Can the Church Handle Diversity?
Conflicting Approaches to Achieving Diversity May Be Self-Defeating
Achieving diversity has been a goal of many denominations for years. Despite the desire for diversity, it never seems to take hold except in small pockets of church life. Ironically, smaller churches often make progress that goes unnoticed and under-served as leaders look for larger churches to lead the way.
Large churches are often viewed as innovators. In reality, small churches deal with the people, issues, sensitivities, and prejudices in communities that face diversity issues head on. We are experienced. The problem we face within a denomination is that we aren’t showcases for success. We are just doing the work. Our work is of less value to the corporate cause.
The approach to achieving diversity has reached a desperate stage.
National offices encourage regional offices. Goals are set. Proposals requested. Grants made available—rarely to small congregations. Resulting quick fixes may be counter-productive.
Diversity to Meet Public Relation Needs
Numbers rule. Leaders can measure and celebrate random successes. Often, we can’t wait to see if isolated successes are replicable or sustainable. One little success and the regional body can breathe a little easier at their annual assembly. Flash in the pan? Who cares?
Frankly, diversity is just one issue where regional and national leaders inhabit different worlds than small churches (most churches). The same goals, the same language may be adopted but not to a common end.
Small churches feel as though they are constantly on the receiving end of lectures on what must be done to achieve diversity. It does not go unnoticed that the lecturers have no track record of success. That’s the congregation’s responsibility. Lectures without help leave small churches to either accept failure or to to blaze independent trails.
Ironically, our congregation started to grow in diversity when we had NO pastor—at a time when we were all but ostracized from our regional body.
Years of criticism from the regional office without offers of help left us feeling insecure and unworthy. Actually, we were at our lowest when things started to turn around. We had a part-time pastor for just a few years who understood that it is difficult to welcome others when you don’t feel good about yourself. He helped build our self-esteem and confidence.
Meanwhile, our neighborhood was changing. We had to change, too.
We can explore the details of how we achieved this in another post.
For now, let’s look at how our efforts often clashed with our regional body. Having talked with other small congregations, we know this is a common issue.
Here is a composite dialog representing conversations with our regional leaders on the topic of diversity. What you read below is true, it just spanned 30 years and involved three bishops with a number of pastors as intermediaries and dozens of lay leaders.
OUR DIVERSITY JOURNEY
- SUE, a representative from the regional office. She is about to end a six-month interim assignment and is having a final conversation with lay leaders before starting a call process.
- ROGER, the middle-aged congregation president who has been a member for about 25 years,
- SIMION, an immigrant from Africa and a member with his family for about 15 years,
- ESTHER, a senior member who has been part of the congregation all her life, and
- DENISE, an African-American church member who has been part of the congregation for eight years.
SUE: Before we start the call process for your congregation, I’ve been asked by the bishop to advise your congregation to develop diversity.
ROGER: We have members from many countries and ethnic groups. We have a broad range in age and economic status. We are diverse.
SUE: We’ve had several congregational meetings in the last six months and the diversity turnout hasn’t been apparent.
ROGER: Our people are not in a hurry to come to meetings initiated by the regional office. We’ve had bad experiences. You’ve worked with our governing board. Our governing board is representative of our diversity.
SUE: I know. I’m on your side here. I’m just the messenger from the regional office.
SIMION: So how are you describing diversity? What are you looking for?
SUE: We keep statistics about congregations. We usually measure Whites, African-Americans, Hispanics, Asian, Native American—that sort of thing.
ESTHER: Last Easter we noted that we had worshipers with roots in six continents. I’d call that diverse. Developing a ministry that is attractive to just one segment of our changing demographics seems unwise. It’s like selecting what diversity is going to make us look good. That’s not who we are. Oh, there was a time when our church was White, primarily because our neighborhood was white, but we have changed as our neighborhood changed.
ROGER: One of our congregational gifts has been helping immigrants assimilate. Our congregation is now predominantly foreign-born or first-generation American. In fact, that was always true here—just with different native roots. Back then we were English and German. Perhaps our immigrant roots made us good at this kind of ministry. Now we are East African with a few Asian added to our older base. So it seems like we have met your challenge.
SUE: True, but your congregation is a leadership challenge. We are trying to find Black leadership for Black congregations, Hispanic pastors for Hispanic ministries—you get the picture.
DENISE: We are dealing with a new reality. Our neighborhoods were once homogeneous and stayed that way for decades. I didn’t grow up in this neighborhood, but I grew up nearby. Nevertheless, I have felt welcome here. I see danger in developing just one ethnic outreach. Within ten years that ministry would fail because demographics have changed again!
SUE: We had a consultant do a study ten years ago and they reported that there was no longer a population to support our denomination in this neighborhood. The demographics just aren’t here. We advised you then to close but your congregation resisted.
ROGER: Yes, and now we are five-times larger than we were then. We felt then that we were here to serve our neighborhood regardless of historic denominational ties. Isn’t that what the Good News is all about? You see, you need changing demographics if diversity is your goal!
SUE: Well, our regional office has been working with the national office for some time to reach diversity goals. Most congregations are struggling with inclusion.
ROGER: We will be glad to help!
SUE: The national offices are willing to fund mission congregations for specific ethnic groups. It is partly about allocating staff. We have only a few pastors interested in serving small neighborhood congregations but we could use grants to start new congregations for them to serve. We just started a Pan-African ministry where your newer members would fit in. We are also hoping to start a Hispanic ministry. By the way, we are one of the few regional bodies who are doing this. We can be proud.
ROGER: We are proud! We have done this work successfully—without much help from the regional office. But it seems like our success is never good enough. Now you want to divide our congregation, taking our newest members and leaving us with an aging congregation. Next, you’ll be wanting to close us down. We’ve worked too hard to allow that to happen. Isn’t it better to have many neighborhood churches than a few big regional ministries?
SIMION: Please allow me to speak for one of ethnic groups in our congregation, We feel at home here. We are happy and involved. Our traditions have been honored. We like it here!
SUE: But you can help us make this mission a success. We need your leadership skills. Just think, Simion—you’d be a big fish in a bigger pond.
SIMION: I smile when you say Pan-African. Africa is three times the size of the continental United States. We speak hundreds of languages and have many differing customs. Do you really think we are all alike? I have never shared this with anyone before, but when my family was joining this congregation 15 years ago, we were visited by a representative of the regional office. He strongly discouraged us from joining this church. There was no mention of a Pan-African ministry then. He just wanted us to boost the numbers at a different church where he said we would fit in better. We chose to join here and we have not been sorry. We were the first members with East African heritage, but many of our friends and extended family have joined since. All our families, Black and White, are friends. Our children are growing up together—not just at church but also in school and in community groups. Roger and I have worked together to bring everyone into active participation. Now you want to label us as “different” and ask us to travel 20 miles several times a week. What you are asking makes no sense. To tell you the truth, I suspect our East African members will find the suggestion insulting. We are able to choose a church without your help.
SUE: I hope you can understand our point of view. We are looking at the bigger picture. The truth is we can’t find leadership to serve you. They know your history.
DENISE. They know our history? What about our history? Speaking as an African-American, your approach to diversity sounds a bit like “separate but equal.”
SUE: It’s not that at all. We want faster success. Your success would be more valuable if it fed into something bigger.
ROGER: You keep coming back to viability. We are self-sustaining. We may not contribute much to the regional office, but they haven’t been helpful to us for most of the last 30 years. A few years ago, the regional office offered us funding if we would accept mission status. We learned that mission status comes with a forfeiture of property rights. We are not willing to do that. Besides, we have done well without taking that step.
ESTHER: Part of our history is meeting challenges. I have the longest history here. I know that pastors you send us are often pastors who have failed elsewhere. The part-time pastors you send us are well into retirement and do not have the energy to do what needs to be done in a growing church. When there are problems, their side of the story gets circulated in the regional office.
ROGER: Yes, larger churches have choices. We are given ultimatums. Accept this pastor or else.
SUE: So you understand what I mean by history.
ESTHER: We understand that history has more than one side and gossip is not history. A few years ago, a seminarian visited us on Sunday morning. I chatted with her after church. She said she was hearing so much negative talk about us in seminary that she wanted to see for herself. She said she was impressed. One thing she noticed was that we had young men actively involved in ministry. She said many of the congregations are largely older women.
ROGER: Our resilience in working with less than adequate leadership has been a strength. We developed strong lay leadership skills. Let’s get back on topic. Let me understand what you expect of us now. You want us to attract diversity and feed the members we attract to your regional ministries. Right?
SUE: We have the resources to offer a better experience.
ROGER: You have the financial resources. We are not looking for financial resources. We are looking for specific skills and qualities.
SIMION: If we cooperate and your Pan-African mission succeeds, it will be at our expense. Are we sacrificial lambs for a new diversity policy? You will always want our ethnic members to feed into regional programs. What we have achieved here may be slow, but it is organic—not forced. It feels right to us.
ESTHER: Why can’t you find pastors? We’ve found qualified pastors who are comfortable working with us. Let us call one of them.
SUE: You don’t seem to be willing to do undergo the studies needed to issue a call. Again, part of your history.
ESTHER: We just went through six months of interim study with you.
ROGER: Sue, please look at this from our viewpoint. Retired part-time pastors don’t have longevity. Six months of interim ministry every few years is disruptive to our mission. Visitors—and we always have visitors—don’t want to join churches in limbo. Your approach to staffing our ministry is straining our lay efforts.
SUE: The goal is stability. We want things to go smoothly when you finally call a pastor.
DENISE: If pastors have some vision of a stable ministry where 200 people are on the same page in supporting one vision, dream on. Urban neighborhood ministry cannot be stable. You can’t attract diversity without change. My family has experienced all of this first-hand.
ESTHER: One thing I got out of the last six months working with you is how much we were doing well. I love our church. I’m glad to see us moving into the future. It hasn’t always been easy. But our people are comfortable with our new members. Our lives are intertwined—just like they were 50 years ago when we were all related.
SUE: All this is well and good. Bottom line, you are too small to support a regularized call.
SIMION: We are on the verge of being significantly larger. We accepted forty new members last year. Twenty the previous year. Your plan would undo all our progress.
SUE: You are mavericks. What works for you makes the regional office uncomfortable. Here’s how the system is supposed to work. We are supposed to identify candidates and present them to you for congregational approval.
ROGER: But that isn’t working for us. You haven’t presented us with any choices. For the last ten years, we were often without a called pastor. This didn’t seem to concern you. We discovered that when we weren’t devoting half of our income to funding a pastor, there was money to use in more creative ways. By the way, the pastors we found on our own tell us they have been trying to contact the regional offices and can’t get a return call.
SUE: They aren’t following procedure. Let me be blunt. We need to see more people of color. That’s where the grant money from the national offices is going. That’s how and why we are starting regional churches to serve specific ethnic groups.
ROGER: Well, we’ve applied for grants. Remember the In the City for Good grants? We received a nice rejection letter every year, but that didn’t stop us. I know we don’t get recognition—partly because we often don’t have a pastor to represent us.
SIMION: That’s not entirely true. We were invited to submit a report detailing our ministry efforts to the national church. One of our long-term supplies told them about us. Three of us have been working with one of our volunteer pastors to describe our ministry.
SUE: I didn’t know that. I’d like to know who you are working with in the national office.
SIMION: I’ll send you our report.
SUE: We aren’t making progress here. Let’s step back and start the conversation over. My time as interim pastor is coming to an end. What are you looking for in a pastor?
ROGER: We want a pastor who can love our community and who is comfortable working with people who speak English as a second, third or fourth language. We want a pastor who can help develop an online presence that will continue our outreach. We want a pastor who can be an ambassador for us within the denomination and help us undo the “history” that seems to taint every interaction we have with the regional office. We want to be a Christian presence in our vibrant neighborhood. Basically, we want a pastor who can lead with compassion, empathy and love as we grow to become something new.
ESTHER: I heard that our bishop is working with one of our neighboring congregations even though they are a different denomination.
SUE: That’s true, They asked for our help and since our denominations are in full communion we felt we could assist.
ESTHER: It seems like you are helping them while discouraging us. Hardly seems fair. Their attendance is lower than ours and diversity all but non-existent.
SUE: The issues are unrelated. We just don’t have pastors who want to serve in neighborhoods like yours.
ESTHER: It’s the same neighborhood as the other congregation you are working with. And we are far more diverse than they are.
SUE: All right, I’ll be honest with you. I enjoyed my six months with you. You have great people and extraordinary lay leadership. Even so, I’ve been fighting in the regional office to keep them from closing you.
ROGER: None of us is surprised. It was obvious to us the entire six months. Perhaps that is why the turnout at meetings was often poor. You saw it as lack of interest. It was lack of trust.
ESTHER: Is there some reason why we can’t call one of the pastors we know can work with us? They are qualified. They graduated from seminaries in our denomination. They are responsible for the last two years of remarkable growth. They want to be here.
SUE: Write a resolution. I’ll present it to the bishop. But don’t get your hopes up. In truth, I’ve been asked to approach your ethnic members directly to ask them to consider attending other churches. If the Pan-African Church, doesn’t suit, we can make other suggestions.
ROGER: This is SO not OK. We’ll have a resolution to you within the next ten days. But it looks like we have wasted the last six months.
In 2008, our synod attempted to force our congregation into closure. In the report they drafted to present to the synod assembly, the reported our membership as 13—the number of white members—excluding 62 members of color and various backgrounds who had joined in the most recent 15 years. Courts refused to hear our case, citing no jurisdiction. Black and White, we were all locked out of our building in September 2009. Our property was sold. Our sanctuary is now apartment buildings. Our educational wing was torn-down and is five townhouses. We were excluded from participation in Synod Assembly, in opposition to constitutional procedures, in an attempt to control dialog and gain support for unconstitutional policies. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has the lowest diversity statistics of mainline denominations, according to a recent study.