Remembering the Future

I spent the day at the Strengthening the Black Church for the 21st Century (SBC 21) summit in North Charleston, South Carolina.  The positive spirit and energy of this gathering is infectious, and the hopeful vision is noble.   But this is a gathering of leaders from throughout our connectional system, and it’s disheartening that there are no more than 8 or 9 non-black participants at the event.  In my own experience, I was asked no less than 3 times why I was attending this event… why didn’t I send (insert name of African-American leader here)?  The “us/themness” of our current church is distressing.  The health and vitality of the black church is “our” responsibility — the whole “united” Methodist church.  Where is everybody?  Are we still marginalizing and factionalizing our church after all we’ve learned?  Do we really believe systemic change is possible when we pay lip service to our pluralism, but fail to come to the table together?  I’m sorry.  This is a great vision that way too many leaders in our church remain woefully ignorant about.

Not that it is without problems.  The challenges of revitalization, new faith communities, identity, purpose and mission are pretty much the same as the entire church faces, but the added challenges of heritage, empowerment, community and justice compound the immensity.  The rich, varied, and defining story of black church in black culture is a bedrock foundation that means the past is as important as the present and the future.  But too many leaders don’t merely seek to remember the past so much as live in it, and this is a problem.  Our future — the future of the black church as well as the larger United Methodist Church — does not lie in our past.  Yet, there is no future for the black church that is not built squarely on the heritage and history that gives it strength and direction.  SBC 21 is calling the key leadership of the contemporary church to write a new story for the black church living its way into the future… and it is a story of hope, purpose, transformation, and promise. 

Perhaps the most hopeful and compelling part of the vision is that the leaders of the black church realize how much they need each other.  While the moderate mainline strives to do it alone, the black church knows that its future rises or falls for all.  The vision for sharing, mentoring, guiding and journeying together is central to renewal.  The Congregation Resource Center model has all kinds of potential — and as long as they don’t fall victim to old training/coaching/planning/resourcing structures, they should do well.  What’s different about this iteration of SBC is that everything is organized to shift attention away from the problems of the past onto the possibilities of the future.  The recurrent question here is, what needs to be different?  What will take us somewhere new and meaningful?

The critical issue, at least from my perspective, is energy and how to sustain it.  These events are always spiritually and emotionally charged — hallmarks of the African-American tradition and style.  When people leave the rarified air of the mountaintop experience, what will sustain them?  We need a new kind of system supporting a new kind of approach to support a wide variety of churches facing a boatload of old, old problems.  This is a problem that will take all of us, not just some of us.  This is a challenge that requires commitment and ownership, not just lip service and cheerleading.  Somehow, the importance of strengthening all aspects of our denomination needs to start by supporting every aspect that is seeking transformative change.

One of the most helpful things we can do for minority segments of our church is honestly admit what isn’t working for the majority segments.  Large church (successful) models are not good for the church.  They misdirect and misinform.  They pretend that context isn’t crucial.  Formulas to follow are lies.  We need concepts that transcend our limitations.  No one else has the answer we need.  Yes, we can learn principles and processes that we can use in a wide variety of contexts, but there are virtually no models or plans that can be lifted from one setting and applied to another.  We need to be gifts based rather than resource dependent.  Books, DVDs, and training events can spark some good thinking, but they don’t hold real answers.  Learning takes more time than training.  A weekend event or a three-hour workshop delivers information, but not formation or transformation.  Mentoring works better than coaching; mentors help people unleash their own potential while coaches guide people to discover the potential the coach believes you have.  Coaching is much more destination driven than mentoring, which is about discovery.  Discernment is healthier than consultation.  Too many of our consultants think they know what we need instead of helping us figure out what God thinks we need.

I’m not sure I fully understand what the tangible outcomes will be from all of this, but there is hope.  SBC 21 is talking about transformation in ways the dominant church has yet to begin.  There is leadership here that our church desperately needs.  My prayer is that more and more United Methodists find out what is happening in the black church and begins to realize it is time that we focus on putting the united back in United Methodist.

15 replies

  1. I spent several years as an associate on the staff of an historically African American congregation in Wichita, Ks. It was a real eye opener for me to see the SBC program at work. It was inspiring to see the congregations travel to participate in these events in order to worship, fellowship and learn from one another. It was a great way for congregations to create sustaining relationships between clergy leaders and the lay leadership of the congregations that went beyond a few hours in a workshop. Without such connections and relationships many African American UMC’s ( I would put other minority groups in here as well) would feel isolated and “out there” on their own. I think it is a great model for all congregations to seek out other communities of faith to relate to in order to not just learn how to get better but also for stretching and sustaining relationship building that is energizing, helpful and hopeful.

    • The various ethnic plans have the potential to bring new people to church. The regulatory agencies do not.

      • I simply agree with Bishop Willimon who said that the major test of GCRR will be confessions of faith from non-white people.

        There is a major difference between GCRR, GCSRW, GCCUIC and GBCS versus SBC21 and the ethnic plans. The former exist to tell us how racist, sexist and unenlightened we are while spending our apportionment dollars. The latter, however well or poorly they work in practice, are supposed to help us bring people to Christ who don’t look like you, Dan or me.

        Do you want me to be more specific?

      • I have never defended our denominational Boards and agencies. In fact, I have openly criticized them. Their efforts have been ineffective in many respects. Even Strengthening the Black Church is on its fourth “reboot” because the longer and harder it works, the worse the situation seems to get for the black church. Formalizing committees and task forces within a dysfunctional system is the default setting: when you don’t know what you’re doing, do what you know. We don’t solve problems in The United Methodist Church — we talk about them. Which is my point about the deeply corrosive racism allowed in our church. There are an awful lot of “good Christians” looking the other way, living in denial, or indulging their ignorance when it comes to racial equality. The racism of the south was overt and pervasive while I lived in Tennessee, but that was more honest than the insidious and subversive racism rotting the system in New Jersey. There the public face was inclusiveness and diversity, while the true face was ugly and mean. Racism in New Jersey (and especially the Northern New Jersey Annual Conference) was toxic. Thank goodness we had homosexuality and AIDS to distract us!

  2. The church collective needs to openly deal with the history and reality of racism in America. It is this reality which has separated us and created the need for marginalized groups to create “safe spaces” where they could come together to worship God without being made to feel inferior or as though God ordained that they should be enslaved to another group. The existence of separate spaces of worship by these marginalized groups continues today because the “church” is still a very racist, classist, and exclusionary place. It has not yet captured the liberating vision of Christ who left the organized religion symbolized by a building and went out to where people lived and worked. There will be no real change until church –White, Black, Latino/a or Asian– embrace a theology of inclusion and love that’s backed up with its leadership diversity, worship style, and community ministry.

  3. Unfortunately, race-based thinking goes in both directions. Remember, while majority-white congregations are expected to welcome a racial/ethnic pastor without any qualms, it is “wrong” to place a white pastor with a racial/ethnic congregation.

    Instead of treating people based on their character and merit, we still treat people differently based on what they look like.

    • Having studied our recent history of cross-racial appointments, I can understand your concern but can also say I strongly disagree with you. This is one place where focusing on a few extreme cases doesn’t do any good. This is a one-way-street issue, where our insipient racism is crystal clear. While we might want to believe the system is mature enough to base decisions on merit, that is idealistic. The reality is we are in a system corrupted by a virulent racism where the whole system is sub-optimized by collusion to allow evil behavior on one side and to turn a blind eye on the other. Yes, we should be above this kind of immaturity, but alas we are not.

      • “virulent racism”??? I realize your bishop is the president of GCRR, but that seems rather extreme.

        How many racial/ethnic churches have white pastors? For how many is the reverse true?

        Past results show that the time, talent and treasure spent on the regulatory agencies does not result in new faces coming to the UMC.

      • The expectation, throughout our system, is that a racial-ethnic dominant congregation will receive a Caucasian pastor without comment as a gift and blessing. When a racial-ethnic leader appointment is made in a cross-cultural setting, it rarely proceeds without comment and resistance. Now, granted, these things are only true 95% of the time, so you can make a case based on the rare exceptions, if you would choose to do this. But it is highly unlikely that racism is not at the root of most of the resistance. We may want to pretend we are inclusive and accepting, but it is only pretending.

      • Maybe Wisconsin is a conference with more racial/ethnic congregations than there are racial/ethnic clergy. GNJ isn’t. I figure that most conferences aren’t. I keep asking for some sort of numbers from you, but don’t get them.

        I continue to hear of far more racial/ethnic clergy in white congregations than white clergy in racial/ethnic congregations.

        I am not denying that racism continues to be present in our society and in our church. But, since you were just a witness to “reverse racism” I would think that you would agree that, unfortunately, it goes both ways.

      • Having come out of the New Jersey Conference, I can attest to the racial ambivalence that was embarrassingly 19th century, especially evident in the ways people like Hae Jong Kim, Ernie Lyght, and Bishop Johnson were treated as conference leaders. Shameful is too gentle a term, but widespread fits nicely.

        As to numbers. In a denomination that is 70% white-euro-anglo you will have some disparity. The numbers I provide don’t seem to make any impact, but it doesn’t change the fact that for every one troubled placement of a white pastor in a racial-ethnic/multicultural church, there are twelve (11.7) troubled placements of black or hispanic/latino pastors in predominantly white/multicultural churches. This number triples if we just limit our attention to females. Now, this is defended as “normal” by some in our denomination. I personally think it is unconscionable. And the idea that because I was on the receiving end of “reverse racism” it somehow obviates the fundamental lack of justice and integrity of the majority doesn’t work for me. The fact that it still exists in a system where so many act like we have dealt with it in healthy and mature ways is the real problem.

      • The laity is 90% “white-euro-anglo” not 70%. GNJ is one of the more diverse conferences and we are still over 80% white. Wisconsin is only 2% racial/ethnic.

        Even the clergy is 84% white across the US. Wisconsin is over 90% white and GNJ is 80% white.

        I don’t know where the 1:11.7 ratio comes from. To be honest, I’m not sure that there are any white pastors serving racial/ethnic congregations in GNJ. There may be, but I doubt it.

        I don’t believe that Bishop Kim and Bishop Lyght feel that they were poorly treated in NJ. I don’t want to get into details, but are you really trying to say that Bishop Johnson was treated unfairly??? I have had a good relationship with him, considering various events it would have been impossible for him to remain as an active bishop.

  4. Dear Dan – Thank you for this reflection. What a gift our Lord has blessed you with. Your thoughts strengthen my resolve to do no harm, do good, and to stay in love with God. May all Methodists unite in action to wake-up and become MIGHTY for His Glory and Purpose, Amen.

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