The Great Multi-Ethnic Preaching Team Experiment

When one of my co-lead pastors, Jeff Heidkamp, first approached me in late 2011 about joining the “preaching team” that he was forming at our church, I immediately thought of the spectacular failure of the 2003 Boston Red Sox “closer by committee” experiment in which multiple pitchers (as opposed to one) were called upon to get the final three outs of the ballgame. Conventional wisdom suggests that some tasks are best handled by one supremely gifted and confident person, and many would agree that both preaching and closing a ballgame are good examples of such tasks. Most baseball teams have one closer who enters the game in the 9th inning to get the last three outs. Similarly, most churches have one preacher who inhabits the pulpit the vast majority of Sunday mornings. That’s just the way it is. And in many ways, the conventional approach is highly valuable.However, multi-ethnic church experts, such as Mark Deymaz, suggest that multi-ethnic churches that empower diverse leadership are more likely to be healthy. While the preacher is not necessarily the most important leader in the church, he/she is certainly a highly influential one. As a pastor of a multi-culturally-oriented church that is growing more multi-ethnic each month, my co-pastor knew that the goal of empowering diverse leadership needed to be realized at all levels in our church, including the pulpit. So he did one of the most admirable things I’ve seen a pastor do: he invited a wide variety of people to preach on a regular basis, relinquished control of the pulpit and learned how to be a preaching pastor who doesn’t preach every Sunday. Our multi-ethnic preaching team consists of five, very different people: a white male native Minnesotan with an intuitive sense and approachable, self-effacing preaching style; a Chinese immigrant female who is an expert at using narrative to communicate cross-culturally; an African-American male with a strong prophetic gift and fiery delivery style; a white male with a uncanny ability to locate the irony in any situation and an intimacy with Scripture that enables him to communicate even the most obscure passages in an accessible way; and yours truly, a nerd-friendly, African-American woman from California. Now that we’re halfway into the first year of our preaching team experiment, I thought I’d reflect on some of the factors that have helped make this team a success (so far): 1. A lead preaching pastor who checks his ego at door. My pastor preached 49 Sundays in 2011 but is on track to preach around 33 this year. Anyone who undergoes such a significant change in ministry role, influence and identity will be tempted to respond with insecurity, a micro-management leadership style, and even defensiveness. But our pastor hasn’t succumbed to that temptation. I’m grateful for this because unhealthy (and likely unconscious) power dynamics can easily squelch well-intentioned diversity efforts. 2. Supernatural intervention from God to bring diverse gifted preachers to the church. While all of our preaching styles are unique, we all share the ability to communicate in a clear and compelling way. My co-lead pastors prayed for God to send diverse people to the church and God answered that prayer. 3. Confidence to preach from one’s own style and gifting. Each person on our team has to resist the urge to conform to the church culture norms or expectations of the congregation. Our lead pastor is a gifted communicator who is well-liked by the congregation. It’s tempting to try to emulate his style, in order to ensure that I am also well-liked. But to do so, would defeat the purpose of creating a diverse preaching team. Lots of research suggests that diverse groups are more effective. It follows that diverse preaching teams are also more effective at communicating to a diverse audience. 4. Collaborative spirit and willingness to go with the flow. While diverse groups are more effective (e.g., they make better decisions), they aren’t necessarily more efficient, especially at first. In many ways, working in a diverse group is more labor intensive because more perspectives must be taken into account when making group decisions, working on projects, etc. For example, when multiple people have a voice in planning an upcoming sermon series, no one person gets to make executive decisions. Anyone who has ever hung out with a bunch of preachers knows that many preachers LOVE making executive decisions. However, autocratic leadership styles do not serve the preaching team or church well. For this reason, a strong desire to collaborate and a willingness to go with the flow are essentials on a preaching team. So far, I think our preaching team experiment is going well. I'm learning a lot and having tons of fun. Plus, our church attendees seems to appreciate the diverse voices that emanate from the pulpit. My hope is that the diverse "up-front" leadership helps to create a more welcoming and inclusive atmosphere for attendees and potential attendees. I’m excited to see how it unfolds in the coming months.