Monday, April 25, 2011

More on Congregational Diversity

Here's another question from the UUA Staff, appended to their strategic plan for ministry.

 Given that we operate within a system of congregational polity, how might we
help the lay leadership of our congregations understand and embrace the
imperative of becoming radically hospitable to a diverse world? How might our
ministers find willing partners in this work rather than resistance to change?

Since this question appears on a strategic plan for ministerial development, I'm going to reframe.   It seems to me that this is a more interesting question:

How might we create a corps of ministers who can lead congregations into the work of becoming radically open and hospitable to an ethnically diverse nation?  

Now, we've been asking and trying to answer this question for at least a decade.  The answers put in place have involved requiring ministerial education to focus on this question in virtually every area of study, and to include competencies on leading this sort of change.

As I watch new ministers and view theological education, it seems to me that we have excelled at the work of  teaching the reality and skills of multi cultural work to new ministers.  They come out of school assuming that this is the future and gung ho to be a part of this change, and feeling that they have a good deal of knowledge about what should be done and how to do it.   And it is true that they meet resistance from congregations. (hence the first question above, which could be rephrased impolitely as, "how can we change congregations so that ministers can do the job we have trained them to do?)

 Congregations are, by their very nature, conservative (as in, conserving the values of the past) institutions.  Theologically liberal congregations tend to be even MORE institutionally conservative than theologically conservative ones.  This counter-intuitive claim shocks UU's, but here's the reason.   Theologically conservative congregations have a very carefully defined corps of belief, doctrine, and mission which serve a unifying function in times of institutional change.  Theologically liberal congregations, NECESSARILY don't have this corps of unified belief and doctrine and it is therefore HARDER for us to change less centeral matters such as worship style and social assumptions, and HARDER for us to reach out to "the stranger".   Our center is squishier.  As an example, imagine the minister of an evangelical church, who says to his members,  "Jesus told us to take the gospel to all nations, and that surely includes the "nation" of young people who only know rock music, so we SHOULD have a contemporary music service.  Yes, it will be change of music but the gospel that we all believe in demands this."    That minister might meet some resistance, but he will have the congregation's core beliefs on his side.

A UU minister trying to do the same thing doesn't have the same advantage.  That doesn't mean we shouldn't do these things, but we should not beat ourselves up quite so much if we are not first to accomplish them in the religious world.  And it means that our ministers have to amass MUCH more "ministerial capital" to be change agents in congregations.

So once again, I am wondering about the usefulness of making multicultural congregations our number one goal and heading directly towards it, full tilt.   It might be that focusing our new ministers on the skills and motivations required for long and fruitful ministries (which have built that ministerial capital required to successfully urge major change on congregations) might be, in the end, a quicker path to the future we all desire than  impressing on new ministers that multiculturalism has to be first on their list.  That tends to create a corps of ministers who are eager to produce quick change, who think that they should be able to do that fairly easily, and who blame congregational resistance for their failures.

And that's not a step forward, it is three steps backwards.


Cynthia L. Landrum said...

Preach it, Christine! I was having this same discussion a year ago with a local UCC minister who said the same thing you're saying about conservative and liberal religion versus our approach to changing our buildings, worship styles, etc.

One way we can equip ministers better is to teach them more about how to effectively lead a congregation in making changes -- any changes. I think I got much more training in anti-racism than I did in institutional management, which is what some of this is about.

Anonymous said...

I have not finished reading this treatise ( but it clearly bears on this discussion.

OnlyConnect said...

This is a topic its hard to be expert on :). I keep thinking that if we can be attractive to young people we will be attractive multi-culturally.

It isn't the same thing, young doesn't equal multi-cultural. But, the demographics and the culture of the young are definitely 'more' multicultural then their parents generation. They also haven't made all their decisions yet about church and life. They also aren't stomping to get into our churches --so that may be another side way to create diversity in our churches.