The Rev. Sean Smith offers spiritual guidance and engages with the faith community daily through two demanding jobs. The 2011 graduate of Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology has served as the pastor of New Horizon Baptist Church in Atlanta for 21 years and senior adviser to Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens since February 2022.
Smith’s path to ministry was filled with some uncertainty and reluctance. He said when he initially received his calling, he dismissed and fought it, saying it wasn’t for him. But he eventually conceded and stepped into the role of pastor. Later, he decided to pursue formal theological training and enrolled at McAfee following recommendations from three church members who were students there.
“I got to seminary at the right time because I already had a lump sum of experience practically in ministry. I wanted to honor a trade and make sure I wasn’t missing anything,” he said.
As a pastor, he most enjoys the hands-on work as he shares in life with others. While he doesn’t care much for the administrative side of his job, he understands that it comes with the territory.
“I’m a person that really has resistance to pretension and pomp and all that stuff. … In the trenches, I think I‘m most alive and feel most used in that space.”
Smith and Dickens have a long-standing tradition of working together. Dickens served as a deacon of New Horizon Baptist for 20 years, and Smith was his Bible study teacher when Dickens was in college. Upon Dickens’ election as Atlanta mayor, Smith served on the transition team for the new administration and then was asked to become senior adviser.
“(Dickens) is the only one that I would have done this for. My commitment is to serve to the best of my ability,” Smith said. “My primary role is to work with the faith community to assist in ‘Moving Atlanta Forward’ cooperative initiatives to positively affect the city and the surrounding communities.”
In addition to the day-to-day assistance he provides in a variety of areas, Smith is working to secure support from the faith community for the Housing Affordability Action Plan, which aims to create or rehabilitate 20,000 homes by 2026. He is also involved in violence prevention initiatives.
“It’s really a support role for (Dickens) personally on one hand as a spiritual adviser, but also to help guide him and to get into these interfaith and religious spaces,” Smith said. “He really has a heart to raise the profile of the faith community in trying to meet his objectives for the city.”
The faith community is an invaluable resource as well as an important contributor for any societal changes, he said.
“You travel life with somebody from the womb to the tomb. We face every age and stage,” Smith said. “We are there with people in all of life’s transitions, victories and defeats. If anybody ought to be consulted — in my head, it’s a no-brainer — you got to at least talk to the faith leaders. The more that you engage that community, the more that you can tap into that resource and avoid the temptations of co-opting and coercing.”
Smith was quick to acknowledge his distrust of politics, and that has made him all the more fitting for his role as senior adviser to the mayor. He’s not a “chest beater” or “peddler” when it comes to getting things done, he said. He strives to be in the trenches, where he can best make a difference, and to look past theoretical approaches and focus instead on real-life applications.