The Rev. Dr. Betty Deas Clark was trembling and scared Sunday morning as she stood in the pulpit at Emanuel AME Church.

She’d had less than 24 hours to prepare the first sermon she would deliver to her new congregation. She wrote from the heart but agonized over every word – praying she would be able to minister to the needs of people she had yet to get to know.

It wasn’t an unfamiliar feeling, addressing a congregation, but there was something different about this time. Maybe it was because members of Mother Emanuel were still healing after the June 17 slaying of nine worshippers during a Bible study by a self-proclaimed white supremacist. Maybe it was because the church had been in a type of “limbo” for more than half a year in the aftermath.

Either way, Clark knew there was one message everyone could relate to: hope.

“In my heart I felt that it was the right word,” she said after the church service. “I did not want to dwell too heavily on the past, but I wanted to embrace the reality of the present and the future.”

Clark was appointed pastor of the downtown church Saturday by current Bishop Richard Norris. She is the church’s first female pastor.

A warm goodbye

Since the shooting, the congregation of more than 1,000 had been led by interim pastor the Rev. Dr. Norvel Goff.

Goff is running for bishop and now serves as the region’s presiding elder.

He showed support Sunday for Clark and spoke highly of her ministry. She was previously pastor of the historic Mount Pisgah AME Church in Sumter.

Goff summed up his own time at Emanuel as being transformative. He said he saw a lot of change, growth and faith.

He also was no stranger to controversy during his time as interim pastor. Survivors of the June 17 shooting and many victims’ family members have accused Goff of failing to provide them with spiritual care. The church secretary hired by slain pastor Clementa Pinckney said she lost her job last summer after she raised questions about how the church, under Goff’s leadership, was handling millions of dollars in donations.

Goff didn’t speak specifically Sunday about his tribulations as pastor in the wake of the shooting, but said the position wouldn’t be difficult to leave because of his many other responsibilities as presiding elder. He also is treasurer of the 7th Episcopal District, which spans South Carolina.

He promised to be available to Clark and gave a warm goodbye to the congregation.

“Sister Goff and I will be on a journey through the other churches, so you won’t see me every Sunday,” he said. “But I want Mother Emanuel to know that our hearts and our prayers are with each and every one of you. You are forever part of a special place in our hearts and we love you (and) care about you.”

He said later that the church is in a better place now than it was several months ago.

‘Just the beginning’

Clark said Sunday that she was humbled by her new position. She spoke of “charting new waters” with the church and offered words of comfort about the future.

“I know that we’re doing things that we’ve never done before,” she said. “But every morning you wake up, you see a day you’ve never seen before. And every step that you take is a step that you’ve never taken before. ... Today is just the beginning.”

She told the congregation that it would take time for them to get to know her and vice versa, and she subtly addressed the church’s recent tragedy.

“God feels our pain, hear’s our cries and he knows our every move,” she said. “While the dreams, expectations and bodies of many have been laid to rest, we must not allow nor put our hope to rest. We must believe as a family in God (and) that our best days are in front of us. We must believe that better days are coming.”

Several longtime members of the church praised her sermon and expressed a sense of relief in finally having a permanent pastor.

Brenda Bennett said she thought the sermon was “wonderful.”

“Thank the Lord, God has sent us a woman after God’s own heart,” she added.

Bob Sanders also complimented the sermon, calling it “excellent and to the point.

“It almost alluded to some of the things Martin Luther King said, in my opinion; hope and justice,” he said.

He added that a lot of the church members had been hoping for a female leader and commended the bishop for appointing Clark.

Charles N. Williams, an Emanuel member for more than 50 years, was especially pleased that a woman was appointed because he was brought to the church by a prominent female member, the Rev. Hilda Scott. He pointed to a framed news article about Scott in the church’s hallway and said it was “trailblazers” like her who paved the way for someone like Clark to be appointed.

“That’s inspiring,” he said.

Williams added that while he would miss seeing Goff every Sunday, he was looking forward to continuing on in his church’s journey.

“I guess it’s the opening of one chapter and the closing of another chapter,” he said.

Reach Melissa Boughton at 843-937-5594 or at Twitter.com/mboughtonPC.