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The Bittersweet Reality of Multiracial Churches

Multiracial congregations are all the rage, it seems, at least among Protestants. Conferences are being held across the country encouraging pastors and other religious leaders to be multiethnic, and groups like Mosaix and Kainos have been established to support the effort. People that attend these conferences are provided a theology for why more churches ought to work toward diversity as well as practical tools for moving their congregations toward that goal.

After many years of research, my colleagues and I will be sharing what we’ve learned about these efforts. We will host a conference on pastoring multiracial churches, June 20-21, in Columbus, Ohio. It will be a chance to share practical knowledge based on our research.

 Photo via Good Free Photos

We know that Catholic parishes have quietly been doing the work of racial and ethnic diversity for some time. They are far more likely to be diverse than Protestant congregations, probably because they are parishes and by definition tied to their neighborhoods. Where Protestant congregations can move their church locations if they want, this option is not available to Catholic parishes. They must figure out a way to make it where they are or their Archdiocese will shut the doors. Today more Protestants seem willing to build diverse congregations, as well.

All of this multiethnic work challenges leaders to understand the many ways congregations have deep patterns of culture that can be hard to change and can take a toll on the leaders themselves.

What is often not discussed when the topic of multiracial congregations comes up is how hard it is to do religious racial diversity. There are challenges for both congregants and clergy. That is because religious space is not just about practicing one’s religion; it is also about living out one’s ethno-racial identity. People do not quite realize how much of their religious practice is also a way of doing ethnicity — until they have to share their religious space with people who do not share their ethno-racial identity.

In my own research, I have found that pastors and priests have to navigate tensions in their congregations over how to use religious space. This includes conflict over what foods to serve at church events, what holidays to celebrate, what style of music to be sung during services, what social issues to support, the length of worship services, and the list goes on.

None of these have to do with religion per se. But they are about congregants’ ethnically and racially rooted ideas about how religion ought to be done. These ways of doing their religion matter tremendously to people. Conflict over them can disrupt church life making the ability to build community, which is often the responsibility of the head pastor, quite difficult.

Moreover, pastors of multiracial churches experience tremendous strain, emotionally and relationally. I head the Religious Leadership and Diversity Project, a national, multi-method study on head clergy of multiracial churches. It was not uncommon for us to hear stories of personal stress resulting from trying to build racially diverse religious community.  This is particularly true for pastors of color. Leading a multiracial congregation means having to leave their home ethno-racial religious communities.

We also heard how few resources are available to them. Few seminaries or denominations invest in sourcing multiracial churches and their leaders, so pastors of multiracial churches often find themselves having to navigate this territory alone. That’s one reason we’re planning our conference.

Building religious community across racial and ethnic lines is a laudable goal. It ought to be. However, it is critically important we admit that, unless done well, it can cause greater harm than good, not only to worshippers but their leaders.

Succeeding requires a frank understanding of how race shapes American society and American religion. You might start with books like The Cross and the Lynching Tree and The Color of Compromise. How race plays out in your own congregation is important, too. Read our introductions to thinking about congregational culture, and explore our tools for exploring the patterns you often miss. This is work – hard work – worth doing.

Further reading:

Edwards, Korie, Brad Christerson, and Michael O. Emerson. 2013. “Race, Religious Organizations, and Integration.”  Annual Review of Sociology 39:211-228.

Edwards, Korie L, and Rebecca Kim. 2019. “Estranged Pioneers: The Case of African American and Asian American Multiracial Church Pastors.” Forthcoming in Sociology of Religion.

Hoover, Brett C. 2014. Shared Parish: Latinos, Anglos, and the Future of U.S. Catholicism. New York: New York University Press – introduced here.

About the author: 

Dr. Korie L. Edwards is Associate Professor of Sociology at The Ohio State University. She is Past-President of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion and has authored several books and articles on religious organization, practice and leadership. Among them is The Elusive Dream: The Power of Race in Interracial Churches.