Racial/Ethnic Lead Pastors Look at Challenges of Tall Steeple Churches

October 11, 2012

By Vickie Brown

The United Methodist Church has about 1,200 churches with more than 1,000 members, but just 20 of them are served by a racial-ethnic pastor of a different race or ethnicity than the majority of the members.
So a small group of racial-ethnic pastors who have cross-racial and cross-cultural appointments in large churches gathered in Orlando, Fla., last month to grapple with the unique challenges they face.
The Rev. Jacob Williams, pastor of First United Methodist Church of Valparaiso, Ind., said the church in general does not readily understand the depth of emotions that goes into being a pastor of any church.
"However, it becomes even more complicated when the 'spiritual leader' is racially and culturally different from the majority of the parishioners. This event allowed me to share with others who are in a similar situation," Williams said. "Having others to empathize and to offer words of wisdom was good for my mind and soul."
Bishop Warner H. Brown Jr., resident bishop of the California-Nevada Annual Conference, shared his own experiences with the group and talked about issues pertinent to a cross-racial, cross-cultural appointment in a large church. He said the event provided a chance for "excellent conversation among racial-ethnic pastors that have been called to serve predominately white congregations."
"The pastors of large congregations across the church are discovering the benefit of both collaboration and coaching. This conversation intentionally focused on supporting those in cross-cultural ministry with coaching and an opportunity to share their experiences," Brown said.
The Rev. HiRho Park, director of Continuing Formation for Ministry in the General Board of Higher and Ministry's Division of Ordained Ministry, said serving a large church can be a lonely journey, especially for a racial-ethnic pastor who is serving a majority Caucasian large church as a cross-racial and cross-cultural appointment. Park organized the meeting held Sept. 6-8.
"I have observed that racial-ethnic pastors who are serving large Caucasian churches with a membership of 1,000 or more may often have unique challenges which combine issues that are related to race and culture as well as issues that come with being a large church; such as finances and staffing issues," Park said.
The group set a number of goals, beginning with forming a support network among racial-ethnic lead pastors who are serving large Caucasian churches.
"I pray that this group will help develop younger generations of clergy who will serve cross-racial and cross-cultural appointments. I believe that the UMC as a global church will need the wisdom and leadership skills of these pastors as we become a more and more diverse society," Park said.
The pastors also considered how to provide continuing education opportunities for leadership development, and how to nurture a new generation of clergy who can serve God's people regardless of their race, gender, sexuality, culture, class, or their nationality.
The group plans to have an annual meeting, beginning with one in California next August. At the next meeting, other pastors in cross-racial, cross-cultural appointments of churches larger than 300 members will be invited.
The pastors said that more research was needed to find out demographics of African-American pastors who are serving cross-racial and cross-cultural appointments. They also proposed exploring a relationship between large churches and small churches to nurture younger generations of cross-racial and cross-cultural pastors across the denomination.
*Brown is associate editor and writer, Office of Interpretation, General Board of Higher Education and Ministry.