After writing Part One of this series, I got to hear the stories of women and people of color trying to find a fit in a church environment that they felt marginalized in. I thought it would be important to share a couple of their stories to allow us to see the scope of the problem we can solve together. The first story was Part 3 of this series, written by Stephanie Zibell, about what it has been like for her as a woman in ministry. This week, I share a conversation I had with my friend Jensen Abraham. He is a first generation Indian American who served as a full time leader and mentor at at faith-based leadership school in Atlanta. He has also helped manage a non-profit organization that mentors thousands of youth and young adult pastors from across the Nation. He has recently married and spends his time developing an entrepreneurship school for middle and high school students in Dunwoody, GA.
Me: When did you begin to feel like you were limited in your potential to lead within the American Church?
Jensen: A few years ago, while I was a part of ministry school.. striving to be a youth pastor.. I had a class where the instructor was talking about how to reconcile cultures in the church. As an Indian in the church striving to be a part of church leadership one day, I was thrilled to hear this lesson. As the instructor continued talking about how white people lean towards white churches and black people lean towards black churches, they started talking about how difficult it is to have a multicultural staff in the American church and how churches needed to be intentional about having a staff with a mix of white people and black people. When this was said, a thought dawned on me that changed the course of my “journey to ministry”. If we, as the church, are just starting to integrate staffing to white and black people, what happens if you are an Indian? This thought then led to, “Even if an Indian winds up on staff to have more races represented, would it even be possible for an Indian to have an actual pastoral or teaching role? Would an Indian always just be a part of general staffing just to meet “multi cultural staff” quota? Do I even want to be a part of a place hiring me just because I am different? How often would a church be comfortable having an Indian representing them on stage? Would we ever be able to do more than give announcements from time to time? Even if I get a youth pastor position somewhere, would the pastor ever feel comfortable handing the church off to me one day if I had aspirations to be a senior pastor?“
Me: How common of an experience is this among Indians in ministry?
Jensen: I’ve had discussions with other Indians that had desires to be a part of church leadership. The ones that had any kind of success seemed to only be the ones that went to an all or majority Indian church. The ones that didn’t have success were the ones that tried to venture out and start multicultural churches and ended up becoming majority Indian before slowly dwindling away. There were a few that did manage to rise to real leadership, and I can count that number on one hand.
Me: What do you believe contributes to the low number of Indians serving in significant roles in ministry today?
Jensen: The percentage of Asian-Americans is slim in the church world. Many young Asian-Americans today are 1st or 2nd generation Americans in their families. They are taught early on that education and financial success are vital to their future. Without realizing it, often times the message of real faith and trust comes after education and financial success. This is not because Asian parents are money hungry. It is because either they or their parents came here from their home countries, had a HARD journey to get to America (coming with almost nothing) , and came here for better opportunities for the generations that follow them. Asian-American Christians make up a slim percentage of Christians in the U.S. So a slim percentage of this slim percentage have a dream or aspiration to be a part of church leadership.. of course it’s going to be tougher for them to find a real spot in church leadership… not impossible, just tough. And if you are an Indian, unfortunately, the way we look can prevent the types of roles that are offered to us in the church world.
Me: Why are we talking about “Asians” now?
Jensen: Because India is in Asia. 👀
Me: duh… I knew that. 😳
Me: Do you still feel called to church leadership?
Jensen: Yes… but not exactly what I once thought it would be. My wife and I are a part of a house church network that is doing a great job at raising disciples of all sorts of cultures.. not to meet a quota.. it actually just happened pretty naturally because the people in the group naturally live a life that create friendships with all sorts of cultures. However I am less than a year married, and my wife and I want to do whatever it takes to ensure a marriage for the long run. So we’ve taken a step back to focus on that. So for now, we love where we are at.