I was sitting alone in the parish hall of Ascension on Christmas Eve, when someone approached and asked if they could join me. We talked of this and that for a while and then they changed the subject and asked me a remarkable question.They prefaced it with a set of warm compliments about their assessment of me as a leader. Then the question was gently but honestly put on the table: “Have you found it difficult to obtain rectorships in our church body, as a person of color?”
The question took me by surprise but what surprised me even more was my initial internal response. I immediately wanted to defend my church from any charge of racism. I wanted to point to the election of bishop Curry as a sign of how far we’ve come. I wanted to avoid having a conversation about race and leadership, especially in the church and all the more if that conversation involved me.
I took note of my first feelings but made an attempt to reply to the question. Before I got very far into my response our conversation was interrupted. I admit that I was relieved to be given an “out” from the subject. However now that the question has actually been put to me, I’ve found it difficult not to think about it.
I suspect that I’ve marked the issue as “out of bounds” and undiscussable for a number of reasons:
- It’s hard to discuss race in America without hitting the familiar land mines that blow to pieces efforts to be honest and sensitive about the topic.
- When race and religion are on the table the effort to be honest becomes even more fraught with danger. The Let’s-Be-Nice factor is so high in church settings that hard discussions are even harder to have.
- There is my own desire not to offend and my own need to just get along. I’m a bit embarrassed to say that is a part of me that doesn’t want to rock the boat too hard for fear that I might end up in the drink.
Having said all of that, the topic is actively back in play for me for the first time in a long time. The question has compelled me to revisit my experience of leadership and race in my beloved church. Additionally the question has led me to reconsider how I’ve navigated the related issues of leadership and gender in my church. On top of that the question has sparked me to reexamine my theology of leadership.
I don’t know how much of my thinking I want to share publicly on this topic. Yet the topic is live. It is not on the back burner these days. I think I’m in a good enough place emotionally, spiritually and vocationally to delve into this issue. I’m wondering where this will take me. I guess we’ll see.