This week’s post is written by Rev. Kathy Clark and Rev. Malcolm Himschoot of the Ministerial Excellence, Support and Authorization (MESA) Team within the UCC’s national setting.
God our Creator has a way of affirming us in our different and diverse identities. This is a statement we can claim theologically.
Professionally, Kathy Clark works with the over 750 Members in Discernment (MIDs) in the United Church of Christ. Particularly in MID gatherings both locally and nationally, she notes the high degree of diverse identities that Members in Discernment carry while they prepare for possible authorization as Licensed, Commissioned or Ordained ministers of the church. Malcolm Himschoot works with processes undergirding Search and Call for local church pastors in the UCC. He notes that between 12-14% of ministers presently in the profiles database have opted to identify a heritage considered a “person of color” in the United States. These two observations indicate a higher percentage of diversity in available personnel than in UCC membership overall.
Members in Discernment, if seeking pastoral opportunities in the United Church of Christ, commonly report that they worry about bias against the particularity of their identities: woman, transgender, person of color, Black, young, old, gay, differently-abled. In gatherings of African-American women in ministry and in settings where queer ministers gather, specifically, anecdotes of waiting a long time for one’s first call abound. The Ministerial Excellence, Support and Authorization (MESA) Team has noted far more people of color present in Member in Discernment gatherings compared to those present in gatherings of newly authorized ministers, leading us to believe there is a clog in our pipeline that needs to be addressed. Not calling excellent, diverse leaders to our local congregations results in a loss to the whole Body of Christ.
The way for search committees to draw the most talented ministers to serve Christ’s church is to begin by recognizing that there is implicit bias in our systems.¹ Search committees who are most successful at meeting the Bold, Inspirational Goal of Excellent, Diverse Leaders for the UCC, engage the following practices. They:
• Explicitly adopt as a goal the inclusion of racial and other diversities in their candidate pool;
• Take concrete steps to ensure diversity within the batch of applicants;
• Write a careful position description that focuses on gifts and competencies, not only of the candidates but also of the congregation and the communities it serves;
• Publicize widely including in communities of color and other informal and formal networks, such as the UCC Disabilities Network and UCC Ministry Opportunities;
• Carefully review profiles according to abilities in the position description;
• Ask all applicants the same interview questions; and
• Are prayerful and discerning in this process, inviting and trusting the Holy Spirit to be at work in their midst.
Sailing on Faith depicts one example of a search committee coming to new awareness and new possibilities by overcoming categorical criteria. This 25-minute video is viewed by many search committees who are surprised by their congregation’s readiness to follow God’s lead into non-partiality in Christian leadership (Acts 10:34).
The new UCC Ministerial Profile, reflecting the vision of the Ministry Issues Pronouncement of 2005, was developed to incorporate inclusive paths of formation and education. Use of The Marks of Faithful and Effective Authorized Ministers of the UCC has overall raised standards in authorization while lifting up competencies equivalent across various kinds of educational systems. The Marks address what a minister does well, and the deeper question of what a minister is for. Using the Marks in a search committee’s discernment, conversations are prompted about the vocation to which both minister and congregation are called.
Some ministers are bicultural, meaning they have more than one cultural location from which they live and minister. An example is the person of color educated in, and pastoring out of, a Euro-American context. Some ministers serve cross-culturally–for example, an indigenous Hawaiian minister serving a Chinese-American congregation. Some ministers are involved in culturally-specific ministry using one or more of their identities, like a minister of African descent serving an Afro-centric congregation or a Latina minister serving a particular Latin@ ministry. In addition to offering bicultural identities and cross-cultural competencies as gifts for the church, many Members in Discernment have begun naming particular identities to use in culturally-specific ministry. If ministers wish to find out how being Deaf in ministry will serve the Body of Christ, for example, or if they are ready to build new bridges using their skill speaking Arabic, they include that information in their Snapshot which is searchable to conference staff. Conferences’ work to diversify batches of profiles not only redresses implicit bias preventing bicultural and cross-cultural ministry, but also capacitates new possibilities for inter-cultural work.
God not only affirms us in our different and diverse identities, but also God calls us onward as the church – a new identity altogether. Excellence in beginning the theological conversation about God’s calling provides a solid basis for spiritual growth and leadership between congregation and minister, fruitful in these times of increasing demographic diversity and richness.
AUTHOR NOTE: As co-authors of this article, we reflect on our white social location across two different generations and the queer/straight continuum. We hail from different parts of the country and are most familiar with working-class and professional journeys, our own and others’. Having worked among Black, Latina/o, Native, Asian and Euro-American communities, we recognize that we bear white privilege in systems of racism and racial inequity. We are embodied human beings who have experienced differing abilities at different times in our lives, who currently carry able-bodied privilege.