Corey Evan Leak

Justice & Unity Matter to God So They Matter to Me

A Problem to Solve | Part 4 | (Not Just a Black and White Issue)

A Problem to Solve | Part 4 | (Not Just a Black and White Issue) 791 530 Corey Leak

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.

A Problem to Solve | Part 3 | (Because I’m a Woman)

A Problem to Solve | Part 3 | (Because I’m a Woman) 720 362 Corey Leak

Written by Stephanie Zibell

“Pastors, the lack of women in executive level leadership positions in the church is incredibly concerning to me and it should be equally concerning to you.”

This is the statement that I wanted to use to end this blog post.

My intention when I began to write this was for men working in church leadership to see the lack of women being represented in the church, and for them to decide to act on it. They would walk into their next meeting, look around, and begin to notice if the room had equal representation of both men and women.

Then I remembered my own journey towards advocating for women in leadership. It wasn’t until I stepped out of the context I was accustomed to and became curious, that I began to place a high value on the diversity of gender in leadership.

So, I decided not to write this as a persuasion piece for men who hold roles of leadership in the church, and who might be blind to what’s at stake…. I wrote it for the curious.

THE FACTS.

Recent findings in Outreach’s report on “The 100 Fastest Growing Churches in 2017″ show us that of the 100 fastest growing churches in America, ONE of them has a woman leading it, and that woman co-pastors the church with her husband.

“The National Congregations Study”, a 2015 comprehensive report conducted by Duke University, found that on a National scale, about 11% of congregations are led by women. This percentage has stalled, and remains unchanging since 1998.

You don’t need a myriad of studies and reports to believe me. Any one of us can Google search “churches near me”, click over to a staff leadership team page and confirm these findings.

To take it one step further, “The 2017 Women in the Workplace” study found that nearly 50 percent of men think women who work in companies are well represented in leadership – where only one in ten of those women are senior leaders. A much smaller but still significant number of women agree: a third think women are well represented when they see one in ten in leadership. The Pew Research Group completed a “Religious Landscape Study” and found that the gender composition of the Evangelical Church congregation is 55% women and 45% men.

What this tells us is that over half of the people who walk through the doors of a church are grossly under-represented on their church board, executive team and from the stage. And as we saw in the Women in the Workplace report above, there is a large group of both men and women who are currently “okay” with this notion.

THE WHY.

There are many reasons why churches are run by mostly men. I will focus on only one.

Like Corey has already mentioned in Part One of this blog series, there is a popular movement in many church environments where the staff holds a high value of “hiring people to do life with”. To be honest, for years I thought this was a pretty great approach.

What’s unfortunate about this approach is that churches who adopt this notion don’t realize the wealth of information, experience, perspective and wisdom they are missing out on when they choose to surround themselves with people who are a lot like them. They might not even realize that by hiring people who are friends and people they “do life with”, they will more than likely end up with a lot of other like-minded men on their staff.

I have come to believe that this hiring practice is actually a dangerous idea. The problem is, although it is veiled in community and the desire for belonging (which are both beautiful things), it breeds exclusivity.

Unintentional exclusivity is every bit as dangerous as intentional segregation.  

Corey asked me to speak about my experience as a women in church leadership, but I would be re-miss to not take a moment to say that as a women who is strong-minded, extroverted and unafraid of conflict, I am also white. Relatively speaking, it has actually been a fairly easy road for me to have a voice.

I cannot speak on behalf of the black community, hispanic community or the whole of any community for that matter, but if have felt dismissed and small and like I need to fit into a perfect little package to fit the narrative of a woman in church, I cannot even imagine the exhausting burden and disappointment a person of color, or more specifically, a woman of color, feels when entering a church with little to no representation in leadership.

THE PERSONAL.

As a woman who has worked in both Corporate America and the American Church, I have always felt that in order to get a seat at the table, I needed to downplay my womanhood.

Don’t be too strong or you might come across bitchy.

Don’t be too soft or you might come across as sensitive.

Don’t crack a joke or you might look like you are trying too hard.

Make sure you laugh at the weird joke or you might look like you are a prude.

And the list goes on…

I have spent too much of my adult life trying to sit at the table despite being a woman. I’ve positioned myself as the expert on various platforms, but never on the platform of my womanhood.

This feeling of inferiority was validated over and over by the words and actions of mostly well meaning men and the values they held.

When I am told that my income is supplementary because I was married and therefore, the offer is a lower amount.

When any administrative task is tossed my way, regardless of my job description, because the assumption is that I will be good at it.

When I am asked to co-lead worship with a man because “men can’t sing along when its in a female key”.

When I was the only female in a ministerial internship to become a pastor, and also the only person asked to baby-sit, run errands, and be a support to the wives of the men leading.

Although I was never told that I was less than because I was a woman, the narrative that I believed was this: In order to become one of the few females running a department, board, or executive team of a church, I had to be more like a man.

However, the more I became fully alive in and aware of who God created me to be, I became empowered to believe that I need to sit at the table because I am a woman. Coupling my expertise and ability with my unique female perspective and experience is the golden ticket. This perspective is needed in decision making  rooms in the church.

THE SOLUTION.

I think there are two critical keys to becoming a gender and racially diverse church.

Value and Exposure.

When something is a core value, it becomes an integral part of how you operate and make decisions. It is a guiding light of sorts. Something you will fight for even if it isn’t expressed.

If it is a personal and organizational core value that the perspective of both men and women is vital to the transformational work of the church, then how you hire, how you develop your staff, and how you create weekend programming will align with this value.

While many churches fill their meeting rooms with men, there are a lot of churches who are truly egalitarian. The church we currently attend is one of them and I am grateful for their strong example. Outside of the church, there are many organizations who are playing an important role in the advocacy for women leaders.

Find them. Read their work. Reach out for a conversation. Think of a women you respect and ask her to be your mentor. Expose yourself to people, churches and workplaces who think differently than you.

Exposure is one of the most beautiful gifts we can give ourselves and the people around us. By exposing ourselves to new ideas, thoughts, experiences, perspectives and cultures, we have the opportunity to grow in empathy, advocacy, and understanding. Exposure breeds inclusion, so expose yourself to the churches and organizations that are already there and learn from them.

I don’t think that we will experience the highest level of transformational change in our communities until we make diversity a value in the church. Inclusion and representation matters to an individual and it is time that it matters just as much to the church.

A Problem to Solve | Part 2 | (Limited Experiences)

A Problem to Solve | Part 2 | (Limited Experiences) 1280 905 Corey Leak

By the year 2044 America is projected to be a majority-minority country. That means Caucasians will no longer be the majority. If the projection proves true, and current church attendance trends continue, American Evangelical churches have a problem to solve.

The often unintended message communicated by Evangelical churches is that the most important people in the audience are white Christians. This isn’t something that is part of our mission or vision statements nor is it discussed in our board rooms, but in subtle ways it is expressed.

Every good organization has a target audience, and churches are no different, even if only by default. Attending a weekend service, visiting the website, or following on social media can quickly reveal to a guest who a church is targeting with their message.

Who is the target of humor? What are the common names used in illustrations? What events or people from culture are referenced? The answers to questions like these reveal the target audience of every church. Organizations bend towards its audience like a plant toward sunlight. Decisions are made with that audience in mind. Although the decisions and presentations are often extemporaneous or the result of long standing tradition, they do speak loudly to both those targeted and those not targeted.

Almost two years ago I was extremely privileged to go with a church on a pilgrimage to Israel. The history and imagery of that country is breathtakingly majestic. While we were there we toured dozens of historic sites and learned more about the rich traditions that made them significant. One of the stops on the pilgrimage was of course, the Western Wall.

The Western Wall was every bit as awe-inspiring as I could’ve imagined. People who pray there are joining millions of others over thousands of years who have prayed on that sacred ground. Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Atheists, and those not affiliated with any religion are all welcome to take part in the tradition of praying at the wall. The wall has written prayers stuffed inside its crevices from Presidents, kings, athletes, and celebrities from all around the world. All are welcome at the wall, but are all treated equally?

I knew that the Western Wall had segregated areas for men and women to pray. It was a memorable part of the trip to have our group split when we arrived at the Wall. However, I wasn’t truly aware how much of a lesser experience the wall was for the women with us until after returning home and watching a reality tv star make a visit. It was on television, looking at the Western Wall from the outside, that I noticed the stark difference.

The men’s area is much larger than the women’s. Men are allowed to read the torah, wear a prayer shawl, and pray out loud. Women are not. Women are welcome at the Western Wall, but reminded by the space and limitations of their experience, that the wall is mainly for men.

In Evangelical churches across America, people of color and women have a similar experience. They are welcome. Pastors are thrilled when they come, but their ability to deeply engage is limited by the fact that intentionally or unintentionally, they are not the target audience of the weekend programming. The pre and post service playlists, the worship songs, the sermon illustrations, and the over all feel of the service, all communicate that they are there more to observe than to participate.

I recently shared the story of the Western Wall with a group of weekend planners and asked them to begin searching for areas of programming within their services that leaves minorities with too little space to have a rich experience at their churches. It’s remarkable what they began to identify as barriers once that dialog was opened to them. Asking people of color what they have observed is also great way to discover areas within a church that have catered too much to only white Christians.

The year 2044 is not a long way off. What changes does your organization need to make today to remain in existence tomorrow?

A Problem to Solve | Part 1 | (Space at the Table)

A Problem to Solve | Part 1 | (Space at the Table) 2000 970 Corey Leak

Years ago I learned that everything rises and falls on leadership. Whether it’s the law of the lid, or the idea of the leadership umbrella, the principle remains the same – leadership drives culture. Culture drives habits, and habits drive who you are as an organization. These principles make who you have sitting at your leadership table of vital importance.

“The 3Cs” is a great formula to determine whether someone is fit for a leadership table. Competency can be seen on a resume, and character through conversations with mutual acquaintances and reference checks. Chemistry is harder to determine.

It is virtually impossible to know purely on first impressions who could grow to have long term chemistry with you. The kind of chemistry it takes to trust the instincts of a leader takes a substantial amount of time to develop. It’s hard work, and it’s even harder when trying to develop that chemistry across race and gender. Perhaps that’s why in so many churches and  denominations across America the “leadership” is overwhelmingly white and male. I will not presume to speak for women, but I can share from the perspective of an African American male who has served in ministry in predominantly white environments for almost twenty years.

Some time ago I started hearing several lead pastors express the sentiment that they aimed to surround themselves with people they wanted to “do life with”. That’s certainly an understandable tendency. We all want to surround ourselves with people who bring us joy. One unintended consequence of that desire in the American church is that too often the people who bring joy to white male pastors are other white males. I’ve seen far too many photos of church boards,  church leadership teams, and denominational presbyteries where people of color nor women are represented. I see this as a very real problem that the American church can no longer afford to treat as a manageable tension.

To address this issue requires acknowledging that a lack of diversity at the decision making table is in fact a problem. White male leaders within organizations have to reject the inclination to deem the exclusion of minority voices as an acceptable organizational practice. To quote a good friend of mine “it doesn’t have to be this way”.

Leaders have to wrestle with what it means to welcome female and minority voices to speak. Historically, leaders and churches that are looking to be more diverse look for minority or female singers to put on stage. When people of color or women are seen speaking or leading worship it can send a message to weekend attenders that diversity is a value of that church. While that is an important message, that practice is incomplete. It’s window dressing. That narrative does not tell the full story of whether or not people of color or women are given a platform to influence the decisions  that determine the course of the organization or church. When an organization is looking for diversity, some questions must be asked. Do we want minority faces or do we want minority culture? What happens when a person of color on our leadership team sympathizes with their culture and becomes vocal about it? How will we handle the fact that black people typically feel a sense of responsibility for their culture? These are the types of questions that white leaders have to wrestle with before engaging in the hiring of minority leaders.

A lead pastor interested in welcoming diversity into their organization has to be prepared to develop minority leaders. The finish line for an organization is not hiring a person of color, but developing them into a leading voice within the organization. If that end result is not in view the goal of diversity will prove to be elusive as the inevitable struggle for chemistry emerges and cultural barriers arise.

It’s 2018. We are less than sixty years removed from black people in America being legally considered equal citizens for the first time.Schools, restaurants, and yes, even churches were all segregated and therefore people of color are relatively new to attending churches with white people let alone working in them. Church leaders today, whose ancestors excluded black people from their churches, would do well to wrestle with whether or not they should feel a sense of responsibility to work toward reconciliation in light of that exclusion. In Luke 11:47-48 we see some hard words from Jesus about building on the sins of previous generations. That passage is worth examining to discover how it applies to America’s history with race and how we can move forward together.

Living in the Bay Area of San Francisco I’ve had the opportunity to meet people from and visit places like Google, Facebook, Apple, and GoFundMe. I once had a conversation with an African American who worked in Silicon Valley who talked about how very few black people worked at some of these organizations. In fact he told me that you could fit all the African American’s who work at Facebook and Google on one large airplane. The two companies employ almost 100 thousand people.

A week later I visited the campus of Google to have lunch with a friend who had recently been hired there. At lunch I found it remarkable how many ethnicities were represented on the campus, but also how few black people worked there.  I referenced the conversation I had a week prior, and we talked about some of the factors that lead to the small amount of black people working at google. It’s not good hiring practices to hire unqualified people solely to fill a quota. It’s a bad practice for Google, and it’s a bad practice for churches. However, I was blown away by what my friend told me Google was doing to be proactive to solve the issue of qualified candidates coming out of minority communities. He told me that Google was working hard to engage in minority communities before a potential engineer ever walked through the door, as well as influencing the cultural and systemic biases that prevent minorities from applying. For an example of how Google has done this click here.  This is what it looks like for an organization to see a problem and be proactive to solve it. Sometimes the best thing we can do about the past is to secure the future.

Leadership is responsible for the message organizations send to the world, and if the church is going to send the right message to the world about equality and equity then church leaders have to look at themselves in the mirror and do the hard work of examining their own hearts for racial and gender biases. After that, look around your leadership table and be honest about what you see. Who have you made space for at the table?