By Rev. Denise Roberts
I miss collard greens. I miss hearing the neighborhood boys singing on the corner on summer evenings. I miss being able to walk into a hair salon confident that every operator knows how to do black hair. I miss the dancing, fashion, and language of the city. I miss my elders telling stories that simultaneously take us backward in time and propel us forward. I miss my pastor saying every Sunday, ‘We are unashamedly black and unapologetically Christian,’ and ending church with, ‘the struggle continues.’ I miss Baltimore.
Many years ago, I made the choice to move to the Pacific Northwest where these things are rare or non-existent. I made a choice to live where few people look like me and even fewer people share the experiences of someone from the inner city of Baltimore.
The primary impetus for moving was my job. It was a great job that provided me opportunities that I never could have imagined. It was also the springboard for my second career in itinerant ministry for which I am forever grateful. Though there are many things that I miss from my Baltimore community, there are as many things that I am thankful for in each new ministry setting that I have experienced.
I was asked to write about cross-racial and cross-cultural (CR/CC) appointments. The United Methodist Book of Discipline states that “Open itinerancy means appointments are made without regard to race, ethnic origin, gender, color, disability, marital status, or age, except for the provisions of mandatory retirement.”
CR/CC appointments are not new. They’ve been in God’s toolbox from the beginning. Those of us doing this work stand in the biblical and apostolic shadow of Abraham, Moses, Ruth, Daniel, Esther, Jesus, Peter, Paul, Cornelius, Lydia, and many others who pushed God’s kingdom across ethnic and cultural boundaries in witness to God’s love and light in the world.
At the same time, these appointments can harbor a real dimension of loneliness and isolation for clergy who are far removed from family, friends and the sustenance of home. Transitions are generally not an easy process for clergy or congregations. On a daily basis, the intercultural competency of a pastor is challenged as we are placed in settings where we may not know or understand the history or culture of the congregation and/or the community. Regardless of what church I am serving, my starting point is that everyone is a beloved child of God, all precious in God’s sight. When the goal is to become more loving, why not start with love?
Jesus calls us to engage and embrace the communities that we are appointed to serve, but healthy boundaries with our congregations can limit the close, supportive relationships that we need. It’s a bit ironic that as much as we preach on community, we often live in isolation. Like everyone, clergy are social creatures in need of meaningful affirmation of the work that we do. Our ministerial charge is to care for many, and our charge of self-care is that we include people in our lives who care for us.
My CPE training taught me that pastoral isolation is adjacent to pastoral care, and that we as pastors need to mitigate that isolation with real, intimate and vulnerable relationships. If we want longevity and perseverance in our ministries, then we need to love, respect and enjoy those who walk alongside us. Building relationships both inside and outside the church is not a luxury, it is a necessity. It starts with loving the congregation and caring for one’s self.
This can be tricky in our specific appointments. The culture mix brought about by CR/CC appointments can induce anxiety and even conflict in a congregation. Racial and cultural differences may lengthen the time that it takes for trust to build and for the transformative work of Jesus to find footing. It takes time for the congregation to share and time for the pastor to determine the amount of vulnerability to be shared with the congregation. In the meantime, the church and the pastor do the hard work of checking and testing our assumptions of race, gender, privilege and cultural superiority.
I share these thoughts not as a caution nor with sadness or hardship, but rather to reveal a need for intentionality in mentoring and in checking in with other pastors in CR/CC appointments. The desire is not to have clergy pass through these appointments and wipe the dust from their feet. My fervent hope is that these appointments enrich both our clergy and our congregations, and that they make real our belief that we are all a loving expression of God’s creative work.
I have served for more than a decade in this Conference, and my experience is that local churches accept CR/CC appointments with a mix of enthusiasm and trepidation. Every new appointment is a transition requiring trust, understanding and a desire to make the relationship work. The elephant in the room is that we all harbor some sort of bias. We just may not know if our bias will conflict or contribute to us being in relationship and doing ministry together.
Building trust and strengthening relationships between clergy and the congregation is key. A church built on strong relationships will encourage and provide opportunities for all of its people to use their gifts and graces to strengthen the congregation, to reach out to those who have been neglected or marginalized, and ultimately, to be advocates in their own communities. This is church vitality at its best.
Recent demographic projections indicate that our nation will continue to become more diverse in the future. The church and its leadership will follow this same path. God has modeled diversity for us to celebrate and embrace as a gift, not something to fear as a threat.
CR/CC appointments are but another example of God’s work in the world. We are called into these appointments in service to God’s Kingdom where all of God’s people are welcome and stand on equal ground, and all are precious in God’s sight. What could be better?
Rev. Denise Roberts serves as pastor of St. Andrews United Methodist Church in Lacey, Washington, part of the South Sound United Methodist Cooperative.