Encouragement for Pastors Wondering How to Lead a Christ-Like Response to Racial Injustice
As I assume you’ve also experienced in recent days, my heart is broken for the families of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery and others who have lost their lives through senseless killings. There’s no question in my mind that the protests spreading across the globe are completely justified. How can we expect people to remain silent given what our black brothers and sisters have endured for generations?
There’s no doubt, we live in a broken world. And I’ve been left wondering, how am I supposed to respond? What am I supposed to do…especially since that feels like it might be more critical than anything I might have to say? And, maybe more importantly, have I in any way contributed to the injustice that exists in my world?
Because of that, this passage from Scripture has been consuming my thoughts as I watch the news of unrest in our communities. It seems so relevant to what I’m witnessing and processing at this moment. This is what Paul wrote to his fellow followers of Jesus Christ:
“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”(Romans 12:14-18, ESV)
Though so much of that passage seems appropriate to my personal spiritual journey in these times, the phrase that has really captured my heart and mind is this part:
“Never be wise in your own sight.”
It feels disconnected to the rest of this passage which talks about all the ways I should be acting towards other people in my life.
“Tony, let me say it again, never be wise in your own sight.”
In the middle of a passage about how I should treat others, why would God highlight a warning about how I think about myself? You, of course, know the answer to that question.
The reason that phrase has my attention right now is because there’s probably something in me that thinks I have wisdom others don’t have—which too easily translates to thinking I’m better than other people.
That’s the conviction I’m personally wrestling with right now.
With that preface, I, like many of you, am on a journey. I need wisdom and understanding that I freely admit I don’t have.
Because of that, on Monday of this week I reached out to Michael Moore, my teammate at The Unstuck Group. Michael is a pastor at Faith Chapel, a primarily black church in Birmingham, Alabama.
Michael and I have known each other for about seven years, and he joined our team at The Unstuck Group as a ministry coach and consultant almost five years ago. Michael loves Jesus. He’s an incredible pastor. He has coached several other pastors and leaders through the years. And, as you are about to find out, he’s one of the sharpest leaders I know.
Let me share the conversation Michael and I had. I hope it will encourage you, as it encouraged me.
Michael, I know this is a challenging time for you and your ministry, so I really appreciate your participating in this conversation with me.
Thanks again for the opportunity to share my thoughts. I admit they’re all over the place, but hopefully one thing I offer is helpful or sparks another idea that is.
There are so many directions we could take this discussion, but, because of our mission at The Unstuck Group, I’m most interested in helping pastors lead their congregations through these turbulent times. With that in mind, what advice would you give pastors?
Two thoughts come to mind. I think pastors need to wrestle with both of these to keep their influence and preserve their relevance in their communities right now.
The first is this—pastors need to define, cast vision for, and champion (model) who your church is FOR.
We do live in a broken world full of constant injustice. Given our different childhood experiences, values, environments, etc., even as believers attending the same church, we won’t all have the same perspectives or reactions to these injustices. Because of that, a pastor attempting to use his/her influence to rally people to share the exact same perspective or reaction to any injustice is, I think, unrealistic.
However, I do think a church can and should rally those they lead around a clear vision of who they’re FOR.
A pastor plays a key role in defining and articulating that. A church can be for a community of people even if they’re not for all of their ideas or beliefs.A church can be for a community of people even if they’re not for all of their ideas or beliefs.CLICK TO TWEETTo keep their influence and preserve their relevance in their communities right now, I think pastors need to wrestle with and need to define, cast vision for, and champion (model) who their church is FOR. CLICK TO TWEET
I can imagine one of the cautions pastors have is that if they endorse a cause to show their support for a community of people, that they’re also endorsing everyone’s actions in that community of people.
I understand. Let me share an example of how I’m having to lead through this personally. I attended a non-violent rally for justice on Sunday in downtown Birmingham. While there, I ran into and socialized with people I knew. We chatted briefly about what’s happening around the country and then parted ways. However, that evening, I unfortunately saw some of those same people I know in our city on Facebook Live rioting and vandalizing our downtown areas.
Was the vandalism criminal? Absolutely! Do I condone or agree with their approach? Absolutely not! I’m in no shape or form FOR what they did! But to me, there is a difference between being FOR people and being FOR people’s actions.
When I’m FOR people, I will develop a level of empathy to make an effort to understand what inequities in my local community would drive people to this level of frustration and violence.
I’d explore if it’s possible for me to mobilize a group of people to serve and address the problems in my community that are fueling some of this frustration.
As a leader, having that type of mindset would lead me to rally those that I influence to attack PROBLEMS and not PEOPLE.
As a pastor, I can speak out against crime, evil, etc. and not attack those who committed it by labeling them. In other words, I’ll never build alliances or influence a community that I’m attacking with labels.
In Genesis, God vocalized light even when He saw darkness engulfing everywhere. It’s equally important, I think, for pastors to vocalize what “can be” and not settle for simply attacking in detail “what is.”Attack PROBLEMS not PEOPLE. As a pastor, you’ll never build alliances or influence a community that you’re attacking with labels.CLICK TO TWEETIt’s important for pastors to vocalize what “can be” and not settle for simply attacking in detail “what is.”CLICK TO TWEET
Michael, that’s so good. We need to attack the problems and not the people. How can pastors bring that kind of influence when so many believe the Church is actually a contributing factor to the injustices people are experiencing today?
Many of the protests (not the rioting) are rooted in the deep desire of underserved communities to be seen and heard.
Jesus was so attractive in His day because He paid attention to the needs and desires of those who were invisible in that society…who had no voice or a marginalized one.
When a church can articulate who they’re for…when they show that they’re attacking problems and inequities in their local communities instead of attacking people…when they can articulate ways that they are mobilizing and building alliances to serve and improve the lives of local families, local schools, and local communities, I think they’ll experience some of the same momentum that Jesus experienced in His ministry.
People are attracted to people that they feel genuinely see them and are FOR them.
Jesus was so attractive in His day because He paid attention to the needs and desires of those who were invisible in that society…who had no voice or a marginalized one.CLICK TO TWEETPeople are attracted to people that they feel genuinely see them and are FOR them.CLICK TO TWEET
That’s your first thought. Churches need to be for the people in their community. You mentioned a second thought, though. Will you share that?
This is broad and vague, but I’d also encourage pastors to consider what it could look like to leverage their platform (whatever means or channels they use to get their voice heard) to invite people into a conversation with a trusted voice of a different race that can share a perspective or experience different from their own.
A lot of times as pastors, we feel the pressure of having to say everything about injustice that should be said in a balanced and fair context. We feel like we have to have all of the answers, actions, and solutions.Invite a trusted voice of a different race into conversation that can share a perspective or experience different from your own.CLICK TO TWEET
Now I really feel convicted. That’s why I reached out to you earlier this week. I felt overwhelmed because I thought I needed to have all the answers and solutions to encourage pastors connected to The Unstuck Group.
I totally get it. I think pastors carry that same weight with their churches.
But, I think it’s unrealistic for any pastor to feel that their perspective and voice alone is enough to speak to the many complexities of injustice, police reform/policies, racism, etc.
Michael, I needed to hear that. Again, it’s reinforcing the conviction I’ve experienced in recent days related to that passage in Romans. “Never be wise in your own sight.” I don’t have all the answers, and it’s prideful and arrogant for me to think I have any understanding of the prejudice and injustice you have experienced in your life. And, in addition to that, your experiences are unique to you.
Maybe this will help. Within our team, we often say, “The team outperforms the individual every time.”
I think that sentiment is true in these times, too. A team of thought, insight, experience, counsel, etc. will outperform and feel more relevant to our local communities than one individual pastor’s perspective alone.
The “how” on this is going to look different for every church. It might begin as a conversation a pastor could have with their leadership team. For some, it might involve setting up a virtual conversation and inviting church members and the community to participate. For others, it might include programming a conversation into their weekend experience. As an example, I saw Pastor Carl Lentz and Bishop T.D. Jakes do something like this in their worship services this past weekend.
At the end of the day, with all that’s happening and being discussed around the country, no community is looking to any one church or pastor to get it right…say it right…and be an end-all-solution to everything that’s happening.A team of thought, insight, experience, counsel, etc. will outperform and feel more relevant to our local communities than one individual pastor’s perspective alone.CLICK TO TWEETNo community is looking to any one church or pastor to get it right…say it right…and be an end-all-solution to everything that’s happening.CLICK TO TWEET
Michael, I really appreciate your patience with me and your willingness to encourage and challenge other pastors and church leaders. Any final thoughts?
As pastors, we must address what’s happening in some shape, fashion or form or we run the risk of our communities perceiving the Church and the Christian faith as irrelevant. It would be the same thing as a student pastor who never spoke to issues of bullying, peer pressure, and so on but still desired influence and strong relationships with middle school and high school students. We have to address the injustices in our world.