The Good Steward

Vestry Corner: Encouraging Diversity in Church Leadership

April 2021

You might have a metaphorical sign above your church door that you think says, “Welcome, all!” But people from marginalized groups can sometimes see invisible writing below that message.

“You are welcome—except if you are a certain race. You are welcome—except if you don’t like our classical music. Except if you don’t have a college degree. If you’re not a professional person,” the Rev. Canon Stephanie Spellers, Canon to the Presiding Bishop for Evangelism, Reconciliation and Stewardship of Creation, The Episcopal Church, says.

She continues, “No one might be willfully sending that message, but we participate in cultures.”

Reflect the Values of the Way of Love

It’s important that church leaders be aware of the messages they telegraph so that their communities can be enriched by increased diversity, Mother Spellers says. Part of her work is addressing historic patterns of sidelining groups in leadership roles. She examines what has led The Episcopal Church to undervalue people of color and those who lack economic privilege in its leadership ranks—and emphasizes that the most compelling reason for wanting to increase diversity in the Church is to embody the beloved community of Jesus.

“If we say that we follow Jesus and his Way of Love, we need to look at the kinds of communities that Jesus gathered. If our churches don’t reflect those values, we have a problem,” Mother Spellers says.

Examine the History and Prepare the Ground

The first step toward encouraging more diverse leadership is to face some difficult truths. “To see the Church’s relationship with communities of color and poor people, you have to examine the history. Once you start digging, a real reckoning will take place,” Mother Spellers predicts.

Church systems and structures have erected entry barriers to people from nondominant backgrounds. In order to heal what is broken, church leaders should enact what she calls a “radical welcome.” She suggests such practical steps as making sure your search committee has been formally trained in dismantling racism.

Mother Spellers gives the hypothetical of a church hiring its first Latin American rector. “Before the new rector comes in, make sure the congregation has done antiracism training and that the church has built some relationships with Latinx communities and organizations, so the new rector is not the first person they’ve encountered from that background. Grow the capacity for authentic relationships. Prepare the system to receive the gifts of groups from the margins.”

Regardless of whether a church is in the midst of a formal leadership search or simply looking to be a good partner in its community, the vestry should approach its diversity initiative as building a partnership.

“Go out and listen for a while, so you can be more hospitable,” she advises.

“When we’re monocultural, we’re missing so much. I need the wisdom you’ve gained from your life experience. I will be enriched and draw closer to God as I hear how God speaks to you, and as I honor how God leads through you.”

Ultimately, she says, “we seek diversity for our own salvation.”