Q: I am the pastor of a church in a changing neighborhood, and it is clear that we need to be more multicultural/multiracial in our ministry. How can I begin to create real community amid difference?

A: Although American congregations share the call to inclusivity, studies show that more than 90 percent of U.S. Christians worship in congregations in which 90 percent or more of the congregants share their racial/ethnic heritage (see Mark Chaves, National Congregations Study, National Opinion Research Center, 1998). Even churches with a sincere desire to diversify may encounter barriers such as location, language, and worship style. My consulting/research practice at the Alban Institute has included work with chaplains, pastors, lay leaders, and denominational officials who are accurately reading that in a time of shifting demographics, the valuing and building of culturally and racially diverse faith communities increasingly will be the norm. Yet the numbers speak for themselves: achieving diversity and inclusion is difficult work.

Concurrently with my action-research with Alban Institute clients, I have experienced two other learning environments—a one-year conversation with a diverse group of clergy, denominational leaders, and Alban staff on what it means to negotiate cultural boundaries (see Jeffrey Haggray, “In Mission on the Boundaries—On Purpose!,” Congregations, Summer 2003), and my doctoral studies at Drew University, where I am writing a dissertation on the identity development of clergy who serve racially and culturally diverse congregations. I suggest that clergy are able to tell compelling stories of a new world order as they build congregations that celebrate difference.

Although my research still is in process, it seems clear that leadership is key to building authentic community. I use “leadership” to mean “the ability to create a safe environment or container in which the uniqueness of individuals, difference in culture and experiences, and healthy conflict can be affirmed.”

Leaders need these capacities to create this safe container:

  • A clear, consistent ethic that “being on the frontier” is a critical theological task
  • The ability to bring critical analysis, faith tradition, and a learned articulation to bear on situations
  • The willingness to be wrong
  • Courage to speak the truth, and to know when to be quiet and listen
  • Strength to live with ambiguity, including the dissonance between what we think the relationship between God and humanity ought to be and what it is
  • Determination to address conflict head on
  • The savvy to know that borders shift—today it may be race and ethnicity, tomorrow gender and sexuality
  • The humility to be self-aware and self-reflective, to be open and take in information
  • The boldness to be visionary and prophetic, and the spiritual willingness to act when action is not popular, knowing that deliverance is coming
  • The patience to live on the border amid tension, even death
  • The knack of recruiting allies and partners for ministry that is lonely work
  • A binding vision, the ability to articulate it, and passion for the work
  • The skills to read and interpret the environment
  • The authenticity and integrity to “walk the talk” and “practice what you preach”
  • The grace to be hospitable and welcoming
  • A sense of humor, and the capacity for play
  • A willingness to step on and over the edge, knowing that folk on the edge are sometimes cut

Valuing All Voices
One way leaders build diverse communities is through storytelling and structured conversations. We learn several truths from these conversations:

  • The stress of racial difference can make people mistrust their voices at the table. Those in the minority, and even white men, can feel that their voices do not count. Trust must be built so that people learn that their voices are valued.
  • When sharing stories, people can at times feel that there are parallel histories—one black and the other white—and Hispanic and Asian peoples may feel left out of the story altogether. How do we learn to value all the stories and to weave them together to create one?
  • Stories may overlap and yet differ substantially. It is important to value all perspectives.
  • Language and word choice are important.
  • Attentive listening helps heal wounds.
  • While it takes time to create a container for difficult conversations, groups feel uplifted by candid exchanges, and when success is celebrated, they are more likely in the future to enter into meaningful exchange.

Rev. Jacqueline J. Lewis is a senior consultant at the Alban Institute responsible for the Negotiating Cultural Boundaries Project. Rev. Lewis is ordained in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and has served diverse urban congregations. She lives in North Bethesda, Maryland.