In Christianity Today’s leadership discussion, Merk DeVimaz quotes approvingly an African-American pastor who says:
“…if you hire or otherwise empower African Americans only to lead your church in worship, you may inadvertently suggest to people, ‘We accept them as entertainers.’ If you hire or otherwise empower African Americans only to work with your children, you may inadvertently suggest, ‘We accept them to nanny our kids.’ And if you hire or otherwise employ African Americans only as janitors, you are quite clearly stating, ‘We expect them to clean up after us.’ It is only when you allow us to share your pulpit, to serve with you on the elder board or alongside you in apportioning the money, that we will be truly one with you in church.”
On the surface, this sounds right. There is, after all, no reason some African-Americans should not be in leadership roles. A little consideration reveals some serious problems, however.
This kind of comment is exactly what churches just beginning to integrate do NOT need to hear, because it paralyzes their ability to naturally and gracefully include African-Americans into their church life in ways appropriate for specific individuals, as the process goes forward.
It engages in a “straw man” argument, by inappropriate use of the word “only”. Most churches won’t “only” do anything in particular regarding African-Americans. To the extent they have African-Americans (I assume this comment was aimed at mixed churches), they may be found in a variety of roles, befitting the individuals in question, not their racial identity. And sadly, this kind of comment, taken too seriously by well meaning, mostly white churches, could cost some deserving, hard working African-American a needed job cleaning the church. I’m sure that unemployed person will be happy that the church only wants to use white people in that capacity, so as not to demean African-Americans.
It implies that leading worship is entertainment. If people think the presence of an African-American suggests that, “We accept them as entertainers,” then you have a much bigger problem than lack of diversity. Your church doesn’t understand the essential nature of worship, and desperately needs to grow in that area before you have any hope of addressing the issue of diversity in worship leading. Your response should not be a feeling of guilt that a talented African-American is leading worship, it should be a feeling of guilt that you have so poorly instructed your congregation about worship.
The comment implies that, in comparison to pastors or deacons, there is some essentially lesser worth for people who lead worship, care for and educate children, or care for the facility. This is specifically non-scriptural, and speaks to a real lack of humility on the part of “leadership”. If that is the perception of the church as a whole, perhaps there is a lack of proper teaching about the body of Christ. This sounds like a product of “leaders” who have bought into the notion of pastors and deacons as little bosses, instead of servants. To be blunt, that doesn’t sound like Christ talking, it sounds like modern corporate leadership theory.
There is no a priori reason to believe that any given pastoral position can automatically be filled by some available African-American candidate, even if the church “wants” one. Churches vary enormously in their needs, in the kind of preparation pastors are expected to have, and in the demographics that have been historically likely to get that preparation. A church that would like to find such a candidate simply may not be able to do so in available time with available resources. That church is not to be condemned for it, but applauded for even looking. And African-Americans in that church who hoped for an African-American pastor need to be reminded, hopefully in word by one of their own number, and in deed by everyone else, that they are one with the body regardless of who is pastor this year.
In a denomination that is energetically reaching out to African-Americans, it may take an entire generation for a sufficient number of African-Americans to undergo the education and developmental process required to develop a selection of possible pastors.
Similarly, in many (most?) churches, deacons or board members are elected, normally from among well-known and respected members who have considerable history with that local body. Assuming good intent on the part of an historically white church with a recent influx of African-Americans, should they rush to elect one of them to the board, when a white person of such recent acquaintance with the church would not be so chosen? It takes time to build the relationships of trust that are necessary for a deacon.
So: if a church has had a reasonable proportion of African-Americans for years who have been faithful and consistent (as deacons are normally expected to be) and for some reason none of them are ever elected to the board, that might indicate a problem for a board of deacons to consider, and perhaps for a pastor to address. But the kind of comment quoted here is guaranteed to intimidate churches that are just beginning that journey.
Lurking behind this comment is the old affirmative action quota system, where numbers of minorities in particular positions are counted, and if they don’t fit some preconceived (but sometimes unannounced) standard, the entire enterprise is declared deficient.
A church with African-Americans leading worship, taking care of and educating kids, and keeping up the place, had better be about the business of making sure everyone is up to snuff on understanding the nature of the body of Christ. Such a church should not feel inadequate if no African-Americans happen to be deacons or pastors, though if there is any reasonable proportion of African-Americans in the church, it’s reasonable to expect it to be just a matter of time… though it may be quite some time, depending on the situation. And that simply has to be OK with all concerned.
hat tip: Enharmonic