Rest can be hard work

The calls to work for justice and to make room for rest are significant and difficult to balance, writes a pastor and denominational executive from Michigan.


iStock / SkyNext

Near the end of every December, as I consider new trajectories and intentions for the coming year, the idea of reclaiming rest is always on my list. Each year, I boldly declare that I will experience deeper rest, find better rhythms of rest, not wait to rest until I’m bent with exhaustion.

I will play more! I will unplug! I will read for fun!

Truthfully, I don’t know whether I want to pay the price for rest. Not real rest -- the kind where you actually lose yourself in the stillness of mind, body and spirit.

Each layer of who I am challenges regular rhythms of rest: full-time minister, mom and wife, woman of color, student, mentor. Those bump against each other in a cacophony of competing demands. On my best days, they fall in line. On my worst, I am behind. I can’t afford long stretches of catching up, especially in seasons like this one.

Rest becomes expensive. It feels irresponsible and wrong.

During the holidays, I watched as social media accounts that I follow -- those of brave leaders holding high the banner of biblical justice -- hinted at rest. The posts were curious. Laptops put away. Mugs of tea, glasses of wine, fireplaces. Yet no pictures of them actually resting. No pictures of them curled up, reading. Accounts where I am used to seeing faces and arms raised behind the dais became just tableware.

It is very possible that this is truly what rest looks like. But I suspect that people simply do not want to see us rest. As people of color, championing our causes, we are not afforded the liberty of public rest.

People depend on the public expression of who we are -- sharing our tweets, our images, our hashtags -- to help further their own public spaces. Our defiant act of rest gives them nothing to move the cause forward. Pictures of rest are incongruent and feel counterproductive.

I can hear you yelling, “This isn’t healthy!” But there are realities you need to consider.

Rest can feel like a waste of resources. As a person who grew up in poverty and now dedicates my work to ministry, I know this well: rest feels like a waste of money.

For those of us in fields that are constantly hunting for money, doubly so. We mentally convert personal plane tickets and restaurant meals into salaries for our teams and essential food for the underserved. It is a constant internal exchange rate -- every dollar or minute we spend on ourselves is a self-centered currency. It could and should go to the cause.

Opportunities -- like the loan of a vacation house where we can decompress  -- don’t come up for us often. When they do, we find ways to host a board meeting there, a staff retreat, a volunteer gathering. We are constantly aware that the people around us are giving, too, so we most likely will not use such a gift for personal rest. For ourselves, we will find a cheap space. We will pack our own food and drive our own cars.

We don’t have generational spaces to fall back on. When I first began full-time ministry, I was amazed by the number of people who simply disappeared in the summer.

In the neighborhood where I grew up, parents had to continue working during the summer. Neighborhood summer programs and camps were a necessity while kids were out of school. No one was going anywhere. There was consistent noise and clamor until the streetlights came on.

For the current world I find myself in, that is not the case. Family cabins and lake houses are passed down for generations.

This is not a disparagement. But amid the challenges of lockdown that so many of us experienced this past summer, I was surprised by how many around me packed up and headed to the generational oasis. It was hard to hear their bitter complaints of being confined as they rounded up swimsuits and sunscreen.

Rest produces guilt. Every minute I spend away, every minute I spend with my guard down, is an invitation to return to more work and more worry.

My absence risks the people I serve, the core of who I am. What if something happens to them while I am gone?

Rest often requires money. The money I spend to fill my tank is often the money that’s truly needed somewhere else.

Once, on a work trip, I got myself ready early and sat outside the inexpensive hotel. Back home was cold, so the California sun was a warm invitation to sit and relax.

I snapped a selfie, captioning it that I was soaking up the sun waiting for my ride. When I returned home, our head of donor relations went in hard, reminding me that contributors did not pay for me to sit in the sun and that my message could jeopardize the funding for the organization. They were not paying me to relax.

We, as people of color, remind ourselves often that we cannot always carry the ball for the systems we are in. We sometimes must let the ball drop. I courageously say those things, affirm those things and repeat those things.

However, when I return to the daily reality of my work, I see places where the ball was dropped, and the inbox is twice as full the next day with more meetings, more pain, more work. Gripping the ball, at least for a little longer, keeps our souls safer.

The media and the Scriptures remind us to rest. I feel my shame creeping in as I realize that my body, mind and soul say they need rest. I am not a martyr by any means. I am, however, a pragmatist. The times feel hopeful and hard, and there’s work to be done.

This year, my personal hope is for something new. With all the baggage and blowback that may come, I plan to choose extravagant rest.

It will be the slow art of baking in the middle of my work-from-home days. It will be bold pictures of me soaking in the sun, playing cards and reading books. It will be weekend retreats that are not filled with uninterrupted work and prayerful discernment but with goofy pictures, my mouth wide with laughter, my heart wildly unburdened and unbothered.

This year, rest will be resistance so that the strongest me can be restored to take on the demands of the work.

Before the pandemic, members of the church and others gathered in the Rev. Jessica Ketola's home for meals and worship. Although meals and other activities are on pause, worship still takes place on Zoom. Photos courtesy of The Practicing Church

Borrowing from the Roman Catholic tradition of the parish, the pastor of a Vineyard house church focuses on serving the geographical area in which the church is located.

The Rev. Jessica Ketola is an old hand at doing church. Her parents were pastors. She served as a worship leader for more than a decade. She recorded Christian praise songs. She ran a church nonprofit that tutored low-income neighborhood children.

But in her mid-40s, the Vineyard-ordained pastor decided to change all the rules.

In January 2017, after a season of upheaval at Vineyard Community Church, where she had been serving as an associate pastor, she relaunched the congregation in her Shoreline, Washington, living room.

Ketola speaks to a Sunday gathering.

Ketola speaks to a Sunday gathering.

Ketola called it The Practicing Church and explained her vision to the 25 or so members that remained: it would be a neighborhood-based church that would serve the community out of a commitment to Jesus’ way of love and a desire for God’s shalom, or peace.

“I had come to a place where I was weary of all the incongruence of the church,” said Ketola, 49, a married mother of four adult children. “I was longing for more authentic ways to express my faith.”

Four years later, worship services still take place in her living room -- except temporarily during the pandemic, when it’s meeting Sunday mornings on Zoom. Although now double in size -- about 50 people -- it is still small but has made a big impact on the neighborhood of Richmond Highlands in Shoreline, a city of 53,000 on the Puget Sound north of Seattle.

Instead of a singular focus on the Sunday service or a targeted missions project, The Practicing Church seeks to live Christian life in community.

Who lives and works in your neighborhood? What are the opportunities and challenges of that place? Who are potential partners for your work?

Ketola did not come up with the vision for a church of the neighborhood. Her church is one of about 1,000 congregations loosely collaborating in the Parish Collective, a nonprofit that connects churches committed to living a life of faith in a particular location.

Borrowing from the Roman Catholic tradition of the parish, in which the faithful were assigned to the church closest to their homes (the Catholic Church no longer requires this), the collective seeks to revive the concept of the church as a geographic unit.

Members of The Practicing Church have picked up trash along neighborhood streets. They have volunteered on local task forces devoted to hunger and homelessness. They’ve offered cups of coffee to people outside a methadone clinic. They’ve started book clubs and a neighborhood garden.

Equally important, they’ve gotten to know their neighbors. Until the pandemic hit, members held regular Wednesday night potlucks in Ketola’s home for anyone who showed up.

 a group of volunteers take part in a neighborhood beautification day

Ketola, second from left, and a group of volunteers take part in a neighborhood beautification day.

They threw a 70th birthday party for a man who was recently widowed. They organized a monthlong meal train for a new mother. They raised money to help an immigrant family settle into an apartment. They supported a Black-owned coffee shop. They secured housing for a homeless couple. When a neighbor’s sister died, Ketola invited the neighbor’s mother to stay at her house while they settled the family’s affairs.

Ketola’s reasoning is simple: “If the church doesn’t cause us to be kinder, more loving, more generous, more self-sacrificing, then what are we doing?”

And though many of the church’s regular social gatherings have been stalled this past year because of the pandemic, members say the lines of communication -- though distanced -- have remained strong.

“So many people don’t know their neighbors,” said Courtney Ewing, a 38-year-old engineer who considers herself part of The Practicing Church as well as a Free Methodist church she has been a member of for many years. “In our neighborhood, you know your neighbor -- whether you want to or not.”

Members and neighborhoods gathered for a distanced happy hour before the weather grew too chilly for outdoor activities.

The church as a geographic unit

Tim Soerens, a pastor and social entrepreneur who co-founded the Parish Collective, said the idea arose in response to the increasingly consumer-driven ethic of churchgoing, in which Christians pick and choose a church on the basis of how much they enjoy the Sunday service or the pastor’s sermon.

Attending a service, Soerens said, is not the be-all and end-all of what it means to be part of a church.

“To use a sports metaphor, that’s close to a huddle,” he said. “It’s not the game. The game is a shared life and shared mission and a shared sense of responsibility on behalf of what God is up to.”

What aspect of your Christian convictions about love and justice might come to life by focusing on the neighborhood?

The Parish Collective envisions churches as teams of people living and working together for the flourishing of their neighborhoods. Soerens thinks even megachurches can divide into smaller groups that function similarly to parishes. (Only a tiny percentage of churches affiliated with the Parish Collective are house churches, like Ketola’s.)

Just as people are discovering the value of shopping and eating locally, Soerens says the church can discover the power of practicing its faith locally, serving as a kind of connective tissue that binds people for the sake of the common good.

That vision was especially appealing to Ketola, who in 2012 was struggling with her calling in a more traditional church. Then she learned about a certificate program offered through the Seattle School of Theology & Psychology called Leadership in the New Parish. There she met Soerens, Paul Sparks and Dwight Friesen, authors of “The New Parish: How Neighborhood Churches Are Transforming Mission, Discipleship and Community.”

“I didn’t really know what I was signing up for,” Ketola said. “I just knew we needed new ways of being the church. That started me on a journey. I began to have an imagination for leading a life of faith and love in my neighborhood.”

Ketola and others gather for a baptism at Richmond Beach, Washington.

Falling apart before coming together

In truth, the church where Ketola was serving as an associate pastor was already searching for a new way.

Shoreline’s Vineyard Community Church, part of the charismatic Association of Vineyard Churches, was started in 1999 but had undergone a series of transformations.

Under the leadership of the Rev. Rose Madrid Swetman, now pastor emeritus, the church was searching for a better way to engage the Shoreline community. Like the Pacific Northwest generally, the area is known for its large swath of religiously unaffiliated people.

Shoreline, which is 69% white, 16% Asian, 8% Hispanic and 7% Black, was seeing a diverse influx of racial groups. Half the children in the city’s school district were nonwhite.

The church began partnering with human service organizations in the Seattle area. Eventually, it founded its own 501(c)(3) nonprofit, Turning Point Seattle, a tutoring program for children who receive free and reduced lunches at local elementary schools.

Swetman hired Ketola to direct the tutoring program and, a few years later, to assist her as the associate pastor at the church.

In many ways, Vineyard Community Church was a typical startup congregation. It did not own a building but rented space mostly from other churches. Most members commuted in from Seattle or surrounding towns. Ketola herself was living in Edmonds, a few miles north, with her husband and children.

If you live and work in different neighborhoods, how can you learn about the hopes and laments of people in all the places where you spend time?

But after completing the parish leadership certificate program, Ketola took her first step toward realizing her new vision for the church. She persuaded her husband that they should sell their home and move to Shoreline, where she was already serving on multiple task forces as part of her job running the tutoring program.

In 2014, the Ketolas settled into a 4,200-square-foot ranch home in the Richmond Highlands neighborhood. They positioned a baby grand piano in one corner of their new living room and a 10-foot-long dining table in another. The vision was coming together.

The church, however, was falling apart. Swetman developed congestive heart failure and stepped down as lead pastor. Many members left. Swetman and those that remained turned to Ketola for leadership.

She agreed to become their pastor and rebranded the congregation as The Practicing Church, borrowing the name from Swetman’s 2010 dissertation on church missions. (The dissertation still lives on the church website.)

“It was an incredibly painful period,” Ketola said. “But it helped us have the flexibility to innovate and do things differently.”

The gift of hospitality

In those first few years, Ketola thought the congregation would outgrow her living room. But after experimenting for several months with worshipping in a coffee shop, she decided that her home was a better venue.

Ketola, standing, chats during an Easter brunch in her home.

The space naturally accommodated worship. Members didn’t have to rush to set up amps, microphones and musical instruments and then pack them up and haul them away. And each Sunday, Ketola baked gluten-free banana bread and brewed coffee. People loved the warmth and family-like feel of her home.

“I realized hospitality is one of my gifts,” she said. “We’re a family and a community, and that’s communicated by the context.”

In time, several members caught the vision and moved to Shoreline. (A few members still live elsewhere.)

Before long, the neighbors began to notice them.

Ewing, the engineer, saw a posting for a Christmas party on the neighborhood social networking service Nextdoor.

“I thought, ‘Oh my gosh. Who are these people?’” Ewing said. “‘They’re opening their house to people they don’t know.’ Then I saw the address, and it was two houses down from me. So I decided to check out these crazy people who will invite anyone over.”

What might happen if your congregation focused its ministry on neighbors? What might happen if place became the central factor in setting your priorities?

Soon, Ewing was dropping in on the Wednesday night potlucks. This past summer, she took part in an outdoor, socially distanced book group where members read Sandhya Rani Jha’s book “Transforming Communities: How People Like You Are Healing Their Neighborhoods.”

She is now working with Ketola on developing a map of the neighborhood’s assets, identifying people and organizations.

Not everyone who partakes in the work of the church is a member. Kathy Sutherland, who lives next door to the Ketolas, is not a churchgoer but has become an ally who thinks the church has made the community stronger.

Members and neighbors gather for an outdoor dinner.

“I’ve lived in the neighborhood for 35 years, and they know more people than I do,” Sutherland said. “That’s how they reach out.”

For Ketola, the goal is to work toward the flourishing of the community, not necessarily to make converts.

A bigger challenge is keeping the core team together in a hypermobile culture. Young families tend to move -- for better housing options or better jobs. Three of the congregation’s core families moved to other parts of the country in the last few years.

The pandemic has paused the normal life of the church. In the summer and fall, some gatherings took place outdoors, with adjustments for social distancing and masking, but as the weather turned cold and rainy, that fell away. Instead of hosting a holiday party with karaoke at Christmas, church members delivered almond sugar cookies and holiday cards to their neighbors.

The tutoring program now relies on other volunteers, though Ketola still sits on the board and helps with fundraising.

What is the ultimate aim of your ministry? With whom and how do you assess progress?

In a recent Sunday morning Zoom session, some 13 families gathered to listen and sing praise songs. In her sermon, Ketola referred to the recent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, pointing out that Christian nationalism is a form of idolatry and asking participants to reflect on what it means to be a Christian.

To her, it comes down to love of neighbor.

“You can look at so many of society’s ills as communities and fabrics of care that have fallen apart,” she said. “There’s been racial inequities, systemic racism, poverty, mental illness -- all these things -- because we’re not connected in community. We’re divested of place.”

Living out their faith day by day in their community, Ketola’s church aims to change that.

Questions to consider

  • The tradition of the parish is similar to modern business strategy in that both share a focus on a specific audience and place with the goal of improving impact. Who lives and works in your neighborhood? What are the opportunities and challenges of that place? Who are potential partners for your work?
  • Parish Collective calls Christians to focus on the neighborhood and become a life-giving expression of the church in that place. What aspect of your Christian convictions about love and justice might come to life by focusing on the neighborhood?
  • If you live and work in different neighborhoods, how can you learn about the hopes and laments of people in all the places where you spend time?
  • Most American churches see ministry primarily as caring for members and missions as caring for the world. What might happen if your congregation focused its ministry on neighbors? What might happen if place became the central factor in setting your priorities?
  • Jessica Ketola’s goal is the flourishing of the community. What is the ultimate aim of your ministry? With whom and how do you assess progress?

The Table of Hope mobile food pantry

The Table of Hope mobile food pantry is part of the ministry that Bethel Church of Morristown, New Jersey, expanded after a 2011 flood that nearly destroyed its building. Photos courtesy of Bethel Church

When volunteers and donors helped repair massive flood damage to its building, the pastor and congregation paid back the community by creating an ambitious food ministry.

The water rose quickly, fed by rain whipped by wind.

In late August 2011, Hurricane Irene roared up the East Coast and nearly destroyed Bethel Church of Morristown, New Jersey.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much water gather in a city area,” said the Rev. Dr. Sidney S. Williams Jr., Bethel’s senior pastor. At the time of the flood, he’d been in the role less than a year.

The storm did such damage -- including to the organ, piano and walls -- that it cost almost $1.5 million to fix. The church had no flood insurance, and the congregation of about 75 active members couldn’t afford the repairs on its own.

Photo of waters rising from hurricane Irene

Waters rose as Irene, a hurricane later downgraded to a tropical storm, hit Morristown.

But Williams had a vision. If the congregation committed to creating a five-day-a-week free dinner for the community, he thought, they could get volunteers and donations from outside the church to rebuild the facility.

He was right. The disaster marked the beginning of a new mission for the church, which was founded in 1843. Since the flood, Bethel has expanded its community ministries, which include health screenings and other services.

Table of Hope, a nonprofit under the church’s Spring Street Community Development Corp., has become the leading distributor of food during the COVID-19 pandemic in Morris County, Williams said.

For Williams, the experience is an example of what can happen when the church serves more than just its own members.

How do you measure success? What are the marks of a thriving congregation?

“You cannot confine your ministry to the support you’re able to garner from the members of your church,” he said. “You can find yourself as a conduit or a catalyst to solving your community’s problems, meeting their needs in a way that far exceeds your capacity.

“When you focus on the real needs of the community, the community will rally around you.”

‘The poverty is here’

Williams has the quick, strong and precise cadence of a man destined to preach. He was born in Philadelphia in 1968 and gave his first sermon when he was 15. After hearing it, his friends thought he’d surely end up in the pulpit.

A photo of The Rev. Dr. Sidney S. Williams Jr

The Rev. Dr. Sidney S. Williams Jr., Bethel’s senior pastor.

At first he didn’t pursue ministry; he earned a degree in finance from Howard University, went to work for Goldman Sachs as a bond trader and then got an MBA from the Wharton School of Business. He had a wife, with children on the way, and felt a strong need to provide.

Still, he felt the call to ministry, and he entered Wesley Theological Seminary in 2004. By 2008, he had accepted an assignment for $500 a month in one of South Africa’s most crime- and poverty-ridden areas, the Hanover Park neighborhood of Cape Flats.

It was an experience that would inform the vision he carried to Bethel.

There were times when Williams literally had no food for his family. To his surprise, his neighbors -- who were in even greater need -- would knock on the door and bring the family a meal.

But the reverse was true, too. His daughters would stand at their front door and hand bread -- when they had it -- to hungry children who otherwise would have nothing to eat.

Watching that, Williams said, “brought home how much they literally had to pray for their bread.”

Which life experiences have been most formative in your ministry? How have those influenced your congregation’s mission and values?

After 13 months in South Africa, the AME Church offered Williams a position in Morristown, New Jersey. He had made spiritual and personal connections in South Africa and appreciated how he could make a difference there.

But a church elder taught him another lesson.

He had been sent to South Africa so God could prepare him for ministry in the States, she told him. Williams realized that he was sent to the other side of the world “not to change their environment but so that environment can change me.”

His new home of Morristown sits in Morris County, one of the richest counties in the country. The median household income of over $110,000 a year is 40% higher than New Jersey as a whole.

Williams wondered: What can I do to make a difference here?

But census tract 435, the area in which Bethel is located, isn’t nearly as prosperous as the county as a whole. And, while Morris County is 83% white, census tract 435 has 64% Hispanic residents; almost 60% of residents speak Spanish at home.

How well do you know your congregation’s context? What practices might help you listen and observe your surroundings more carefully?

The tract lags in every economic indicator. Almost half of its residents have a household income of less than $50,000 annually. Nine percent of its children live in poverty, and the jobless rate is well above the county average.

In other words, it was the perfect place for Williams.

“There was no way I could sit here and not do something more,” he said. “So I started looking at the needs of this community. If you look carefully, there are people living in tents and outdoors, [several] dayworkers and immigrants living in one home. The poverty is here; you have to look at it.”

Paying it forward

The crisis that the storm created catalyzed his vision.

“Prior to the flood, I had a deep sense of regret about leaving South Africa and seeing the wealth of Morris County,” Williams said.

If your church were in crisis, where would you turn for help? What relationships or partnerships might you begin building today to create a network of support?

The flood led to a difficult transition for Bethel. First, Williams had to get the church cleaned up before mold started to grow. He asked for volunteers to help at a cleanup day and was surprised when Boy Scout troops, other churches’ members and community volunteers gave of their time.

“I had only been in the community eight months, and the church was pessimistic” about the volunteer response, he said. “But they came.”

He knew that in the long term, he would have to raise money from the community to repair the church.

“I felt very strongly that if we were going to the community for support, we needed an impact statement to pay it forward. It was unreasonable to ask without a credible way to serve the community,” he said.

Williams then shared his vision: Bethel would start serving a free meal five days a week, Monday through Friday.

Rain lashes the building in 2011

Rain lashes the building in 2011; rebuilding was not just a massive effort, but also a turning point for the congregation.

Some of the members didn’t agree. When Williams presented his vision, some left the church.

“The first skepticism was some of the officers didn’t want ‘those people’ in the church,” Williams said. Members recalled bad experiences with homeless people sleeping in the pews, uninvited, bringing hygiene and security issues.

Others wondered whether the small congregation could support feeding people five days a week.

But Williams had a different take. “It’s great we worship and believe together, but if we’re not living [the mission], what’s the point?”

Still, the adjustment was difficult at times.

“For many, the African American church is their sanctuary,” he said. “Here they separate themselves from the world’s problems. In a sense, we have disrupted that sanctuary. … Because they’re sharing the Bethel space.

“There have been hurdles from members who thought their spaces were being invaded from people who didn’t think, speak or worship like us.”

Who are your neighbors? What steps might you take to equip your congregation to venture into new and uncomfortable places?

For example, Williams reminded congregants who wanted an after-school program for African American youth that it would have to be for all children, including children in the Latino community. He began hosting exchanges with other churches so the members could better understand each other.

He attempted to start a bilingual service at Bethel in Spanish and English and told his congregation, “Look around, because this is what heaven’s gonna look like.”

His core argument that congregations should focus more on social impact than growth is explained in his book, "Fishing Differently: Ministry Formation in the Marketplace."

Others in the congregation supported his vision. Patricia Johnson, who has attended Bethel for 30 years, said those efforts speak to Williams’ leadership in the church and the community.

“It’s a part of charitable ministry, and I think that God looks favorably upon those that help our fellow man in whatever way we can. I think we are really expanding on that ministry,” she said.

Williams approached other congregations, civic clubs and the like. It was a local real estate trust that really made a difference -- the trust leaders met with Williams and volunteered to build the kitchen and contribute about $1 million of the rebuilding cost.

Until the pandemic hit, Bethel served meals five days a week in facilities built after the storm.

The rest of the money came from current and former church members, community organizations and grants. All told, it took two years for the church to reopen and the Table of Hope to launch in 2013.

Williams told his members he believed that the same community groups that helped clean up Bethel would support the community kitchen. At first, he made many phone calls to local groups seeking volunteers. Now he has a three-month volunteer waiting list.

A mobile food pantry makes its mark

Table of Hope opened in 2013, funded by a financial gift from a recently deceased church member. Those funds lasted until 2015. Community donations and grants now fund the Table’s $5,000 weekly operating costs, although a lack of funds has led to occasional temporary closures.

Because of the pandemic, Table of Hope hasn’t served a meal at the church since March.

But Bethel has opened its arms even wider. One of the church’s volunteers donated an old school bus, and the congregation raised $20,000 to retrofit it with refrigeration and turn it into a mobile food pantry.

The mobile pantry has made its mark throughout Morris County, offering more than 10,000 pounds of food a week, in partnership with the Community FoodBank of New Jersey.

The Table of Hope ministry continues to serve Morris County during the pandemic.

It has delivered in areas like Roxbury Township, where the median household income sits at nearly $111,000 but 5% of the 22,000 residents live in poverty.

Table of Hope helps meet the increased food need during the pandemic, the township mayor, Bob DeFillippo, said in an email.

“The pandemic has made it difficult for people from diverse economic and social backgrounds to meet the needs of their families,” DeFillippo said. “Table of Hope has made it easier for residents to bridge the gap after a job loss or furlough.”

And of course hunger isn’t the only challenge facing people in the county. Bethel also provides free backpacks to children; annual community health days with free screenings for diabetes, high blood pressure and other ailments; and a program to end homelessness in Morris County.

When asked to evaluate his efforts, Williams said, “I think we’ve done a fairly decent job.”

How has the pandemic affected your sense of mission? What kind of church do you want to be when the pandemic is over?

“I think he’s selling himself very short,” said Grace Rhinesmith, the director of recreation for Jefferson Township, New Jersey. “Table of Hope has been a wonderful asset to our residents. They do an amazing job with the amount of food they bring in.”

Table of Hope has been to Jefferson Township three times in the second half of 2020. The third time, there was so much extra that the township provided food to 32 additional families, a nursing home and two food pantries.

None of the folks they serve may ever step into the rebuilt sanctuary. But that’s not the focus, Williams said. “It’s less about church growth and membership and more about social impact. There is no doubt we’re having a social impact.”

Questions to consider

  • How do you measure success? What are the marks of a thriving congregation?
  • Which life experiences have been most formative in your ministry? How have those influenced your congregation’s mission and values?
  • How well do you know your congregation’s context? What practices might help you listen and observe your surroundings more carefully?
  • If your church were in crisis, where would you turn for help? What relationships or partnerships might you begin building today to create a network of support?
  • Who are your neighbors? What steps might you take to equip your congregation to venture into new and uncomfortable places?
  • How has the pandemic affected your sense of mission? What kind of church do you want to be when the pandemic is over?

Illustration by Jessamyn Rubio / iStock / Victoria Bar

Diversity doesn’t necessarily challenge racism, says a sociologist who studies multicultural churches.

When Korie Little Edwards first started attending a multiracial church in Ohio, she was optimistic.

“I went into it betting that this will be a place where we’re going to really see people able to live out the gospel together,” she said.

But as time went on, she began to see -- through both personal experience and the data she uncovered as a sociologist -- how multiracial churches don’t necessarily accomplish the goals they set out for themselves.

In her book “The Elusive Dream: The Power of Race in Interracial Churches,”(link is external) she argued that people of color are often asked to set aside their preferences and settle for visible roles that are not substantive leadership positions.

“Being diverse doesn’t mean that white people are not going to still be in charge and run things,” she said to NPR.

She has continued her research on multiracial congregations in the Religious Leadership and Diversity Project, now turning her focus to pastors, investigating their efforts to maintain unity and diversity in America’s multiracial churches.

Little Edwards is an associate professor at The Ohio State University. She earned her Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

She spoke with Faith & Leadership’s Chris Karnadi about her ongoing work and how churches, both multiracial and not, can begin to decenter whiteness and seek equity. The following is an edited transcript.

Faith & Leadership: Tell me about the Religious Leadership and Diversity Project and what you’re learning.

Korie Little Edwards: The Religious Leadership and Diversity Project is a national multimethod study of pastors of multiracial churches. It is focused on Christian pastors, head pastors in particular, and aims to understand how they go about leading and guiding and developing multiracial churches.

It’s the most comprehensive study of pastors of multiracial churches ever done. It has a diversity of pastors in the sample. We have mainline pastors and Catholic priests as well as conservative Protestant pastors. We have some women, about 10% of the 123 pastors who were interviewed. All the women were pastors in mainline denominations.

About 40% of the participants are people of color. There are a variety of different church sizes, from very small to megachurches. The study was done in 12 cities across the country.

We really wanted to capture potential regional differences, but there are also different types of diversity depending on what part of the country you’re in -- so more heavily Asian on the West Coast, more Latinos in the South and West, and Blacks in the South.

F&L: I know that the research you do on multiracial congregations is not only professional but also personal. What drew you to the study of multiracial congregations?

KLE: The reason I chose to really get into this research is that I was attending a multiracial church. Most of my life, I have been in predominantly homogeneous churches. I grew up in the Black church. Then when I was an adult and working as an engineer, I was looking for a church out in the suburbs and I went to a megachurch that was largely white. But there were just some things I began to see in that church.

On the one hand, they talked some about not being prejudiced and being inclusive, but they didn’t really do anything to change the systems that would impact the power structures in the church.

I ended up running into somebody I got to know a bit at the church, and he said, “I’m actually going to plant a church that’s multiracial down closer to the city.” So I went to check that out.

Eventually, my personal interest sort of transitioned into my scholarly work, and I ended up doing this multimethod study that did ethnography as well as used some survey data from the National Congregations Study. What I found is that while on the surface multiracial churches look really good -- because they look diverse -- people of color are not core and central to the church.

There aren’t a lot of places in the country where people voluntarily come together across race. We basically live our lives out along racial lines, from where we live to the people we hang out with to usually the churches we go to, the people we marry. So on the surface, it looks pretty cool, because multiracial churches are able to be diverse.

People all come together. They’re friendly. They’re worshipping together.

But as I began to dig down deeper, I began to see that what appeared to be harmonious on the outside, at least on the surface -- that there were some challenges. People of color weren’t able to be fully who they were, and they weren’t fully included in the culture and the power system of the church.

What I found in my book “The Elusive Dream” and other work I’ve done is that ultimately people of color move on. Black people, brown people and Asian people leave these places. They end up bearing the brunt of the burden to make this work, because they have to give up more to keep everybody together.

They have to give up their preferences. They have to give up how they worship or the culture that really is important to them. They have to give up how they understand authority and how authority works, how they do family. They give up basic things that are taken for granted -- how long the services are, when the services start, what do you wear when you go to church, what does the sermon look like, what are the topics of the sermons, do you emphasize the New Testament or the Old Testament.

There are all kinds of ways in which people of color were giving up a lot to come and make this thing work. Simply just going to church together was work. That causes pain, and I think that’s something that’s overlooked. I learned that the people who were feeling pain were doing the hard work.

Then with the Religious Leadership and Diversity Project, the team and I focused on head clergy. We did that intentionally, because we wanted to talk to the people who were in charge. But the reality is we found that it’s very hard for pastors to do this work regardless of the race of the pastor, because we live in a society that’s highly racialized. It’s racially hierarchical, and it’s very racially segregated.

It’s hard for all pastors, but it’s especially hard for pastors of color, because they don’t have the same level of affirmation and they’re not given the same level of respect as “legitimate” authorities. They don’t have the kinds of access to resources that are needed for their churches, whether that be the social connections, the same level of financial resources coming their way.

So it’s hard work to do this, and it’s because we have to recognize that we’re in a broader context. It’s not just the church; we live in a society with white supremacists, and that’s a context that the churches and the pastors have to deal with.

F&L: Have you found that burnout is higher for pastors of multicultural churches or multiracial churches, and especially for the pastors of color?

KLE: Pastoring is hard regardless of the composition of the church. There are a lot of demands on pastors. However, what I have argued and what the Religious Leadership and Diversity Project shows is that there is additional strain that pastors of multiracial churches have to experience as a result of the broader context in America, the racialized context, and then that goes to another level for the pastors of color of multiracial churches.

During some of these interviews, it would just be clear to me that this was such emotionally and spiritually draining work. There were times I’d be sitting in these interviews and my heart would break, because I could see the level of challenge in trying to create unity among people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds.

If churches are really interested in justice, if churches are really interested in bringing people together in a just and equal space, then you’ve got to put the resources behind that. You don’t just say, “Well, go make a multiracial church; it sounds like a great idea,” because they have a lot more to navigate and to deal with than a pastor of a homogeneous church.

F&L: Do multiracial congregations help combat racism? Do they have a positive impact on their communities?

KLE: Not necessarily, no. Multiracial churches and their pastors are working so hard just to be multiracial that they don’t have the resources to do other stuff. There’s so much energy just to keep people in the pews -- well, now the virtual pews. That’s one thing.

But the second thing is multiracial churches are not immune to white supremacy. That’s true of any organization. Just because an organization is diverse doesn’t mean it’s not going to reproduce white supremacy.

In fact, it’s more difficult in a space that’s diverse sometimes, because the diversity can almost work as a shield against dealing with the real issue, which is whiteness and white supremacy.

What my work has found -- and I argue this in “The Elusive Dream” -- is that multiracial churches work to the extent of white people being satisfied and happy. I didn’t expect this, actually, starting out my work. So that means multiracial churches are not necessarily a system that’s challenging white supremacy. It’s just reproducing the same thing in perhaps a kinder and gentler way.

I think that’s why it’s so important to focus on the real issue. The real issue in America isn’t, “Are we diverse or not?” The real issue in America is, “Are we dismantling white supremacy?” You can have a country or an organization that is diverse and still have white supremacy.

F&L: What does a multiracial church that is dismantling white supremacy look like?

KLE: I think the very first thing is that people have to acknowledge their own investment in white supremacy personally. And then second, they have to ask how they might be perpetuating it in their church.

This is something that people of color have to do as well, because, as I also note in the book, people of color can reinforce whiteness even if they’re hurt by it. They may go along with a centered whiteness to just stay and maintain diversity, because they place such a high value on it.

Everybody has to be committed to challenging a belief system that says, “What is white is right; what is white is better.” And everybody has to do the work of undoing that in their own narratives, their ways of seeing the world and ways of seeing themselves.

The second thing comes after you really have addressed that centering of whiteness. Then you begin to deal with how the church might be manifesting whiteness. I think what can be helpful is to look to churches that are not organized around whiteness. Now those could be churches that are still churches of color, but just because it’s a church of color doesn’t mean it’s not organized around some sort of affirming whiteness.

In the United States, one of the better examples of this is the Black church, largely because of the history of the Black church, which has a very clear separate history from white cultural denominations. I would suggest going to the Black churches that are connected to Black denominations so you can begin to see and get a sense of how things are different when churches are not primarily organized around whiteness.

Those are the first two steps that I would suggest to leaders of denominations, their pastors and their people who are interested in doing this work of creating a more just and equal space in their churches and societies.