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UM churches break stereotypes about racial-ethnic leaders

Tom Gillem
October 28, 2014

Racial-ethnic pastors who lead large predominantly Caucasian United Methodist churches in the United States are open-minded and spiritual, with adaptive leadership styles that break stereotypes about racial-ethnic leaders, according to a new survey by the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry.

“They are vulnerable trailblazers,” the Rev. Dr. HiRho Park, director of Clergy Lifelong Learning at GBHEM, said of the handful of racial-ethnic lead pastors because they practice their faith of bringing together the majority and minority perspectives of society in their ministry.

“Their presence there—many times among very few other racial-ethnic persons in majority (white) congregations of hundreds and thousands of people—is very vulnerable,” Park said. “And they are trailblazers because not many pastors have gone down this road yet.”

The UMC’s inclusiveness is unique among other Christian churches in the United States, said Park, who completed studies on the subject for both her doctor of ministry and doctor of philosophy degrees. “I didn't see that any denomination in the Christian protestant churches or Catholic Church have this kind of intentional policy to try to be an inclusive church. So I really celebrate that,” she said.

Park, who conducted the study with Mark McCormack, GBHEM’s director of Research, said of the 1,070 large churches with 1,000 or more members in the United States in 2011, only 20 had lead racial-ethnic, or non-white, pastors serving majority Caucasian congregations, and most of them were African American males.

GBHEM began hosting gatherings of racial-ethnic, cross-racial and cross-cultural lead pastors, and in 2012, the group formed a support network to share the unique challenges they face.

At the group’s suggestion, GBHEM surveyed racial-ethnic pastors this year to measure leadership patterns. The survey was a follow-up to a Lead Pastors Survey disseminated by GBHEM in 2008 and completed in 2011, in which almost all of the respondents were Caucasian.

The latest survey used the same questions in the earlier survey with the addition of several items related to racial-ethnic and cultural issues, as well as challenges racial-ethnic pastors face at their current appointments. To make the new survey relevant for comparison to the earlier Lead Pastors Survey, racial-ethnic pastors serving churches with a membership of 500 or more were included, which increased the number from 20 to 75.

“The United Methodist Church is striving to witness God's love to all people through cross-racial and cross-cultural appointments. It is our intentional way of practicing being an inclusive church,” Park said.

Major changes in the racial makeup of the U.S. population are expected in the coming decades. In 2012, the U.S. Census Bureau predicted that no single racial-ethnic group would constitute a majority of children under 18 by the end of this decade. In 30 years, census data suggests that no single group will constitute a majority and non-Hispanic whites will fall below 50 percent.

While clergy leadership of the UMC is becoming more diverse, UMC membership trends in the United States do not reflect the nation’s increasingly diverse demographics. The church has a majority white U.S. membership—91.2 percent white in 2009, and 90 percent in 2013. African Americans make up 6 percent of the denomination’s U.S. members, while Asians, Hispanic/Latino and multi-racial groups each constitute 1 percent.

“This is a pertinent indicator that the UMC needs to strategically plan to nurture clergy who are called to serve the church cross-racially and culturally with needed leadership skills,” the survey’s executive summary says.

Racial-ethnic, cross-racial and cross-cultural lead pastors are breaking stereotypes “not only by their presence, but also by their skills, based on transnational and intercultural experiences that contribute to the church and that change the traditional understanding of white, male-oriented ‘senior pastors,’” the study says.

The survey also indicated that most racial-ethnic lead pastors have leadership styles that allow them to be fluent and versatile and willing to take risks.

“Their leadership style is very adaptive and skillful because half of these pastors are second career people from professional backgrounds, so they are already bringing a lot of executive level skills to lead these large churches,” Park said. “Of course, they have a lot of experience within the church, too.”

The survey’s executive summary and results are available online here, as well as a theological analysis by HiRho Park.

*Gillem is a freelance writer and photographer in Brentwood, Tenn.