Ethnic Ministries

Becoming an inclusive church: the challenges of clergy diversity

GBHEM  The Rev. David Martinez
GBHEM The Rev. David Martinez

She has experienced both the joy of being in ministry "with and for my brothers and sisters in our global village" and what she calls the "sharp daggers of -isms" — racism, classism, sexism.

In every appointment, she says, someone leaves the church because she is a Hispanic woman. She's been insulted because she mispronounced or misspelled a word. One member told her district superintendent she was the wrong choice because she wasn't "one of us."

However, in all her appointments, she says, while she has been rejected by a few, she has been "welcomed and loved by many."

"When people have opened their hearts, when we have accepted each other as we are, ministry flourished, lives were transformed," she says.

Fernandez is senior pastor at Hope United Methodist Church in Belchertown, a 1,000-member, English-speaking congregation that's 95 percent Caucasian. Her experience there gives her hope The United Methodist Church can make effective cross-cultural/racial appointments.

The Rev. HiRho Park, director of clergy lifelong learning with the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry's division of ordained ministry, shares Fernandez's optimism, but says there is more to do on a denominational level and for clergy serving in these often-challenging appointments.

The future church

Of the nearly 45,000 United Methodist Church clergy in the United States, 5,108 are racial-ethnic clergy, Park says. That's an increase from 3,800 in 2010.

But as she looks at demographic changes in the nation and the denomination becoming a global church, she wonders, "Is this enough?"

While non-Hispanic white Americans were 63.7 percent of the U.S. population in 2010, she said, by 2043 there will be no majority group.

Park believes that makes recruitment of racial-ethnic young clergy urgent. Also critical is helping younger generations develop global leadership skills and, perhaps, requiring proficiency in a second language so clergy can minster to multiple language groups.

Although more than 2,200 churches have cross-racial appointments, according to the General Council on Finance and Administration, most racial-ethnic clergy, Park says, are serving racial-ethnic churches. Only 19 U.S. racial-ethnic clergy, mostly African-American males, are serving large Caucasian churches. Moreover, few Caucasian pastors are serving racial-ethnic churches.

"What that means is we are still in the challenge of being an inclusive church," Park says. "The paradigm of a future church will be no clear racial-ethnic lines."

The Rev. Roslyn Lee, a 32-year-old Korean-American pastor serving Grace United Methodist Church in Lindenhurst, N.Y., agrees. "When there is no majority in any given area of the denomination, we may then be able to claim equal voice and equal representation," she says.

While adding more racial-ethnic clergy is important, Park says, even more so is "advocacy for their rights (as clergy) and human rights and sensitizing the public about their culture and leadership styles."

Not what you'd expect

Lee says she's been "a first" for nearly every congregation she has served — first female pastor, first Korean-American, first pastor younger than 35. That means she repeatedly faces many of the same challenges — racial and cultural acceptance issues among them.

Lee says the first six months at a church are "overflowing" with efforts to chip away at the assumption that all people in a cultural group do things the same way. She is often expected to be the expert on outreach to other minorities. One member told her, "We can reach out to the minorities now that you are here."

And like Fernandez, she has experienced the -isms. "The racism is there, even in the church," she says.

It's expressed in comments like, "You look just like my relative/friend/neighbor's adopted daughter from China/Vietnam/Japan/Korea" and "At least you speak good English."

Even when she tells members she was born and raised in Queens, N.Y., "most want to know where I am originally from," she said.

The Rev. Jacob Williams, an African-American serving as senior pastor at First United Methodist Church in Valparaiso, Ind. — a 1,300-member church that's predominantly white in a community with an ethnic population of less than 5 percent — has also experienced the sting of racism.

He says in one appointment he was not able to "baptize, marry or bury anyone in the congregation" because of racial issues, even though he was the senior pastor; the associate pastor performed those duties.

While all clergy face the need to prove themselves in a new appointment, Williams says, in a cross-racial setting, that's compounded by apprehension over the uniqueness of the appointment and fear things will be done differently.

People who have had little, if any, contact with an ethnic person now realize that "he/she will be baptizing my child, coming over to my home or visiting with me in the hospital," Williams says. "The fear of the unknown is always at work."

Park says salary discrepancies between white and racial-ethnic clergy, stereotyping, unequal representation at leadership levels, cost of education and training, and lack of role models are challenges.

The Rev. David Martinez, director of Higher Education and Ministry's specialized programs of theological education, adds language to that list.

"Most of our Spanish-speaking clergy are typically appointed to Spanish-speaking congregations because of English limitations," he says. In conferences with limited Hispanic churches, "This makes it hard for the cabinet to appoint Spanish (speaking)-only clergy."

Bilingual pastors, he says, have an advantage because of their ability to minister to both Hispanic and English speakers.

Other challenges for Spanish-speaking clergy are lack of education, understanding the ordination process and maintaining aging facilities in congregations with limited resources.

Topping the list for Native American clergy, say the Revs. David Wilson and Chebon Kernell, is salary inequity.

"The present base salary for those with an M.Div. is $28,726, which makes it very difficult for some to serve," said Wilson, superintendent of the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference (OIMC). "It is at or below the poverty line ... far below the national average in The United Methodist Church."

Related is the cost of education. "We have to be creative with training events regarding travel and expenses," Wilson says. "We have pastors who sometimes cannot afford adequate transportation, telephones. Many of our pastors do not have Internet because of costs and equipment."

Kernell is executive secretary of Native American and Indigenous Ministries at the General Board of Global Ministries. He says most of the 80 to 90 Native American clergy are appointed to OIMC churches and fellowships in Kansas, Texas and Missouri.

Unique to their experience, Kernell says, is the diversity among tribes, numbering 39 in Oklahoma alone. A cross-cultural appointment in that context could mean serving a church with members of a different tribe.

"You will see communication differences, prayer differences — even ways of laying out a fellowship dinner would be different," he says.

Another challenge, Wilson and Kernell say, is the tension between Native beliefs and Christian theology.

"There is that residue, if you will, of the past missionary efforts who told Native persons that in order to be Christians, you had to put away your ‘Indian-ness,'" Wilson says. "That included much, but especially the use of rituals and ceremonies that are part of Native life today."

That has improved, especially in the OIMC, he says, because "everything we do is Native" and leaders affirm the expression of Native American culture in ministry.

Making strides

A variety of initiatives have led to other advances, Park says.

In addition to providing continuing education funds and online leadership training and continuing education, the board trains clergy to coach other clergy and helps boards of ordained ministry and district superintendents address multiculturalism and inclusiveness. An ethnic in-service initiative provides grants for recruiting, training and retaining racial-ethnic United Methodists for leadership positions, and networking to support racial-ethnic pastors serving large Caucasian churches.

Martinez says the agency also collaborates with two seminaries to provide the Course of Study in Spanish and with Universidad Biblica Latino Americana to help clergy complete a bachelor's degree. His office urges boards of ordained ministry to encourage Spanish-speaking clergy to study English as a second language.

The General Commission on Religion and Race has a multiethnic center for ministry and a host of resources to increase diversity and equity in the church.

What also makes a difference, Park says, is honest conversation that alleviates suspicions about different cultures and ignorance that creates hostility between the laity and clergy.

"Many times we are in denial that Christian churches have racial hostility and our pastors experience that a lot," she says.

Clergy can also help members value diversity and inclusiveness, Park says, through preaching that highlights the biblical basis for both found in Genesis and in Romans and the other letters of Paul.

Martinez, Williams and Wilson say clergy must also be willing to learn about the cultures in which they serve and better understand the nuances that come with cross-cultural/racial appointments.

All agree things are improving.

"I see more acceptance by the majority culture (of) ethnic clergy ... because our society has changed drastically," Williams said. "The younger generations ... are more understanding that we are all human, with faults and failures, regardless of race, creed or color. I have been privileged to see this great evolution of thought."

Lee enjoys experiencing the diverse ways people worship and learn. "Spirituality is so embedded in one's cultural experience," she says. "Discovering the various ways people worship has been a blessing to me in this journey."

It's a journey that expands everyone's horizons, Fernandez says, enabling clergy and church members to "experience each other's sense of identity as children of a creative God who made us so unique and all alike at the same time."

Tita Parham is a freelance writer, editor and communications consultant based in Apopka, Fla.

Originally published in Interpreter Magazine, September –October , 2014.