Yesterday, I looked at some of the figures concerning UK Evangelicalism. You can read that post here.
Essentially, despite FIEC figures showing the organisation was in line with the national average for BME people, as we drill down into local demographics our representation is much less thrilling. It bears saying the FIEC are, by no means, the only people for whom this particular cap fits. The Church of England is doing even worse, failing to meet the national average by almost half. I also pointed out where my own particular church – though on the statistics provided we could say we were doing far better than both the national average and blasting the demographic stats for our borough – locally, within our ward, we are failing our immediate community in terms of representation. I further noted how, when we move beyond the statistics for BME people and consider the wider issue of class and deprivation, we are doing worse still.
In this post, I want to consider some of the reasons why we are failing in this regard. Why is it so common for churches to fail to bring anybody who is not white and middle-class into church leadership? Whilst I have had the misfortune to meet some Evangelical people who are either overtly racist or classist, I don’t think the overwhelming majority of church leaders are being driven by such explicit or sinister motives.
Nonetheless, I do think many have an implicit bias. I have noted before that churches tend to beget people like themselves. The thing about culture, particularly within the church, is that it is notoriously difficult to change. The reason is that culture isn’t something you do; your culture is what you are. As an overwhelmingly white and middle-class movement, Evangelicalism will inevitably have a white, middle-class culture. It is just the reality of what it is. For that culture to change, we must necessarily change what we are in reality. That means to have a less white and middle-class culture, we need to be less white and middle-class. That is difficult when that is what you are and like tends to beget like.
When we look within our churches, why is it that – even those that appear to be better at multicultural church and representative demography – still, typically, have white and middle-class leaders? Now, at one level, it is like begetting like. As someone who thinks much higher of myself than I ought , I naturally presume people who are just like me are also the very best people for all the stuff that I think I am the best at too. Although every church leader says, ‘I’m no Spurgeon’, that is not as modest as it sounds at first blush because what they usually mean is, ‘though I’m no Spurgeon, I’m pretty much one rank below that’. Naturally, if we think of ourselves as great, people who are like us are also great. Those who are nothing like us must, therefore, be less than competent.
Further, when our eldership teams are made up exclusively of white middle-class people, we tend to a get a kind of white middle-class groupthink. We begin running the eldership criteria through our cultural middle-class values. We judge what it means to have children ‘in submission with all reverence’ by our middle-class understanding of what that means. We consider ‘managing the household well’ to mean what a lot of our middle-class, white neighbours would mean by that. We very rarely consider that ‘not a lover of money’ looks very different inside and outside British middle-class culture.
What this tends to mean is that those who do these things differently to middle-class people are assumed to be failing at the biblical criteria for eldership. Because of our monocultural leadership, we cannot always see that our multicultural church (such as we have one) may be meeting these criteria in a way that is entirely appropriate within the culture from which they are drawn.
It also bears looking at how good we are at nurturing leaders at all. Without making excuses for them, most pastors and elders are busy people. It is, therefore, quite tempting to find shortcuts. If you have somebody clamouring at your door wanting to be trained for leadership, who has the personal finance to go to seminary and a degree education allowing us to presume they will be capable of study, we tend to encourage such a person. But much of that emphasis is on background, finance, ability to study and personal desire, none of which bears any relation whatsoever to the Biblical qualifications for eldership or ministry. Let’s compare that to somebody who hasn’t been to university, doesn’t tend to push themselves forward and it will cost us money to train them. Many of us would simply not bother sending that person because it will take time and money for us to ascertain their qualification.
Because we’re often looking for shortcuts, we don’t always want to put in the time to work out exactly who would be appropriate for ministry and who we should pour into. We look for certain shibboleths and background before we will consider pouring into somebody this way. Because the squeaky wheel gets the grease, and most of those squeaky wheels come with their own finances and a decent educational background that we presume means they can handle the Bible well because they read history at a solid redbrick, we decide we’ll train such people. It is a laziness on our part that uses such methods to determine who we will train for ministry.
In fact, I think this is the number one reason not only why many church leaders are white and middle-class but why so many end up in ministry despite being obviously unqualified to do it. We determine that the ability to study, or a good background in business, or someone who can help us build networks will be the best bloke for the church. This means we end up with people who, yes, easily pick up Greek and learn how to exegete Bible passages in seminary but who never learnt not to use people as stepping stones, as many do in business, to build their empire, personal career or a name for themselves within the tiny world of British Evangelicalism as a ‘good chap’ or ‘great guy’. Middle-class people value this sort of networking; most working-class people I know (and I along with them) find it crass and wholly unappealing.
What is it about middle-class people that leads them into leadership of the church? Is it simply a case of the cream rising to the top? Don’t bet on it. Ultimately, they have sharp elbows, they know the appropriate things to say and the right ways to suck up to those in leadership. We are all so susceptible to flattery and inclined to support people just like me because if I’m great they must be too (and now they’re confirming my greatness by telling me so), that we routinely fall for it. Couple to that, it feels so natural because they come from the same white, middle-class culture as us, we often don’t recognise it.
When we compare that to the unwillingness of certain cultures to push themselves forward, or to defer to others, and we couple to it a sense of unease because they never seem to pick up on our social cues – which we then read as their being pastorally insensitive – is it any wonder that those people from either working-class or non-British cultures struggle to get a look in?
- It is worth running this by Spurgeon’s maxim, ‘If any man thinks ill of you, do not be angry with him, for you are worse than he thinks you to be’. All of us think more highly of ourselves than we should.