The 28th General Synod of the United Church of Christ is taking place in Tampa, Fla., from July 1-6. I have had the privilege of working as a diversity management consultant with this dynamic denomination for over 10 years after being introduced to the church by Edith Guffey, UCC's current Associate General Minister.
As a multicultural, multiracial, open and affirming church, UCC is known for many diversity "firsts." Among these "firsts" are some noted on race: an early stand against slavery; first published African American poet; first ordained African-American pastor; and the church recognized for paying the 1 million dollar bail for Benjamin Chavis, the civil rights activist whose conviction was successfully overturned. It established the first school for the deaf and ordained the first woman pastor and first openly gay minister. It is the first major Christian deliberative body to make a statement of support for "equal marriage rights for all people regardless of gender," and is, to date, the largest mainline Protestant Christian denominational entity in the U.S. supporting same-sex marriage with 5,600 congregations and 1.2 million members.
As I entered the Tampa Convention Center, large banners greeted me blazoned with the words, "Jesus did not reject anyone, neither do we." The comma is a symbol of the "God is still speaking" identity brand challenging us to never place a period where God has placed a comma. UCC members boast extravagant welcome and radical hospitality.
It is soooo easy to give a diversity presentation to UCC audiences. They soak up any and all diversity knowledge nuggets but are careful not to swallow them whole. They are great learning partners and challenge me to translate human behavior theory into practical application. My presentation was entitled, "From Champion to Visionary: Leading in a Multicultural, Multiracial World." Although I had planned to present the information in a concise manner with five diversity concepts to know, five diversity skills sets to practice and five actions to take, I ended up abandoning the five/five/five formula in lieu of providing a more comprehensive presentation.
In UCC tradition, my audience did not disappoint. They were both fully engaged and fully challenging. Despite my encouragement not to create "golden calves" in an attempt to have the magic formula for achieving racially and culturally balanced congregations, one pastor pressed for the answers on how to increase racial diversity in his welcoming congregation. The request did not come from a place of criticism that I had not provided the quick fix in my presentation, but more from a heartfelt desire to have a truly multicultural, multiracial local church community.
As a psychologist, my work focuses on individuals as the catalyst for change in diversity work. This emphasis sparked a lively discussion by a small group after the presentation on the necessity of focusing on institutional changes as the target for creating diverse faith communities. I am convinced that we need the collective energy of all believers working on every level of system -- individual, interpersonal, institutional, societal and global -- so that "we all may be one."
If I had to create a formula for creating multiracial, multicultural church communities and distill it to five concepts, five skills and five actions it would be as follows:
Five Diversity Concepts to Know
1. Diversity is a journey and more than the statistics representing the compositional diversity of the congregation's membership.
2.Individuals have multiple, intersecting identities and do not express themselves as distinct uni-dimensional dimensions of diversity.
3. Religious experience and being included in a church community can shift how members see themselves and create a new collective identity.
4. To leverage differences we need more than respect and good intentions. In diversity, if we always do what we always did, we will not always get what we always got.
5. Our ability to create multicultural, multiracial churches and to shape our a future where we "all may be one" will be determined by how we treat those we most vehemently disagree with.
Five Diversity Skills to Practice
1. Marry intention and impact. Good intentions do not always mitigate a negative impact. A negative impact does not necessarily flow from bad intentions. Be clear on your intentions and work to reduce unintended consequences. When experiencing an "ism," take the time to provide feedback in a manner that allows for the person to clarify their intention and acknowledge the impact.
2. Hold multiple realities. Because someone else holds a different reality it does not erase the reality that exists for you. Create spaces where both realities can exist.
3. Move your thinking from positions of certainty to positions of curiosity. Understanding differences requires life-long learning.
4. Use privilege as a life skill. Learn what privilege is and examine expressions of it in your own life.
5.Uncover unconscious bias. Being cultural blind renders one culturally incompetent.
Five Diversity Actions to Take
1. Make quality decisions. Quality decisions take into account the sociopolitical implications of the desired outcome and the long-term impact on diverse groups of individuals.
2. Stick to your knitting. Churches attract others through preaching aimed at diverse audiences, diversity in its worship style and inclusive fellowship.
3. Never underestimate the power of observational behavior. Be the Bible they may have read but not witnessed.
4. Join, engage and process with others rather than trying to educate, reason and sell the value of diversity.
5. Diversity cannot be limited to Sunday mornings. For Sundays mornings not to be our most segregated hours in U.S. lifestyle, diversity must be in our work worlds and in our social lives.
My volunteer driver back to the Tampa airport was Dr. Marvin Morgan, who joked about his "promotion" to this position after being Moderator of the 2009 General Synod and responsible for leading all of the deliberations for this church-wide gathering. This was his 20th General Synod over a 40-year period beginning as a 23-year-old youth leader. When asked what a connective thread would be across all of the Synods, he quickly named the theme of being on the cutting edge. As a young, African-American pastor, he vividly recalls at the 1973 General Synod being sent out with 94 other delegates right from the assembly on a chartered flight to Southern California to march with Cesar Chavez. They returned to the Synod to share their experience and learning with the rest of the assembly. He is convinced that the stance UCC took and support that this major denomination gave the farm workers movement helped to win higher wages and civil rights for the grape and lettuce growers.
Since 1957, United Church of Christ has struggled to define, shape, understand and direct itself to its inclusion goal, "that they all may be one." By pronouncing itself as a multiracial, multicultural church it has determined that inclusion is vital to the denomination's wholeness and existence as a community of faith. As a consultant, I am appreciative that doing my job allows me to be part of the ministry of UCC. I am humbled by the confidence placed in me by UCC leadership in my ability to support efforts toward the goal, "that they all may be one." What an awesome task.
Follow Deborah Plummer on Twitter: www.twitter.com/diversitypro