Five reasons why we fail to promote BME & working class leaders when permanence isn’t an issue

I have been speaking lately about working class and BME leaders in our churches. First, we considered the issue of theological training and how it was tailored to favour white middle class, particularly academic, culture. We asked the question whether the church was made for the theological college or the theological college for the church and how our answer often plays out in practice. Second, we thought about why Evangelicalism largely persists as a white middle class movement. We considered the fact that like begets like and moved on to look at various solutions to the problem. Third, I offered my admission that we also struggle in our context to raise up BME people. Whilst not the only reason, we noted the problem of transience and those we pour into often have to move on.

Following that third post, I was asked the following question:

Before I answer that question, a couple of caveats. First, there are few ministries in deprived communities in which permanence is not an issue. For us, it is typically issues related to the asylum system. However, beyond this, as and when Pakistani and Bangladeshi Muslim come to know Christ, there is no way they can remain in the immediate area where they are known as former Muslims. Even before they become regular worshippers in your church, they have to move. In other contexts, the pull of social lift makes permanency difficult. As people enter the church and begin to develop godly character, they find other doors opening for them and, before long, they are pulled off the estate many have spent their lives trying to escape. Elsewhere, in urban areas, the issue is not so much a will to move as the necessity to move jobs. I know of various reasonably affluent middle class churches that struggle to keep hold of their BME people because they move to the area as professionals and may as quickly be taken away again because of work. Transience is often an issue.

Second, and I hope this goes without saying but it is probably best to leave nothing to chance and openly say it; it is very difficult for me to speak into other contexts. I can speak to my own situation happily enough and I can look at what the statistics generally bear out for the wider church scene. What I can’t do is point at unique church situations and explain why things are the way they are in other people’s churches. I do not know the unique struggles of their churches nor do I know the particular flavour of their area (unless I happened to live there at one time or another – even then I can only speak to it as it was rather than how it is now). It is, therefore, hard to be very specific about why BME and working class people are not in leadership in specific churches. There are times when churches are at fault and times when circumstances beyond their control conspire against them.

But what are some of the reasons why BME and working class people are not in leadership when permanence is not an issue? In no particular order, and remembering some of these are circumstantial and others systemic, here are some of the common reasons:

Dearth of working class and BME people
Some places simply have fewer working class and BME people around. On the estate where I went to church in Birkenhead, middle class people were in the minority. In the little village in which I spent my later childhood and teens, whilst there were some working class people around, there weren’t very many. As for BME people, there was one family of black people (3 children in all) in my primary school of 400 or so pupils – not one in my class. In my secondary school of 900 pupils, you could count the number of BME people on the fingers of one hand. Expecting the church in places like Grove, Wantage, Uffington, Childrey, East and West Hanney, Denchworth, Letcombe Regis and their ilk to be replete with BME and working class leaders is expecting them to reflect a population that simply isn’t there.

Associating white middle class values with biblical criteria for eldership
In places replete with BME and working class people, where permanence is not an issue, this is probably the most common problem. All too often we read the biblical criteria for eldership and pastoral work through the cultural spectacles of white middle class expectations. This means ‘apt to teach’ is often translated into ‘hold a degree and/or went to theological college’. The character criteria is often filtered through what might be expected in white middle class culture whilst overlooking that these things may be evidenced in different ways by those from other cultures.

We could run through each thing but consider just one example. A middle class man and a working class man both hear a sermon they think is boring. The working class man says so to the middle class man; the middle class man thinks he is rude and lacks self-control. The middle class man dresses his view up in nondirect language; the working class man thinks he is lying or, at best, deceitful. If this happens with frequency, we can see how both might consider the other unsuited to eldership based on the biblical qualifications. But most churches are run by middle class white men. They are the ones who ultimately decide who the next generation of leaders will be. Because they filter the Biblical criteria through their cultural spectacles, they lock out of leadership anyone who does not look, act and sound just like them. After all, they don’t meet the criteria, right?

Lack of appropriate training
We are, as a wider Evangelical movement, reasonably good at offering quality training to academically-minded people. The provision of theological training by colleges such as Oakhill and Union, amongst others, is second to none. It is high level enough to be stretching whilst accessible enough for those who cope well with formal education, even if in subjects immediately unconnected to theology. By contrast, we are rubbish at training anybody who does not fit this mould. We are not good at providing quality training for those who are not academically-minded nor who struggled through their GCSEs before leaving school.

The problem is that we then tend to consider non-academic people ‘unsuited to ministry’ because they couldn’t cope with the academic training offered to them. Worse, if an intellectual style of preaching (such as we defined it) is not apparent, we consider people ‘unable to teach’ when, what we really mean, is they don’t connect well with high-minded intellectuals. Nobody says intellectual types can’t teach when they bomb in an estate church, we just consider them ‘contextually inappropriate’ and find them somewhere else. We rarely return the courtesy the other way round.

Lack of interest in the role
Some BME and working class people simply don’t want to become elders and pastors. That is not because they would be bad at it, it is because they see the all-white, middle class leaders of the churches they attend and presume the role is not for them. With few exceptions, whenever I have asked any of our Iranian men to lead anything their first question is, ‘why me?’ Their next comment is usually, ‘I’m not sure I can’. They assume that teaching roles are not for them. Often they feel unprepared, assume that this sort of work is for the elders and elders are not, typically, people like me. Aspiration to the role can be limited. Sometimes this is out of a genuine fear of inability but often it is out of a sense that people like me don’t do this type of thing.

Tacit racism and/or implicit bias
Sometimes, and it pains me to have to say this, people are locked out of church leadership because the church is tacitly racist or its members have an implicit bias. There may be lots of reasons – always sinful, often cultural, sometimes familial – that such prejudices exist, but exist they sometimes do. It may come in the form of simply presuming that BME and working class people are not cut out for leadership based on who they are. Other times it may be borne out of an unwillingness to understand other cultures and, as such, because BME and/or working class people express certain things in culturally different ways to the church considering them, their culture is simply considered ‘wrong’.

Based a little on anecdotal evidence and observed experience, I suspect BME people suffer this sort of thinking most in predominantly working class, deprived communities. I sense they are welcomed more for their cultural differences in middle class churches, who are often happy to tout their white Western liberal values. By contrast, middle class churches tend more toward an implicit bias against working class people. Nonetheless, tacit racism and implicit bias undoubtedly exists in certain sections of the Evangelical world and is a barrier to BME and working class people getting into leadership.

I am sure there are other reasons we could add. But those are five reasonably common reasons why BME and working class people are often overlooked for leadership roles in the church.