Raising up BME elders: why we struggle too

For fear of being accused of throwing stones in my glass house, I’m going to make an admission. I have a wholly white, fairly middle class church leadership. All the elders are white Brits who are degree educated and have a background in either teaching, business or both. Only one is Oldham born and bred.

It is true that we have one Nigerian deacon who is often given the opportunity to lead services, bible studies and speak in the open air. It is also true that 50% (there or thereabouts) of our congregation is Iranian. White Brits are probably in a minority set against our BME Caribbeans, Africans, Iranians, Kurds and Afghans in the congregation. Our pews look pretty multicultural, our officers are 1/6th BME but our eldership remains white and middle class.

What this tells me is that we aren’t good at getting BME people into leadership. There are various reasons why that is the case. One of the key problems is that many of our BME members – particularly the Afghan and Iranian contingent – are asylum seekers. Many have poor English when they arrive, slowly learn, become believers and grow in their faith. Unfortunately, they often receive their right to remain and have to move. We have just lost one keen guy to Sheffield and another who was running our regular Farsi Christianity Explored course to Newcastle. We often pour into people who convert, grow and then, after a while, end up moving on.

We could get frustrated and bitter about that. Alternatively, we can thank God that he is bringing Iranian people into his kingdom through our ministry. We can feel hard done by that these guys ended up leaving after all the time and energy we put into them or we can praise God that they are blessing other churches with the training they have received. What it means in practice, however, is that those who might well grow into future leaders and elders are often those who wind up leaving for pastures new.

This is one of the issues churches in deprived communities often find. We can pour into our members only to find that they move. In estate ministry, it is often the problem of those who have spent their lives aspiring to move off the estate who shift when the opportunity presents itself. Those in deprived communities reaching asylum seekers find that papers are granted and individuals move for work, because of housing issues or to be nearer family elsewhere. It is difficult convincing people to stay in areas that most people spend their lives seeking to leave.

In our defence, we would love to see Iranian (or other BME) people convert, trained and led into eldership roles or planting other local churches. The reality of our situation, however, is that few are still with us five years after joining us. We don’t have a white middle class eldership because we are insistent on appointing people like us. We have that setup because our BME folk are not with us long enough to credibly see them led to eldership, bearing in mind scriptures sets as qualifications ‘not a novice’ and ‘apt to teach’.

Nonetheless, it bears saying that our church does have good numbers of BME in the congregation and membership. There are also spaces for BME people as officers of the church, with one Nigerian currently on the diaconate who wasn’t the first BME officer the church has ever had. We would be delighted to have BME elders and have been clear with the church that it is something we would love to see in time.

For now, we are simply pleased that the Lord is saving Iranians, Afghans and Kurds and is opening up opportunities for us to reach the local Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities. We are making effort to have BME people involved in leading services, translate sermons and we often sing famous hymns in Farsi so that all members are as involved in the service as possible. Although the work in which we spend ourselves is not redounding to the glory of our membership rolls, we consider it a kingdom ministry that is seeing many such people saved, given solid theological grounding and then gifted to other churches as a blessing to them. We would be delighted if some of these guys found their way onto the eldership teams of other churches instead.