Shepherding God’s people as a full-time pastor is often hard and lonely. But for minority pastors serving Caucasian congregations, the job can also be complicated.
Pastor Eddie Koh studied the experiences of minority pastors who work in PCA churches that are at least 70 percent Caucasian. He found that for most of these men, the pastorate’s typical challenges are aggravated by white church members and leaders who often interpret cultural differences as signs of incompetence.
Koh’s research also found that when churches take steps to increase their cultural intelligence, they can bless their pastors and further the church’s witness in communities that are growing increasingly diverse.
The Changing Face of the Neighborhood
When Caucasian churches call a minority pastor, the decision is usually strategic. In 2003, Koh, a Korean-American, was called to be the associate pastor of a church near Seattle that was composed primarily of elderly Caucasians. The neighborhood, on the other hand, was becoming more diverse and attracting young residents. The senior pastor believed a minority associate might attract more locals.
“I saw myself as a pioneer because so few pastors do this, but it seems like more and more congregations are interested in doing this … which means there will be bumps along the road.”
Koh’s “bumps along the road” usually came when the church and its leaders failed to understand the ways they and their Korean-American pastor were different. The congregation lacked cultural intelligence, and its struggle to discern its own cultural biases stymied Koh’s ministry for years.
While only a handful of pastors in the PCA are minority pastors at majority-culture churches, most of these pastors were strategically called to attract people from different ethnicities. The pastors all reported leadership challenges that stemmed from a lack of cultural understanding.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2012 white babies became the minority in the United States, and within five years more than 50 percent of children under 18 will be ethnic or racial minorities. The disparity between the demographics of the PCA and the demographics of the broader culture, then, isn’t merely a matter of political correctness; the church’s witness in the community will be at stake.
As an African-American pastor explained to Koh, “When you’re homogenous, you can only reach your arms out to so many people. But when you’re more diverse, your arms get broader, and you’re able to reach not just more people, but more types of people.”
Churches must learn that different cultures do things differently. To ignore this reality forces a minority pastor to assimilate into Caucasian culture and dilutes the unique strengths he brings.
To get there, churches need to work on their cultural intelligence.
What Is Cultural Intelligence?
Pastor and researcher Bob Burns has defined cultural intelligence as “the ability to understand, acknowledge, and appreciate certain contextual forces as well as the cultural background of oneself and others.” Cultural intelligence enables someone to understand how one’s culture shapes his or her preferences and values and determines how one interacts with others from another culture.
For his research, Koh interviewed six pastors — three Korean-American and three African-American. Many of the challenges these pastors reported stemmed from the church leadership and congregation’s assumption that the Caucasian way of doing things was the correct way — even the biblical way.
For example, Koh said the Asian-American pastors he interviewed believed their style of leadership — which values seeking and processing opinions of one’s elders before voicing one’s own opinion — was dismissed as inferior by white members who were accustomed to a take-charge style of leadership.
Koh said the Asian approach to leadership is more reserved and deferential, and it reflects biblical humility. But because it is not the way Caucasians are accustomed to seeing pastors lead, many Anglos dismissed this reserved style as passive and inadequate.
As churches and their leaders develop cultural intelligence, they can discern how their own cultural biases and backgrounds inform their preferences and begin to appreciate what other cultures have to offer.
Building the Church, Glorifying God
What many churches do not realize is that their failure to develop cultural intelligence can ostracize a minority pastor and dampen his zeal for ministry, but working to love and welcome a minority pastor can foster great healing.
The interviewed pastors shared moving stories of how their fellow pastors and congregations loved and welcomed them in culturally appropriate ways. For some, the love of their congregations facilitated healing after years of tension.
In the end, all six pastors reported they were able to overcome their challenges over time. Supportive leadership, trusted confidants (including Caucasian confidants), and their own multicultural skills were some of the resources these pastors used to overcome leadership challenges.
For his part, Koh, who is developing a core group to start a multiethnic church in the Seattle area, hopes that minority pastors will increasingly find themselves welcome in Caucasian congregations.
“I hope this is a pattern that continues,” he says, “not only because congregations value the minority pastors’ strategic value, but also for the vision of the church in the New Testament. where the nations are together worshipping.”