Diversity and Inclusion: A Local Experiment

June 19th, 2019
This article is featured in the Where Will You Serve? (May/June/July 2019) issue of Circuit Rider

In 2007, when we started a new faith community with twenty-five leaders, we marketed our original vision statement as “A multicultural gathering of people committed to sharing the love of Christ with the world.” For eleven years, this vision statement served us well and allowed us to clearly articulate our church’s vision to those who sought to connect with and serve Christ with our new church. When asked about the vision, we would consistently say that God was calling us to have a diverse church, which is a true reflection of God’s kingdom on earth. We worked very hard to develop diversity through special events in the community, to utilize marketing that represented diversity, and to consistently reach out to diverse groups of people.

Although we gave it our best effort, over the years I realized that diversity can take on a different meaning depending upon the person you are talking to at any given time. Some people felt diversity meant having multiple generations of people. Others felt diversity was best seen geographically and that it is important to have more people in the congregation who live close enough to walk to the church building than those who live miles away and must drive to the church. Of course, most people felt that multicultural diversity means race, which means that it is important to have varying races of people reflected in the worshipping community. I wish I could tell you that we met everyone’s definition (including our definition) for “multicultural,” but we fell short of our goal.

During the first dozen years, we learned a very important lesson about multiculturalism: It was crucial for our team to clarify our definition of multiculturalism and hold fast to it, even when the definition was challenged or questioned. Our definition of multiculturalism still means hosting diverse groups of people in our faith community. Diversity is a powerful idea because, if practiced, it means all kinds of people will be present around the table. This type of diversity goes beyond ethnicity to the very core of our beings, because it challenges each of us to ensure we are inviting people into our circles and groups who are different from ourselves.

We were clear about living into multiculturalism through diversification, and we were feeling great about ourselves until a couple of years ago when we engaged a consultant to help us develop a five-year strategic plan. We had defined multicultural as a diversity practice to ensure that people who are different have a place and space in our congregation. The challenge with diversity is that it doesn’t go far enough, because to only give someone place and space in your community doesn’t mean that they are fully included and integrated into the community. Inevitably, adjusting our vision statement was the first order of business on our journey to evolution and growing as a church.

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After much prayer, conversation, and consideration, we shifted from our original vision statement to the following vision statement, “An inclusive gathering of people committed to holistic salvation and doing Christ’s work in the world.” Just when we had gotten our hands around “multicultural” through the lens of diversity, we shifted to “inclusive,” which created a new conversation around people and hospitality. We revealed our new vision statement in January 2019, one month before General Conference 2019 in St. Louis. I could not have been more thrilled (considering the outcome of the proceedings in St. Louis) that our local church was ahead of the curve and reaffirmed that “All People are Welcome, All People are Worthy, and All People have a Place.” I wish I could take credit for the word inclusive in our vision statement and say that we knew how the decision in St. Louis would turn out, but we didn’t; using the word inclusive was a team effort.

Once the word was selected and we shared it with the congregation, we realized that we needed to define inclusive, just as we took time to define multicultural in the past. But this time the effects are different. Twelve years ago when we started our church, we were living in the age of Obama, where it seemed for a moment that our nation and world were beginning to make real strides to heal some of the historic and deep wounds around economic, political, and racial injustice. Now twelve years later, our hopes have been dashed; we see that our nation and world still struggle with these painful memories of unjust practices. Strong forces continue to draft legislation, cast votes, and write narratives that pit one group against another. Leaders exploit class systems based on education, economics, geography, religion, and sexual orientation. While considering each of these frustrations, our team had to think deeply about the meaning of the word inclusive and ask ourselves, “What does it mean for our present-day participants, for those who know and love our congregation?”

We realized that being inclusive in our congregation meant that we should allow people to have full access into the life of the church and welcome them as they are, without reservation or prerequisites that make them conform and transform to our view of who they should be. As we traveled this path, we began to feel the tension, because inclusive means “everything,” and if we are serious about loving all people, we ensure they are included and fully integrated in our communities.

Imagine someone giving you an all-expense-paid trip to Disney World, promising you a trip of a lifetime. You take them at their word, accept the offer, and before you know it, you are off to see Mickey and Minnie. When you arrive at Disney World, all seems well at first glance: you notice other people have been invited, and the gathering resembles a scene from a United Nations meeting. After the diverse assembly gathers, a person appears stating various logistical requirements and rules. They look at a few people in the crowd and state, “If you are from South America, you can only go to specific areas in the theme park.” They continue as they look at another group of people and say, “If you are from Europe, you can only stay in the theme park until 6:00 pm, and the rest must leave before the park closes at 10:00 pm.” Now the grumbling and complaining begins. Essentially, those gathered were excited to attend the all-expense-paid trip to Disney World, but they were disappointed because they were told they did not have full access to the theme park. For them, the diversity box was checked, but the inclusive box remained unchecked since each person did not receive complete access.

Sometimes when I review our revised vision statement and read the word inclusive, I realize this is a huge responsibility. Those who love our faith community and those who critique our faith community will hold us accountable to our words and our new vision. Although our vision is difficult at times to uphold, as a leader I am committed to being inclusive and give all people full and complete access into the life of our church. In a tradition that emphasizes unmerited grace and unconditional love, these words should never need to be stated or written for a local church. But in our current political, economic, and cultural climate, we must be extremely clear with ourselves and with those we seek to reach for Jesus Christ.

As you lead your congregation during a period of instability, when it feels like the denomination is blowing apart, you have a marvelous opportunity to redesign and renew your church’s vision statement. You have a great opportunity to share it with the world so that someone might see and hear it and be drawn to your local church to receive salvation, hope, love, and inclusion. I pray that you would not be timid and back away from using words like “Welcome,” “Inclusive,” and “All People.” This is the time for the local church to shine and share radical hospitality with the entire world. This is the time when we tell the story of Jesus (who was born outside of the margins in a manger with the animals and in the cool night air) and to show the world that God is on the side of all humanity and that God loves all people. Leading a local church in our current mess is not easy, but it is possible, and the best way to lead is to lead like Christ.

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