4 Encouragements for Pastors Navigating Racial Conversations
Thoughts from Isaac Adams
What can we say to encourage pastors who are dipping their toes into racial matters as they lead their congregations? We could ask why they’re just now dipping in their toes. Have their churches been unwilling to have this conversation? Have they, as pastors, been unwilling to have this conversation? What’s that unwillingness symptomatic of? Maybe these pastors aren’t sure how to have this conversation. Maybe they didn’t know they needed to have it until very recently.
Whatever their reasons, they’re considering the conversation now, and that is something to praise God for.
Let’s say I’m a fellow pastor in your city and you reach out to me for counsel as congregants look to you to navigate the racial conversations and tensions in your church. Here’s the general encouragement I’d give you:
1. Do What You Can to Trust God
As pastors, we are in jobs that we are, by definition, insufficient to carry out— and shepherding our flock amid racial tensions, strife, or injustice only highlights our weakness that much more. What shall we do? Set our hope on God, for he will deliver us (2 Corinthians 1:10); trust in him with all our hearts, lean not on our own understanding, acknowledge him, and he will make our paths straight (Proverbs 3:5–6); and keep a close watch on ourselves and on the teaching, persist in this, for by doing so we will save both ourselves and our hearers (1 Timothy 4:16). Brothers and sisters, it’s okay not to know what to do next all the time. The Lord knows, and he will make it clear.
2. Don’t Underestimate What We’re Up Against
As pastors try to follow Jesus amid race relations and lead our people to do the same, we’re up against a lot. No doubt, we are engaged in warfare with the Enemy (Ephesians 6:10–18). But on top of that, we’re up against churches and a nation that have been historically and painfully divided. We’re up against de jure segregation that was pervasive and de facto segregation that is persistent. When it comes to our congregations and the diversity of them, we have responsibility, to be sure. But that responsibility pales in comparison to the forces we’re up against, forces outside our control.
As pastors, we’re dealing with people—people who are already finnicky beings, and on top of that, they come and they go. We’re dealing with neighborhoods that shift and change, economies that rise and fall, cultures that move and shake. We may very well be dealing with the effects of sins committed before we showed up, and those sins’ effects may linger, perhaps until after we’re gone. I provide examples of this in my book, Talking About Race.
When you remember how much we’re up against, pastors, I hope you remember you can only do so much. And realize that for some people in your congregation that still will not be enough—and that’s okay. Sometimes, as pastors, we simply have to be content to be misunderstood. More importantly, though, given some racial wounds of those in your pews, some may very well need a different part of Christ’s body (i.e., a different local church) to minister to them. And the good news is, he can find it because the kingdom of God is bigger than one individual church.
3. Don’t Fixate on Making Your Church More Diverse
Pastors, we want our churches to look like heaven—people of every tribe and tongue. And that’s a wonderful desire; I think the New Testament does encourage churches to be as diverse as they can be. But don’t forget that hell is diverse too. We can have a congregation that’s diverse and that’s poor in love for one another. And what good would that be? In other words, diversity is not the end goal; faithfulness with what God has given us is.
I say this because I fear that many white pastors make too big a deal about diversity. But diversity can be an idol, one that causes us to look down on churches that are not as diverse as ours. But nowhere does the New Testament prescribe how diverse our churches must be. An overemphasis on racial diversity can lead someone to overlook the other types of diversity God has given their congregation (generational, economic, personality type, etc.). While none of these demographics may be as obvious or moving as racial diversity, they are still blessings to steward, cultivate, and praise God for.
4. Don’t Fixate on Making Your Church More Diverse
The trend about minorities attending predominantly white churches but not the other way around should push us to remember that if we want a multiethnic church, we must live multiethnic lives. That is, we’ll need to regularly spend time with folks of a different ethnicity. If we’re unwilling to do this, why would we expect our people to do it? Pastor, if you want a multiethnic church on Sunday, you and your members are going to have to lead multiethnic lives Monday through Saturday.
Some pastors muse about hiring a minority. I think it’s great if churches can do so, but I’ve also seen it go badly. I’ve seen people place unfair burdens on the brother coming in; I’ve seen people give up major theological convictions to hire diversely (again, the trouble with idolizing diversity). I’ve seen churches who think they’re ready to have a black pastor come, realize they’re not—and it’s that poor brother and his wife and family who suffer for it the most. We can’t expect a hire to be a fix.
I hope my book, Talking About Race, provides a gospel-centered, practical action plans for navigating racial conversations for both pastors and for congregants alike. Having conversations about race can be difficult, but these discussions are important. As pastors, God is going to keep us. Let’s remember a lot of believers have gone before us in much more difficult circumstances. We have not yet resisted to the point of shedding our blood.
Want to read more about how to have conversations about race within your church?
Check out a blog from Wayne Frances & John Siebeling