Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Diversity and Incarnational Leadership

In a recent post on her blog Tribal Church, Carol Howard Merritt raised concerns about the relative lack of diversity among church leadership.  As a child of the evangelical movement who has found a home in the oldline, she's particularly troubled by the lack of women's voices in the church.  She's also troubled by the cultural homogeneity in the church.  I feel that, and it's a good issue to raise.

We Jesus People, being people, are really rather craptacular at selecting leadership that doesn't look like us or sound like us.  If a pastor doesn't affirm what a church already knows, they won't want that person as a leader.  I understand how repressive this can be to those who aren't viewed as leadership material by a dominant culture.   But I also struggle with how effective leadership can be possible if a leader doesn't represent a community.

Take the church I'm serving.  I like folks here.  I really do.  They're good people.  But I am..well..different, different enough that it impedes my ability to be effective.  There's the surface level stuff, of course.  This Sunday, I took a gander around the room as the worship gathered steam.  About 10 minutes in, I was the only non-Asian in attendance.  That, frankly, didn't bug me.  Never has. Most of the time, I don't even notice it. 

More significant, though, are the expectations of a community formed by the experience of being second generation Asian Americans.   The family-tight bonds forged in a Korean church youth group are a powerful thing, one I can appreciate conceptually, but just isn't the way I do church.  The theology of folks coming out of a conservative and evangelical tradition just isn't mine, either.  There are powerful commonalities around Christ, sure.  The bonds of faith and the Spirit are shared.  I can worship and laugh and enjoy the company of brothers and sisters in Christ.  But the way I express my faith just doesn't articulate community enough for me to work as a leader.   As I've conveyed to the cadre of young folks at my church with some real sadness, I'm just not a good match.

To be effective, I'm convinced that leadership needs to manifest the essence of a community.  It's a bit like worship that way.  Good, moving worship is contextual and incarnational, expressing the musical and liturgical sensibilities of a particular gathered body.  It's part of a shared identity.  Similarly, a congregation will seek a leader who visibly manifests and personifies their identity as a fellowship.

The issue here, though, is that such leadership does not really challenge a community to make changes.  If there are systemic injustices, the incarnational leader will not address them.  If there are systemic failings, the incarnational leader will often embody them.

Incarnational leaders aren't prophets.  They can be agents of growth, but they aren't agents of transformation.  There's a huge difference...and that's a problem for churches as human institutions.


  1. There are a couple things here that give me pause... first, how did this woman 'find a home' in a place where she doesn't respect the leadership or the process of generating it? Further, is her voice so missing that nobody has heard her? Or is she being heard... right here?

    In truth, unless one wants to do the whole 'Jesus not Paul' dance - frankly, that is writing oneself out of the church by dismissing the Canon of scripture - then it becomes clear that in the early church both of the apostles and the fathers, the problem wasn't too few female voices in the church, but some very loud ones who were leading the church astray. According to the traditions of the church in later times, this was a recurring issue.

    I expect that this perspective will get written off as 'wing-nut' by certain people; those same people who see 'structural' injustice in the entire Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Church, most of the Anglican communion, and virtually all 'conservative' Protestants. Can 'most people' be wrong? Yes. Can activists be wrong? Yes.

  2. @ Ben: Carol found a home among the minority of global Christianity that sees women as equally capable of hearing and acting on God's call. She's welcome here.

    Most people can be wrong, it's true. When it comes to the role of women in the church, most of global Christendom is wrong. The issue is not "Jesus versus Paul," but rather, "Jesus and Paul have priority over deutero-Paul." Again, we read scripture differently, and understand its authority in different terms.

  3. I agree completely that we read the scriptures differently. In fact, it is almost as if we read different scriptures. The easiest thing for me to express briefly is willful disregard for the deutero-Pauline theory of the texts. It would be more complex, perhaps, to explain why I make that choice.

    Anyway, I'm not the most generous individual, but I don't share your disdain for the majority of global Christianity. I believe that most of them believe, as you say, that women are equally capable of hearing and acting on God's call - but that some women don't hear and act appropriately (no surprise; happens to men as well).

    As for Carol, I still contest your claim, on the basis of your post. She could have found a home among some congregation that shares her beliefs, but instead she feels a need to refashion the leadership.

  4. @ Ben: My disdain is for that particular choice...to vigorously suppress God's call when it manifests itself in women. That call is not to invariable submission, because if it were, then Christ's redemptive work is diminished and resisted. For some reason, that bothers me.

    In other ways, I can find concurrence with the majority. Just not on that one. Hate the sin, love the sinner, as they say.

    As a minor corrective, Carol is a Minister of Word and Sacrament. She currently serves a large, thriving, and vital congregation. She just hasn't forgotten where she came from, or that that there are still those who have their calls actively suppressed.

  5. This, I guess, returns us to a fairly fundamental question: how to separate the person from his characteristics. Some people speak of 'loving the image of God in people' but I'd rather go with 'loving people as the image of God.' Still, this means, in some sense, having an image of that person 'perfected' and loving that image. It would be like loving a child for their adult potential; which I think clearly exposes the flaw in that strategy. Particularly when the person embraces the characteristics, even uses them as identity elements, which one recognizes as utterly sinful. To find an example we can't possibly disagree about, perhaps Pol Pot in his identity as a killer who wielded the power of life and death arbitrarily. There must be something to love there, his imago dei, but to see it clearly would require stripping him of the traits he most reveled in.