Malcolm Himschoot serves as the Minister for Ministerial Calls and Transitions for the United Church of Christ with the denomination’s MESA Team.
Research shows that becoming aware of bias we hold (yes, we all hold bias) is the first step to overcoming it. The mental models we carry at any point in our lives change whenever we encounter someone who is different from what we thought.
A pastoral search committee on behalf of a congregation of the United Church of Christ commits to prayer as a group. Together working through profiles and interviews, they fashion a pace that can be led by the Spirit of the Living God. In the end they discern one candidate for the church to affirm as their future minister. This process is somewhat like a hiring process, but it is different – it is a calling process. New videos from the UCC’s Ministerial Excellence, Support and Authorization Team help to broaden the search committee’s consideration of pastoral candidates by raising awareness of bias.
A series of four story-telling videos under the title “Stretching Beyond” depicts several scenarios for search committee reflection. Recalling from the New Testament the Holy Spirit’s church-birthing work across differences of race, culture, status and gender, writers of the series based the premise on Matthew 12:30-31 as well as Micah 6:8.
The 2018 videos were produced in conjunction with Crossroads Antiracism Organizing & Training and GoodCity Concepts. Case study research behind the videos was conducted over several years’ time, within the UCC and the Unitarian Universalist Association.
The first video, Stretching Beyond Ableism, asks viewers to look at a person in their wholeness. A holistic view of strengths – as well as access needs – makes any community less disabling.
Viewers may pause around familiar questions framed on-screen:
- Will we have to renovate our building for someone with a visible disability who uses a wheelchair?
- Will a service dog accompany on hospital visits?
Since the definition of “ableism” involves assuming someone with a disability cannot do the things an able-bodied person can do, the best questions to ask in a scripted interview are exactly the same for all candidates. For instance: “How do you envision pastoral visits as part of your ministry?” instead of a question assuming mobility restriction.
United Church of Christ forebears were leaders in advancing accommodations through the Americans with Disabilities Act. Churches seeking more ideas and information on accessibility can utilize the resources of UCC Disabilities Ministries and Mental Health Network.
The second video, Stretching Beyond Sexism, illustrates mixed messages that clergywomen commonly hear when applying for ministry roles. Despite prevalent bias, women are strong candidates for any pastoral position.
Viewers may pause around provocative quotes framed on-screen:
- “I thought we were beyond sexism.”
- “Would it be that different to have a pastor who was a woman?”
- “I hate it when pay goes lower for women.”
Other thoughts search committees might overhear deserve to be decoded as well. When “many years’ experience” and “previous senior leadership” are stated as requirements, the effect is often to reduce or eliminate those candidates who have previously faced bias in their careers. This limitation is one factor in the glass ceiling for women.
A third video, Stretching Beyond Racism, witnesses what happens when a congregation filled with white people takes seriously the invitation to authentic relationship with a pastor who is a person of color. Some of the same lessons apply whenever a cross-cultural call is extended.
Viewers may pause after the video shows the following questions, to discuss perceptions and whether those perceptions are justified.
- Is racism as simple as a single hiring decision?
- Do we need to wait for a pastor who is a person of color before we work on antiracism?
- How do we value a minister’s gifts, skills, and knowledge when we are dealing with controversial issues?
- Which cultural communities have part of the Gospel?
New language helps leaders in a congregation notice and name how systemic racism is operating, then work on a collective response. “Micro-aggressions” can be defined as small, usually unintentional, interpersonal examples of very large-scale societal oppressions. Should pastors face outright racism, threats or aggression, it is even more important for leaders in the congregation to name the problem and invite a group – not only an individual – response.
The final video, Stretching Beyond Heterosexism, includes vocational journeys of some pastors who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, or self-identified queer people. The churches in the UCC who draw on their gifts are a whole variety.
Viewers may pause to consider their own answers to questions such as:
- If our congregation is not Open and Affirming (or even if it is), what principles do we follow in selecting called pastoral leadership?
- What about our members who don’t agree?
- Will LGBTQ people feel welcome in our community?
Stereotypes of the LGBTQ community abound, and some of these stereotypes are crude caricatures that consciously or subconsciously instill fear. LGBTQ people might distance themselves from such stereotypes in an effort to fit an existing mold of acceptability. Yet a church prepared to welcome the greater community will move the other way: toward honoring difference and meeting people in their uniqueness.
Churches that choose an Open and Affirming journey will find more resources through the peer network The ONA Coalition. Sexual ethics are spelled out for all authorized ministers within the UCC Ministerial Code, and more information about healthy sexuality is found within the UCC curriculum “Our Whole Lives”.
No short films can encompass the many and multiple identities all people have, or show the extent of the diversity of the Body of Christ.
Guidance provided through the UCC Search and Call process suggests faith-filled imagination based on Scripture and discernment. Picturing new possibilities for pastoral leadership is one helpful prompt to overcoming bias. Another is committing to expand the pool of candidates to be interviewed, and practicing self-assessment. Search committees should always reference qualifications suited to the work of pastoral ministry, and focus on criteria for leadership as laid out in the Local Church Profile, rather than focus on a minister’s personal physical attributes.
The stories shown in the four “Stretching Beyond” videos convey small moments in a larger timeframe of church engagement with God’s love for the world.
As Howard Thurman wrote in 1949, long before ‘implicit bias’ was coined or measured:
“What one discovers in even a single experience in which barriers have been removed may become useful in building an over-all technique for loving one’s enemy. There cannot be too great insistence on the point that we are here dealing with a discipline, a method, a technique, as over against some form of wishful thinking or simple desiring.”