â€œSo many young men and women might look at this ministry and say, â€˜Well, thatâ€™s what Iâ€™ll doâ€™,â€ says Butts. â€œBut baby, Iâ€™ve been doing this for 40 years, and it hasnâ€™t been easy.â€ Succession is something Butts is especially concerned with. Abyssinian has had a long line of magnetic preachers, including Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Samuel DeWitt Proctor. Though heâ€™s nowhere close to ending his tenure, these are the facts: The mandatory retirement age for the pastor at Abyssinian is 71, less than 10 years away. â€œHow do I get a young manâ€” smart, educated, thoughtful,â€ Butts says. â€œHow do I get him settled?â€ The question is rhetorical, if only due to the way the media portrays the modern-day preacher. â€œIâ€™m operating against the culture,â€says Butts. â€œIâ€™m operating against that manâ€™s disillusionment with the slick preacher.â€
Butts is also operating against what can only be described as a good problem. Back when he accepted his calling at Abyssinian in 1972, first as a youth minister, then later as the senior pastor, there was no such thing as a black man being president of the United States, or being head of a Fortune 500 company. The result, Butts says, has affected the stature of the church leader among the next generation of young people. â€œThe minister was the leadership in the community,â€ says Butts. â€œBut people no longer see the church as that key institution.â€
Still, he views his work with a purpose. All that he does, he says, is for the benefit of the people who congregate to hear his words.
â€œOther than family, the most important thing is serving black people,â€ he says. Teaching, reaching, building, encouraging, inspiring, doing whatever it is I can do to help us overcome the legacy of racism, slavery, bigotry, and our own sense of self-hatred.â€