What's a white male pastor to do?

Jeff & Le Que, co-lead pastors extraordinaires Note: Today’s post comes from my friend and pastor, Jeff Heidkamp. About 18 months ago, we formed a multiethnic preaching team that gave voice to diverse people while drastically cutting the number of Sundays that Jeff occupied the pulpit. In this post, Jeff talks about what he’s learned in the process and offers some advice for pastors and leaders who desire to share the mic with diverse voices. Jeff stewards his privilege and power well; we can learn a lot from him.

My wife and I and nine friends moved from Illinois to Minneapolis in 2004 to start a new church. We were young, idealistic, and energetic. We were also, with the exception of my Chinese-American wife, white. Among the list of things we cared about was the intention for our church to be multiethnic.

We energetically went about getting the church started- we had outreaches, information meetings, small groups, and eventually launched a Sunday morning service that slowly but steadily grew to a congregation of about 650 folks. I love our church- it’s a quirky group of young singles and families, with a smattering of other age groups. But it’s also been fairly racially homogenous (maybe a bit less homogenous if you count kids).

Over the years, we’ve made occasional efforts to be more friendly to people of color. We have tried, with various levels of success to include some contemporary gospel praise music (IE, Israel Houghton, Fred Hammond, Byron Cage) in our worship, and we have had at least a couple sermons most years around the value of diversity and reconciliation.

But the problem is that when you get a whole bunch of white people, they tend to attract a whole bunch more white people. And as much as you say that you want this to be a diverse place, when a person of color encounters a sea of white faces, it’s kind of hard for them to believe that. Additionally, my leadership style, and the hiring practices that I’d inherited from our sending church, while often effective at identifying and developing white leaders, didn’t tend to lead to the development of non-white leaders.

A few years ago, my wife and I decided we needed to increase our efforts to move towards diversity. We decided to emphasize Sunday morning upfront. We decided that there would never be a Sunday without a song that didn’t come from the white worship tradition, and there would always be at least one person of color on stage at some point in the service.

These changes weren’t terribly difficult, and they weren’t terribly effective. I felt like we needed to do something that was more visible and took a bit more commitment. We developed the idea of putting together a preaching team that would get more diversity in the actual sermons, since that’s such a central part of our community life.

This is where it seemed like God got involved. Two of the African-American people who had recently started coming to our church (one is the administrator of this blog) turned out to be experienced preachers. I’d had each of them in the pulpit for a random Sunday, and both did a great job. In addition, I’d been talking to my wife about preaching more often, and we had a new member of our church staff- a younger white guy, who had preaching skills.

The five of us formed a preaching team. For the last couple of years, we’ve preached three series per year together. We get together to plan the series- we pray and talk about what we think might be good for the congregation, and what we sense God might be doing. Then we lay out topics, and choose who will preach each sermon. Sometimes we team-preach- that is, two people will work on a sermon together.

For the first few series, I would do the opening sermon to sort of “set the stage”. But this year, we had the team do our lent series, and Christena seemed to have such a sense of the direction we were going we had her do the opening sermon, and it went really well.

What has been the impact of the preaching team in our church? Well, we haven’t exploded in diversity, though I think the team has had some good influence in that area. But more important is the simple fact that we are hearing different voices. The team sees texts and preaches sermons in ways I never would have thought of. Christena saw the cross in the middle of the beatitudes in a way I’d never have imagined. My wife talked about the discipline of solitude in a way I could never have preached. Our outreach pastor never lets us forget about the centrality of evangelism.

But perhaps the most powerful preaching team moment was during a sermon by the African American man on the team. His text was Matthew 7:1, “Do not judge others”. I’ve always preached that verse about religious judgmentalism. But he saw it from a whole new angle when he talked about the toxic effects for African American men who are judged as more likely to go to jail than college. This was profoundly impacting on me.

I can’t really think of any downsides to the establishment of our team. I think there have been murmurs of complaint here or there, but that’s par for the course for any change in church. The people of color on the team have been so deeply vulnerable and Christ-like in their willingness to serve and lead us, it has felt like an amazing gift from God.

If someone wanted to try this out, and wants to know if I learned anything, I suppose I could say three things.

  1. You have to let go of your need to control. If you insist people fit into your cultural preaching style, there’s no point. It’s just asking a person from a different culture to get up and act white. I think a lot of us are more controlling than we realize.
  2. In the series preparation meetings, I learned to make sure everyone else talked a bit before I did. Because I have been the main preacher so long, I learned that people could easily just gravitate toward my suggestion, which would defeat the whole point of the thing.
  3. While I continue to dream of a more diverse church congregation, I don’t think I’d say that’s the main definition of success for a multiethnic preaching team. It certainly is one of the goals. But hearing God’s word in ways we never could in a homogeneous setting is the main goal.