at a church revival.
“At 10:26 p.m. on Aug. 10, 1993, I gave my life to Jesus Christ,” he said. “I never drank the beer. At 4 in the morning, I heard God ask: “Do you remember me asking you to preach my word?’ I said, ‘Here I am, send me.’”
In speaking, leading, parenting, and well, just about everything he does, Thompson’s style is forthright and approachable, magnetic and sincere.
At a recent luncheon for which he gave the invocation, one person in the audience feverishly tried to type his words on her phone so that she would remember them. That’s rare for a part of the program where people are sometimes just ready to eat.
But Thompson is a man who most always leaves an impression.
Despite the fact that his new position requires him to visit churches as far away as California, he and wife of 21 years, the Rev. Felica Thompson, plan to remain in Fayetteville. That’s where they’ve raised their two children, Brian II, a senior at Berean Baptist Academy and Alexis, a sophomore at Campbell University.
When Bishop George Battle assigned him to Simon Temple in 2001, he immediately shook things up and ruffled a few feathers.
“There were no drums, no horns and no guitars,” he said. “Some people said, ‘He’s too loud running up and down the aisle laying hands on people.’ But the church began growing so much.”
Thompson subscribes to the advice of one of his early ministerial mentors who said: “Don’t ever put the food up so high or so low that the people trying to reach it can’t get it.”
“He told me, ‘Don’t give the people an entrée, give them a buffet,’” Thompson said. “Preach to the educated and the uneducated. Those living a clean life or a raggedy life. I think the worst thing the church can do is alienate.”
Kim Hasty can be reached at email@example.com.