Can You Lead Where You’ve Not Been? I Sure Hope So!

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I often find myself in conversations with ministry leaders who want to lead their (generally) white congregations toward greater solidarity with the wider Body of Christ. They’ve come to see how their non-engagement on issues of racial justice has been a tacit approval of the status quo and they’re ready to move in a different direction.

These leaders have already answered the why question about the Christian responsibility to pursue reconciliation and justice; now they’re asking how. How do we disciple people toward Christian solidarity? How do we address the partisan, ideological, and racial formation that has so thoroughly impacted us? How do we simultaneously engage the convinced and the skeptical, the justice warriors and the CRT-phobics?

These questions are so important, even if the answers will be highly contextual. How we answer the how questions should vary depending on the particularities of our communities and congregations. Accepting this, it’s still a struggle for many of us to imagine the answers to our questions. I think I know why.

My dad was a pilot-mechanic. Before ever getting into his small Cessna airplane he would always thoroughly check to make sure everything was as it should be. After every few hundred hours of service, he would take the airplane apart, examining closely every piece of the airframe and engine to be sure they were functioning properly. Finding any part slightly worn, my dad would promptly service it. He wanted to have complete confidence in his aircraft before taking to the skies.

In rather dramatic contrast to my dad’s meticulous precision, those of us engaged in the work of rediscipling white Christians are putting the plane together mid-flight. We don’t have the ability to get everything right and screwed down tight before taking off; we’ve been in the air for quite some time already!

And not only are we building as we fly, to set aside the metaphor for now, we’re building something we’ve not experienced ourselves. Leaders are often told not to lead people where they have not gone themselves. But in a way, this is what we’ve been forced to do. Because the places of congregational worship and theological education did not prepare us to disciple people away from worldly patterns of racism and supremacy, we find ourselves inviting people to follow us into a pretty dense fog.

This, I think, is why we struggle to answer our questions about how to move forward. We’re doing our best to imagine something we haven’t seen. We’ve not been discipled in these areas ourselves, even as we are convinced that discipleship is the essential way to reconciliation and justice.

Let me suggest two potentially helpful responses to the sobering situation we find ourselves in. First, simply noticing what we’re up against and what we lack to do this work is important. There are good reasons we get confused and turned around. Second, just because we’ve never seen this sort of discipleship before doesn’t mean it hasn’t existed for a very long time. It’s just existed beyond the interest of most white Christians. For myself, the majority of my imagination for this work has come from spending time in African American ministry contexts. This is where I’ve seen women and men spiritually formed to resist racial injustice – systemically and personally – as followers of Jesus. Granted, the application of what we learn in these communities will have to be thought through carefully as we bring these lessons to bear in majority white spaces. Thankfully, though, the Holy Spirit seems more than willing to animate what has been life giving in what part of the Body in a different part.

I’m curious about what you think. Does my analysis of what we’re up against – building as we fly, a tremendous lack of imagination – ring true? And what about the helpfulness of these two responses, understanding why this work is so difficult and learning from those who’ve been at it far longer than many of us have? Are there others you’d suggest to us?

(Photo credit: Alexandr Podvalny.)

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