Thursday, June 12, 2014

Being a Black Pastor in a White Church

Alex Pickens IIII was asked by one of my mentors to write about being a Black pastor in a White church.  I've avoided the hard work of honoring his request for years.   Today, I am brought to reconsider by an unsuspecting culprit.

A younger Black minister is interviewing to pastor a White church in Michigan.  He reached out to me to ask for advice and strategies in the interviews.  While I replied to his email and answered his questions, I also heard the questions he wanted to ask but didn't know how.  He, like I, was educated at a Historically Black College / University.  He, like I, was exposed early in life to diverse populations while living the reality of being Black and male in a North American city.  If chosen he, like I, would be accepting his first senior pastoral position.  Empathy for a younger man, and respect for a mentor, give me courage to overtly contemplate my reality.

I was called to pastor University Baptist Church of East Lansing (UBC), a majority church, in 2009.  Before being called, I served as the Assistant to the Pastor at Second Baptist Church of Detroit, a station on the Underground Railroad.  My decisions to attend Howard University, serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Cote d'Ivoire and attend seminary in urban areas were saturated by race.  I can answer the question, "Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?" I asked my wife on the drive home from the last interview at UBC, "What are they trying to do?"  Her reply was, "I think they're trying to call a pastor, Alex."

My experience as pastor has been complex.  I came from Black church: a land of suits, robes, the whoop, protocol and deference for the office.  I entered White church: a land of khakis, PowerPoint slides, 58 minute worship experiences and pastors being called "Alex".  Two of my three White male predecessors live nearby and communicate regularly with key leaders in the church.  My mother died the week I was elected, making my first 18 months a strange brew of mourning and excitement. Complexity, however, does not mask the reality that I am getting a fair shake at UBC.

I know situations like mine aren't always fair but my situation is fair.  Exchange with pastors across the country reveals the difficulty of ministry.  My colleagues are going through challenges.  While race adds another layer to my process, without the Black / White dynamic, this would still be hard work.  Pastors quit every week.  At UBC we are figuring things out together.  Broken bread helps; prayer meetings help; running toward conflict in a Matthew 18 effort helps; obeying the Holy Spirit helps; regular Sabbath helps; being ready each Sunday helps; preaching the Gospel helps; paying the rent help.

Churches have welcomed and dismissed pastors in the time I've been here.  Some of my colleagues have been hospitalized from stress.  One was sent to what he called "Charm School for Pastors" because tensions were so high with his leadership.  Men have openly wept in meetings because of the frustrations of pastoring.  Some drink that didn't drink; some self medicate with food and marijuana; some have initiated affairs; some prefer the mission field to the home front.  After five years, I'm still holding hands with my wife, our children and the flock.

Yesterday, I held hands on the roof of the church with a roofing crew.  We held hands when we greeted in a shake.  We held hands helping each other on and off the ladder.  We held hands in prayer after I found out the crew chief is also a pastor.  All three White, Mid-Michigan men were doing cold calls on buildings in the area: hard work.  I had been tied to the desk and telephone for hours, while monitoring two children on summer break: hard work. A Black man was working hard.  White men were working hard.  In thinking about what it's like to pastor a majority church as a minority, I'd have to say it's hard work.

UBC is hard at work.  We are mentoring children on the south side of Lansing and it's hard work.  We are feeding people in soup kitchens and it's hard work.  We are creating community among Michigan State students and it's hard work.  It's hard work but I'm getting a fair shake as we see all peoples of the world know, worship and grow (KWaG) as disciples of Jesus Christ.

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