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Black clergy, laity share perspectives on church’s future (UM News)

April 10, 2023

Asked their perspectives of United Methodism’s future, more than 650 Black clergy and laity from every jurisdiction in The United Methodist Church listed three top concerns facing the future of the denomination: discrimination and racism, inequities in appointments and salaries, and lack of young adults in church leadership. 

They responded to a recent survey by the Gammon Research Institute, part of Gammon Theological Seminary, United Methodism’s only historically Black theological institution approved by the University Senate.

The purpose of this new Gammon initiative, explained the Rev. Candace M. Lewis, is to amplify the voices of Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) clergy leaders, “sharing concerns, needs, opportunities, and stories of hope and resilience. The institute strives to resource the past, present and future Black community by creating access to information and resources for equitable rectification.” 

For two years, Lewis has served as the first woman elected as president-dean of Gammon Theological Seminary.

An inaugural research project in 2021 focused on the impact of COVID-19 on Black pastors, leaders and congregations. The latest project evolved as Lewis listened and observed happenings within the denomination. She wanted to give Black clergy and lay leaders an objective way to express and share their views on what was unfolding. 

“As Black leaders in The United Methodist Church,” she said, “we are aware this season is not the first time the church is approaching separation over social issues and discrimination of basic human rights. Yet, we wondered if Black leaders considered the historical experiences of discrimination of Blacks in the Methodist Church as relevant to this current discussion of disaffiliation over the question of human sexuality among other issues and concerns being discussed. 

“Instead of antidotally speaking to the ‘concerns’ of Black leaders at this time, we chose to create a research tool enabling us objectively to collect and share data and create new fact-based conversations.”  

“I was surprised,” Lewis acknowledged, “by the number of responses we received to the survey — over 600 in 60 days — and the diversity of respondents from across all five jurisdictions. Most came from the Southeastern Jurisdiction, which has the largest number of Black clergy and Black congregations.” 

Lewis said she was concerned, however, that the study didn’t reach more under-40 respondents. The age range with the highest number of responses was 61 to 70 years. 

Respondents represented all roles, tenures, socioeconomic statuses and regions. Ninety-four percent identified as Black/African American, with 2% as white, and slightly less than 2% as multiracial. Their roles included elder (29.4%), layperson (28.8%), local pastor (15.3%), lay pastor (0.6%), retired (7.2%) and other (14.5%).

Researchers asked 29 questions about five key areas: knowledge of and attitudes toward the continuation of The United Methodist Church; the reality that pastors and congregations can and are disaffiliating from the denomination; understanding of issues currently facing the denomination; the role of the historical experiences of Blacks in the Methodist Church; and what is important to Black United Methodist clergy and laity related to the denomination’s future.

The study showed that Black United Methodists are generally aware of the history of the Black United Methodist Church and the current events impacting the denomination. Most respondents knew about the 1968 merger of the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church to create The United Methodist Church, eliminating the segregated Central Jurisdiction

“I think the responses build on the historical awareness questions — the fact that less than 80% of respondents were aware that for the last 178 years, Black pastors and laity chose to remain a part of [The United Methodist Church and its predecessors] to continue to fight for justice, fairness and equity for all people,” Lewis said. 

At least 75% of respondents reported some knowledge across all survey questions inquiring about the postponement of General Conference and the rights of individuals and congregations to remain with The United Methodist Church or to disaffiliate. 

Lewis was encouraged that almost 70% of respondents said they plan to remain United Methodist. 

“We can also use this information,” she said, “to share with the 23% who are unsure and the 9% who need more information. I think we also have an opportunity to create larger conversations among Black clergy and leaders related to these questions.”  

Lewis considered one question “glaringly important” to Black clergy and laity: As you think about the future of The United Methodist Church, what church-related issues are most vital to you, your congregation and your congregation’s community? 

The top five responses were: dismantling racism, white supremacy and privilege; ending racism and discrimination against Black people and people of color; equity in clergy appointments and salaries; youth and young adult ministry; and discipleship.

“We don’t plan to stay and leave everything ‘status quo,’” Lewis noted. “We want to stay and see change creating a more equitable United Methodist Church.”    

Perhaps most critical to the survey were three recommendations: 

  1. Address issues of racism and work toward inclusion and equitable church leadership on every level. Continue to expand efforts to increase inclusivity in church leadership for people of color and young people.
  2. Encourage dialogue among congregations. Given the existing level of awareness of most Black United Methodists, church leadership may consider providing their congregations with a forum for discussing relevant issues within The United Methodist Church.
  3. Educate congregations on Black United Methodist history. Although many respondents reported a high awareness of Black history within The United Methodist Church, some may seek resources to learn more, especially since about half of survey respondents reported it would affect their decision about whether to remain within the denomination.

Insights from the research will be shared with national constituent groups, United Methodist general agencies, and clergy and laity as they seek to amplify the voices of Black United Methodist clergy and laity. 

“We hope the data sparks conversation on every level of the church,” Lewis said. “We want to create conversations among bishops and the Council of Bishops. We also want to spark informed conversations among Black leaders related to advocacy for a more just and inclusive church. 

“We also want to continue bringing to the forefront the need for intentional strategies to dismantle unjust systems and create a more equitable church living into the future of the UMC.”  

Gammon Research Institute will share publicly the results of the survey in a webinar at 2 p.m. U.S. Eastern time on May 18. The link to register will be available soon on the Gammon Theological Seminary website.