Jeannette Cochran is executive pastor at Seneca Creek Community Church (EFCA) in Gaithersburg, Maryland. She is a graduate of Regent University, where she studied organizational leadership (B.S. and M.A.) and practical theology (M.A.). Jeannette is married to Eddie, and together they have three adult children and one granddaughter. She blogs at JeannetteCochran.com.
Pursuing and Leading a Multicultural Church Team
How one church intentionally develops leaders from differing backgrounds
We didn’t set out to become a multiethnic church.
Seneca Creek Community Church set out to reach our city for Christ, and since we’re located in Gaithersburg, Maryland, the second most culturally diverse city in the United States, reaching our city meant growing a diverse congregation. The gospel we preach is a message of reconciliation so reaching across racial and cultural barriers is not an option; it’s essential kingdom work.
Jesus prayed that His followers would be one because unity in diversity not only reflects the nature and character of God, but it’s also a powerful testament to the truth of Christ’s identity (John 17:20-21). Growing a diverse church has required vision and intentionality, but honestly, it has not been nearly as difficult as developing and leading a diverse staff team.
For many years, we were a multiethnic church with a monoethnic staff. We sincerely wanted a multiethnic team but eventually came to realize that desire was just the starting point. It was going to take commitment, hard work and change to actually get us there.
We are still learning and growing, but here are a few things we’ve discovered along the way.
1. Find new ponds to fish in.
In our earlier years, one of the biggest challenges to becoming a multicultural staff was that every time we had an opening, very few, if any, people of color applied.
Eventually, we wised up and realized the problem wasn’t a lack of qualified people of color; the problem was we were looking in the wrong places. We had to put in the effort to go looking for diverse pools from which we could recruit. We connected with people of color in our networks to let them know about the position and our desire to develop a diverse team. We committed to holding the position open longer to allow more time for word to spread, so that diverse candidates had opportunities to apply.
2. Only hire bridge-builders.
When hiring a person of color, it’s important they feel called and committed to being a bridge-builder for multicultural ministry.
Multicultural ministry is growing in popularity among evangelicals, but it’s not all sunshine and roses. It is complicated, messy and almost always harder than ministry in homogeneous environments. Working in a multicultural team will challenge, and at times frustrate, every team member, so minority staff members must have a sense of internal calling and motivation to stay the course. Minority staff must be willing to enter the pain of mistakes made by the dominant culture with grace and have the courage to engage in difficult conversations to foster growth in the team, and ultimately the church. They will personally encounter obstacles and difficulties, so they must have the conviction and the grit not to give up.
3. Expect conflict, friction, and misunderstanding.
The mantra we often hear is “diversity fuels innovation,” but that’s not exactly true. Diversity fuels conflict. And conflict managed well leads to learning and creativity—which is really what fuels innovation.
Research shows that diverse teams are smarter than homogeneous groups and that they make fewer factual errors when discussing available information.
I’ll never forget a meeting when our pastors were discussing research related to emerging adults. Our connections pastor, a black American woman, announced that she believed the data reflected only a white American phenomena because it was not consistent with her experience or the experiences of others like her. Her honest contribution saved us from making sweeping generalizations that could have undermined our ministry effectiveness.
We are often quick to judge a situation from our lens, but we need to replace judgment with curiosity, asking questions to understand better what others see, think and feel about a given situation. Often, people of color have learned to carefully navigate differing cultures to avoid making waves; many can be accustomed to keeping their thoughts and opinions to themselves. Developing an effective multicultural team requires fostering a climate where people of color feel safe to express their real views without fear of criticism or negative repercussions.
4. Carve out more face time.
Nothing builds trust and collaboration like face-to-face communication.
In addition to staff meetings, I have regular one-on-ones and intentionally use hallway conversations to build rapport and stay connected with my staff. It’s not unusual for new leaders to face pushback from organizational forces that naturally resist change, but a new minority leader will often face even more resistance—if for no other reason than unconscious bias. Connecting regularly helps me to be aware of what kind of support and encouragement the leader needs to break through these forces to help our church move beyond just diversity to become genuinely multicultural.
5. Become a student of culture.
Culture shapes how people interact and communicate with their managers, so I’ve had to become a student of my staff. Understanding how the person’s native culture influences their view of authority and communication style is essential. I try to take time to learn about their story and upbringing.
The United States has a racialized society, so even if a staff member has grown up here, their experiences are probably very different from mine. For me, cultural competence meant learning to see myself in racial terms. Like most white people growing up in America, I was not taught to see myself this way. I was informed that race matters, but it wasn’t my race that was discussed; it was always other people’s race. I had a hard time really identifying and naming the cultural constructs of my white American culture. Reflecting on my experiences and perspectives through the lens of my own race opened the door to recognize my ethnocentrisms that needed to be overcome to make room for other’s experiences as valid and valuable.
This is deeply personal, and sometimes painful, transformative work that can only be done in cooperation with the Holy Spirit. As a leader and as a member of the dominant culture, I’ve had to learn about and accept the reality of my privilege and consider how I can use that privilege to empower minorities on my team. I have also had to unlearn much of the conventional wisdom about church growth, because it relies heavily on a homogeneous model. In fact, building a multicultural team at times may slow growth as people wrestle with whether they are willing to let go of preferences to serve someone else.
The vision for a multicultural team must be deeply rooted in our conviction to live as the reconciled people of God, committed to breaking down the barriers that separate and divide us from one another. Culture formation is an essential function of leadership, and in the multiethnic team, it’s complicated and confusing because the ultimate goal is to bring different cultures together to form something entirely brand new. And it won’t come about by accident. It must be “taught and caught” through the messaging and modeling of passionate and committed multicultural leaders.
Leading a multicultural team can be challenging, but it is also deeply gratifying because we are better together. A diverse team always brings a broader range of perspectives, which inspires creativity, learning and personal growth. God has deposited unique reflections of his image in the people and cultures of the world so together we reflect more of His glory.
How does your church strive to cultivate a diverse team of leaders? Share your thoughts in the comments.