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Gospel and inclusivity

Real diversity begins with leadership and theology

by the Rev. Samuel Son for Presbyterians Today | Special to Presbyterian News Service

Editor’s note: This article is the fourth of a continuing series on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the Church. In the first and second articles, we recalled how the values practiced intuitively in the early church  were a response to their understanding that Jesus proved himself God’s anointed through the resurrection. The third article delved into historical reasons on why we praise diversity but fail to practice it. This article looks at the diversity that goes deeper than mere cosmetics.

Diversity, as cosmetics, impedes inclusion and equity. Unfortunately, diversity in church often remains at the cosmetic level, more worried about how we present ourselves in public gatherings. We point to “ethnic” instruments in our music, the smattering of people of color sitting in our pews, or the bulletins and Sunday school materials that include images of people of color as evidence of diversity. Or we point to our World Communion Sunday, where we have ethnic food in our communion table and our fellowship table, and we “invite” a pastor of color to read Scripture or even preach for that Sunday.

These cosmetic and occasional diversity expressions sooth our conscience so we get on with maintaining structures and mode of doing church which, as I have argued in previous blogs, are not neutral but intentionally exclusive. The work of diversity is an act of repentance. This theological framing defines the work of diversity as a fundamental change in our mind (metanoia), that is, the way we do and structure church life. We are called to be a diverse church, and not just a church with diverse expressions.

Diversity of leadership

A repentance-framed diversity means diversity starts with leadership. Check out most white church websites, and the staff and the elder board are all white. Most white churches are led by white male pastors. The face of leadership is how people experience the sincerity of welcome. A disabled friend who uses a wheelchair told me it was only when she attended a Presbyterian church, where a pastor with a disability wheeled up on the stage to preach, that she believed that her being and her gifts would be celebrated.

Making the church building accessible is important, but only the first step to accessibility. Leadership that embodies diversity makes all places accessible. I studied to be a pastor with a plan to serve Korean churches because I saw Asian leaders serving in Asian churches only. I never saw myself pastoring a white congregation. What I had seen determined where I saw myself. There are people of color who look up a church and decide whether to visit by looking at the staff. They won’t be looking for diversity in your banner images, but in the people making decisions.

Diversity of theology

Diversity of leadership could remain a cosmetic work if that diversity of leadership isn’t allowed to be a diversity of theology. A diverse leadership required to mold into a single theology is assimilation. A diversity of skin color is not a diversity of thought. Theology touts itself as acultural, which makes it the perfect place for a culture to hide as essence, a way of doing things as the only way of doing things. For the sake of the gospel, diverse leaders are asked to share one story about God and the world (because any story about God is always a story about how the world should be). Which is ironic, because in Scripture, we don’t have one story of God, but multiple and diverse stories about God.

Consider the Christmas story. We don’t have just one story; we have four stories. All four of them are distinctively different. They are not marginally different, with few factual variances that can be easily harmonized. Mark actually skips the Christmas story altogether, which itself is actually a story, that Jesus’ lineage isn’t where you find out who Jesus is but in Jesus’ actions — even though those actions remain a mystery, it’s a mystery that moves us forward to the great reveal. John, well, his Christmas story begins before the heating of the first atom. Luke and Matthew go into most details about the birth of Jesus. But they diverge. Luke has neighboring shepherds crash nativity while Matthew has Magi bring gifts after a long journey (without the aid of GPS!). I’ve heard many creative weavings of Matthew and Luke to make it into a single story. But when you mesh them together, you don’t get a fuller story that reflects the beauty and narrative power of the two stories, but a boring story where the details don’t have any relevance.

Why don’t we let the storytellers tell their story? Why do we feel the need to harmonize them?  Why do we feel like the veracity of both depends on proving that they are telling the same story?

This need to harmonize is a powerful instinct. But it’s a learned instinct, an instinct built by fear of differences. The gospel writers and the church forebears didn’t think it was dangerous to let each story stand on its own. I am more afraid when there is only one official story. When stories match up too perfectly, I suspect propaganda. All four gospel writers tell beautifully different stories of Jesus because of their diverse theology of Jesus. This doesn’t mean there are four different Jesuses, but that Jesus, like any real individual, is a complex person with diverse ways to relate to people.

Annually, I get together with my brothers’ families. After we put the kids to bed, my brothers and I reminisce about our childhood over beer. In every event we recall, we have three different dads interacting with us. And each of my brothers’ dad helps me see things I didn’t see or forgot about my dad. But it is more than just piecing together a fuller picture of our dad. It is the recognition that our dad interacted with each of us differently because we all had different needs.

The difference of theologies engenders trust in the stories. Variations makes them veritable. Divergence tells us there is a real person walking behind those remembrances. The theology that comes out through the sermon in the pulpit, the Bible studies, and the style of leadership don’t have to be polished, singular, and erased of the tension of differences.

Most churches try to be a single-gospel book church. We have John-gospel churches only preaching eternal salvation; Matthew-gospel churches gung-ho for mission; Mark-gospel churches marshalling social action; Luke-gospel churches strategizing social influence. Churches should preach and live out all four gospels of Jesus. We’ve got to wean congregations off the milk and open them to the diverse food group of theologies.

We are taught to fear differences, so it’s a fear we can unlearn. Our palate can learn to savor differences. It’s dangerous for congregations to hear from one pastor, or only pastors, from the dominant group. And it’s important that when churches hire for diverse leaders that it commits to diversity of theologies. Don’t muzzle diverse theologies, or the hiring devolves into mere cosmetics.

In Presbyterian churches, leadership isn’t limited to the staff. The practice of diversity of people, experience and theology of the staff applies to the session. For smaller churches, the session probably serves like the staff of the church. With solo-pastored churches, we should expand the pool of candidates. Imagine bringing in a non-white pastor. Rural church pastors automatically become civic leaders. You get diversity of leadership in multiple circles with a single hiring.

Diversity of leadership and theologies is harder and longer work precisely because it requires changing the current way of doing church. It is an act of repentance.

The Rev. Samuel Son is manager for Diversity and Inclusion in the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

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