The Southern Baptist Convention is the latest majority-white denomination to publicly reaffirm its efforts to pursue racial and ethnic diversity in its leadership ranks. Earlier this month, the SBC’s North American Mission Board (NAMB) announced that Ken Weathersby, an African American, would fill the newly created role of Presidential Ambassador for Ethnic Church Relations. Weathersby will work to facilitate diversity in the SBC’s executive leadership circles, as well as in the convention’s local churches.
The SBC’s efforts are bold, especially in light of its complicated history with race relations. But it’s far from the first predominantly white evangelical denomination to get serious about racial and ethnic diversity. The Evangelical Free Church of America (EFCA) and the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC) have been at it for a long time, too. And, despite inevitable challenges, both are making headway.
A Long Road Ahead
“I definitely celebrate the progress that is being made in terms of Christ centered multi-ethnic development within evangelicalism, but I also would say we have a long way to go,” said Rev. Efrem Smith, Superintendent of the Evangelical Covenant Church’s Pacific Southwest Conference.
Smith’s sentiments were echoed by three other African American leaders that we talked to in the weeks since the Southern Baptists’ NAMB announced its appointment of Weathersby to his new executive role.
Southern Baptists Working, Not Talking
NAMB’s move follows closely behind the SBC’s election of Rev. Fred Luter as its first African American first vice president. UrbanFaith emailed Weathersby as soon as the news broke to request an interview as we had done after Luter’s election. This time, however, NAMB’s vice president for Communications Mike Ebert replied saying Weathersby needs time to settle into the job before granting interviews. Several other SBC pastors, including Luter, either didn’t return calls requesting an interview or declined to talk about the SBC’s diversity push.
Smith and other leaders in the ECC and the EFCA did agree to talk to us about the trend and wished the SBC well in their pursuit of change.
“The real progress in the Southern Baptist or any evangelical denomination will be when the president of Southern Seminary is a person of color, when the district superintendent in the Southern Baptist Church, when the president of the Southern Baptist Church is a person of color,” said Smith.
Evangelical Covenant Church Takes Holistic Approach
“Instead of one reconciling ethnic staff person who focuses on diversity, our president [Gary Walter] has said, ‘We need at all levels of leadership in this denomination to have a commitment to diversity,” said Smith.
“I’m a 41-year-old African American who is leading the largest conference in our denomination. A few years ago, I would have never dreamed that would have been a possibility for me, not because I’m saying the denomination is racist, but it’s not every day that an evangelical denomination elects an African American superintendent. … Out of 11 superintendents, we have three that are African American and one who’s a native Alaskan,” he said.
“One of the things that we discovered in the process is churches and organizations will hire a person and give that person that title, then what tends to happen is that everything ethnic goes to that person and so the buy-in wasn’t necessarily whole and complete,” said Spooner.
With a little over 800 churches and 200,000 or less members nationally, the vitality of the denomination has depended upon ethnic growth, Spooner said. Twenty-four to 25 percent of ECC churches are now ethnic or multi-ethnic, he said.
“One of the things that we strongly believe is that God is a God of cultures. Yes, we’re created equal. Yes, we’re all human beings. But we also have various ethnic backgrounds that when you don’t deny the ethnic realities and embrace those, you become more whole as people,” said Spooner.
Reformed Church in America Follows ECC Lead
Spooner grew up in a predominantly black Harlem church in the majority white Reformed Church in America (RCA) denomination and worked for the RCA in the late 1970s. He recalls, at the time, his Reformed brethren would joke that “if you ain’t Dutch, you ain’t much.”
“The Reformed Church had a long way to go at the time. The interesting thing in the Reformed Church is that they are now looking at some of the things that we have done,” he said.
In a 2010 report, RCA general secretary Wesley Granberg-Michaelson said he is encouraged that more than one-third of its 249 new congregations are “racially or ethnically different than the RCA Anglo majority.” He warned, however, that a “relationship gap” between traditional and new congregations poses “the greatest threat to the RCA’s life together as a whole.” RCA created a Multi-Racial Strategy Coalition to guide its efforts toward diversity and has adopted its own Five-fold Test that mirrors the ECC’s.
Evangelical Free’s ‘Big Passion’ for Diversity
is Executive Director of Reconciliation for the EFCA. In collaboration with EFCA’s President, Chief Financial Officer, Chief Development Officer, and Vice Presidents of National and International Ministry, Sanders helps determine the direction of his denomination, he said.
“Our mission statement is to glorify God by multiplying healthy churches among all people. I’m the chief architect of the ‘all people,’” said Sanders. He was hired four years ago in response to an EFCA reorganization and said diversity has been “a big passion” for EFCA’s president Dr. William J. Hamel, who created a task force on the issue in the 1990s.
“I believe this is an emerging paradigm. I see within some Christian colleges and universities my type of position, but other denominations or para-church organizations are going at this at a different rate. To be quite honest, I don’t know anybody else who has my exact same position. That doesn’t mean they’re not out there. I definitely know within denominational circles, they’re not plentiful,” said Sanders.
“Christian organizations need to wake up. If we’re going to really reach the mission field of the United States, and fulfill the mandate of the Scriptures, we need to be more diverse. … It’s simply a matter of practicing transformative leadership and changing policies, practices and procedures so that the organizational culture becomes one where ethnics will self-select to be a part of what you’re doing,” he said.
Sanders advocates a “two-pronged” approach of helping white churches to realize that pursuing diversity should be a priority and working with ethnic churches and leaders to address historical distrust between the races. “Their major question is: why should we be joined with you all? It’s a different paradigm depending on which group you’re dealing with,” said Sanders.
About 15 percent of EFCA’s 1500 churches are now ethnic or multi-ethnic and 35 percent of new church plants are, he said. But EFCA wants 20 percent of its churches to be ethnic or multi-ethnic by the year 2020. When 20 percent of “the other” is incorporated, the fabric of an organization changes, he said.
Building Bridges of Loyalty and Trust
In 2004, the EFCA hiredto serve as its first Director of African American Ministries. He had been a youth pastor and elder in a Chicago EFCA church, but said that like many members of urban and ethnic churches, he was only “marginally connected” to the denomination and felt no sense of loyalty to it.
“For ethnic and urban leaders, it really takes effort to have someone to be a bridge between the denomination and local leaders. That’s primarily my role, to be a bridge builder,” said Upshaw. With 15-to-20 African American pastors identified in 2004, EFCA’s prayer was to grow to 100 active and involved leaders by 2010, he said. “We reached that in 2009.”
African Americans are also serving on national and district boards, so they’re not just increasing in numbers, but having an impact, Upshaw added.
SBC Reports Its Progress
Although SBC pastors declined to talk to UrbanFaith for this article, last week the denomination’s own Baptist Press published an article about the change.
“African Americans comprise 6.5 percent of the 16 million members of the Southern Baptist Convention, according to 2009 figures. Whites comprise 81 percent; other ethnicities 12.5 percent,” Baptist Press reported.
“Luter’s election comes as the convention is focused heavily on multiethnic inclusion. At this year’s annual meeting in Phoenix, the Executive Committee and other convention leaders signed an Affirmation of Unity and Cooperation, pledging ‘to embrace our brothers and sisters of every ethnicity, race and language as equal partners in our collecttive ministries to engage all people groups with the Gospel of Jesus Christ,’” the article stated. Luter recently said he’s 80 percent sure he will run for the SBC presidency next year.
A Vocal Critic in the SBC
Among the SBC pastors who were unavailable for comment was Rev. Dwight McKissic, pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas. McKissic has been perhaps the most vocal internal critic of his denomination’s record on race.
“The SBC must repent of systemic, institutionalized and historic negative attitudes toward women, race and dissenters. … When we repent of our sins and turn from our wicked ways, then God will forgive our sins and heal our convention and anoint us to go forth with power in carrying out the Great Commission,” McKissic is quoted as saying.
McKissic also started floating the name of Fred Luter as a candidate for SBC president back in 2010, more than a year before Luter’s rise to the position of SBC first vice president.
A Painful, Rewarding Process
As the SBC and other denominations attempt to more fully reflect and embrace the beauty and diversity God intended for his church, the process is sure to be painful.
“I’ve got to really understand God’s love for me,” said Upshaw. “That’s a challenge. When I’m struggling with that, it makes it really hard to love other folks, [especially] someone who is very different from me, be it culturally or whatever.”
He added, “What has to keep me getting up each morning and pressing through the disappointment is that this is a step of obedience in reflecting the kingdom. The family of God is a beautiful tapestry of all kinds of people: men and women, poor, wealthy, Hispanic, African American. When our local church or denomination doesn’t reflect that, we’re missing something.”