Editor’s Note: We wanted to start off 2021 with a pastoral word from voices all around the country who could help put the past year in perspective as well as to offer some encouragement and exhortations for the new year ahead. This is the second in a three-part series featuring Jon Houghton, Chicagoland Regional Young Life Director, and Rose Lee-Norman, pastor of spiritual formation at Sanctuary Covenant Church in Minneapolis. You can find part 1 of the series here.
White Followership: Employing a New Posture Into 2021 and Beyond
by Rev. Dr. Rose Lee-Norman
2020 has provided the world many lessons we ought to take time to consider (and even days into the new year, 2021 underscores the urgency of such lessons). The many major events of this past year have also held up a mirror to the church, reflecting back a not-so-picturesque images of its depth and commitment to our expressed mission and values. But of all the lessons 2020 offers us as Christians and Christian leaders, the one I’ve wrestled with the most over the last year, and that has shaped me indefinitely, became most apparent particularly due to my context.
I serve as pastor of formation at Sanctuary Covenant Church in North Minneapolis, an urban, multiethnic church ministering in the historical epicenter of the Black community in Minneapolis. I likely don’t have to tell you why living and ministering here in the summer of 2020 was significant for me, my congregation, and neighbors. On May 25, 2020, George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police officers over a supposedly counterfeit $20 bill. Our community members immediately responded, and as days followed the world joined us in protest and lament over his unjust death.
As I saw all of the events unfold firsthand, I wrestled with so many questions as many of us did. In particular, white Christians, especially white pastors, reached out directly to me and our lead pastor, Rev. Edrin C. Williams. All of their inquiries echoed the same concerns: “What do we do? How do we talk about this with our church?” I felt so much empathy for their questions, because I’ve been in their shoes before. In considering their questions and trying to be a companion on the journey, I found that my own question emerged: What is the role of white Christians in the work of racial justice, and how ought they relate to (or what is their relationship with) the Black community, in particular with their Black sisters and brothers in Christ in anti-racism work? It was a question I had considered before, but what made it different this time was its alarming relevance and urgency.
Up until now, the prevalent role for white people in anti-racism work has been that of an ally. An ally in the work of racial justice places an emphasis on education about historical and current racism by taking intentional action steps toward justice. But is this the right aim, is it the role and relationship white Christians ought to employ, and how does allyship address the very real and unequal power white people hold in society? All of these questions and more flooded me in the wake of Floyd’s death, revealing the magnitude to which white Christians lacked proactive, holistic discipleship to address the current situation and lead in the work of justice. Click To Tweet
Even though I’ve been a part of multiethnic churches for more than 15 years, I admittedly found myself paralyzed at times regarding what to do next. I also saw, on the other hand, my black Christian sisters and brothers holding their deep grief while simultaneously taking direct steps of action and leading others to follow their example; this experience was not new to them. It revealed in very real time an undeniable truth: the best leaders in the work of racial justice are those who the very system and structure of racism oppress (see Rev. Dr. Dennis Edwards’s Might from the Margins for an excellent summation on this truth). This is likely not a new revelation for many, especially for people of color, but I don’t think we verbalize the inverse of this truth and sit with its implications enough: white Christians are not the best leaders in the work of racial justice. Living in Minneapolis in the summer of 2020, I learned that instead of white allyship, my white family and I are called to white followership.
White followership is a construct I’ve developed through my doctoral thesis and recently begun implementing with the white congregants at my multiethnic church. In short, it is a reorientation of power that asks white Christians to take a different, more humble posture of learning, actively yield power, and center other cultural expressions of leadership and witness toward racial justice. 2020 has taught me the urgency of white followership in our faith’s pursuit of justice. I believe the work of justice belongs to everyone, but our roles in the work vary. This past year showed me that leadership from those on the margins has never been more important, and that white followership is equally important. White followership is a reorientation of power that asks white Christians to take a different, more humble posture of learning, actively yield power, and center other cultural expressions of leadership and witness toward racial… Click To Tweet
The leadership of my Black brothers and sisters in my church and community in 2020 has shown me that justice is possible, especially as those of us who are white step aside and follow. In our pursuit of “a church reimagined for a world recreated,” we must all imagine new orientations of power, justice, and peace as we live out the Lord’s will on earth as it is in heaven. Otherwise, we’ll simply perpetuate the very inequities we seek to dismantle. It would be so tragic if we move through 2021 without even being aware of what we’re doing, missing out on the truth-telling and leadership of our marginalized sisters and brothers in the church.
Four Post-Pandemic Shifts to Continue in 2021
by Jon Houghton
At the peak of ministry uncertainty in 2020 my colleague said, “There is nothing in our mission statement that a pandemic makes impossible.” It would be worse than naïve to claim this year wasn’t a challenging environment in which to lead a ministry, but there is nothing inherent about a pandemic that prevents us from sharing about the life that is truly life that Jesus invites us into.
All that 2020 has entailed has necessitated four shifts that I hope will continue in a post-pandemic world.
1. From Cogs in a Machine to Ministers of the Gospel
Our well-planned methods and programs have turned too many of us into cogs in a machine rather than ministers of the gospel who need the Lord for direction and creativity. Author and consultant Peter Block says, “What worked yesterday is the gilded cage of tomorrow.” Many of us have been unwilling to make the changes we have sensed the Lord asking of us because of this gilded cage. Although I would never have welcomed a pandemic, I am grateful to be forced to seek direction and creativity from the Lord rather than from historical methodology. As we are in this time of continuing to adjust to our current realities, we must resist the temptation to build new machines that will eventually require all our attention to maintain and instead focus on being and developing Spirit-led ministers of the gospel. We must resist the temptation to build new machines that will eventually require all our attention to maintain and instead focus on being and developing Spirit-led ministers of the gospel. Click To Tweet
2. From Organization Builders to Kingdom Builders
Previous job descriptions were thrown out in 2020. Our day-to-day responsibilities changed in an instant, leaving many people unsure of what to do. In the midst of this uncertainty, I discovered that much of what I do serves to build my organization rather than build the kingdom. As I was mourning the loss of any pertinent growth statistics, I came to see the world’s needs as more evident than ever before.
I pray that we continue asking, “Does this help to build God’s kingdom?” rather than “Does this help build my organization?” If we do so, we will find plenty of opportunities to serve God’s people. If your community struggles with food insecurity but that is an area that is not your strength, then find the groups that are great at it and join them. Are you great at recruiting volunteers? Then be a bridge-builder between your volunteers and nearby groups that are in need of more volunteers.
If you wake up unsure of what to do that day, consider the advice of Carlos Rodriguez, founder of The Happy Non-Profit:
Dear church, forget better live streams. Feed the hungry. Care for the sick. Be kind to strangers. Love your neighbor. Remember the prisoner. Stand up for the marginalized. Rise for the broken. Jesus waits for us there.
3. From Racial Justice as Ancillary to Central to the Gospel
2020 shone a bright light on systemic racism that has for too long been at best an ancillary issue for most Christian organizations. Unfortunately, the early days of 2021 has shown that systemic racism hasn’t gone anywhere. To be in relationship with God means to care about what God cares about,
and a faithful reading of the Scriptures reveals that justice is at the very heart of God.
Christians joining in God’s restoration plan is both the fruit of discipleship and a method of evangelism. When we work for shalom, we have a chance to earn the right to be heard with a watching world. (Read more on these thoughts here.)
4. From Modern Discipleship Strategies to Discipling Like Jesus
Ministry leadership can feel like a frantic chase to fill the top of the funnel in the visual below. That is not the leader’s intention, but it happens. Real (or more often perceived) pressure from boards and donors causes us to obsess with how many people enter the top of the funnel; all the while, we wish could disciple more like Jesus. 2020 gave us the freedom to disciple like Jesus, and now we can and should continue to do so in 2021 as well. 2020 gave us the freedom to disciple like Jesus, and now we can and should continue to do so in 2021 as well. Click To Tweet
I never wanted a pandemic, but it was what I needed in order to have the courage to make these shifts. The thought of turning them into lasting changes gives me great hope for ministry going forward no matter what else comes our way. I can’t imagine walking these difficult days without the hope of Christ in my life, and I pledge to continue to invite others into this hope.