Woulda, Shoulda, Coulda: A Few Things I Might Have Changed

After writing about interactions with Deebo Samuel, it is time to talk about what might have been.

Several weeks ago, I shared my own confession about interacting with Deebo Samuel and the struggling communities from whence he came.

As you might deduce, I have a great deal of regret and remorse about some things during that time of my ministry, particularly my work with African-American students in our community. While confession is good for the soul, it may also be misunderstood. And it does not help to confess without suggesting some better ideas for future reference.

Since I am more than ready to think about anything other than coronavirus (and maybe you are as well), it seems like a good time to address the issue.

Let us begin with this: I did not mean to imply, in any way, that the work we did was worthless or a waste of time!

Some folks from my former church might interpret my words in that way, and that is miles away from my intentions. Dozens—perhaps hundreds—of people at our church worked to make sure ALL students had a great experience at our church. They fought to make sure all were welcomed and treated with love, dignity, and respect.

Let me also offer tremendous gratitude at those who offered words of encouragement and support for me and others who took part in this ministry. Your effort to lift us up is greatly appreciated, and your kindness is beyond deserved.

With all that in mind, the reality is that we still could have done better!

The point of the post was to admit that fact while recognizing that doing my best was not quite good enough. While I would never belittle or demean the efforts of the church or the dedicated volunteers of the program, it is critical to always think of how programs could improve.

At this point, such speculation is rampant “Coulda, Shoulda, Woulda.” However, by thinking about these issues now, maybe it provides some guidance for new ministries in the future. Here are a few things that I would do different in order to better serve the communities where Deebo and others grew up.

Hopefully, these will provide some words of wisdom that will help you avoid some mistakes and regrets of your own, as you seek to create empowering ministries.

1. Fully prepare for the ministry. Good ministry often happens with perspiration and preparation rather than hoping for a random intervention of the Spirit.

Beginning a ministry in a community that is not familiar—be it racially, economically, or religiously diverse from your own—is never easy. Doing it to maximum effectiveness takes this to an entirely unique level. It takes a lot more than just picking kids up on the bus and taking them to the church for a couple of hours a week. No matter how long this might take, invest the time! In the long run, it is worth the wait to do it with tedious preparation.

2. Talk to the community we hoped to reach. We often think that we know what underserved communities need, and we design our ministry around such thinking. But thinking and knowing can be vastly different.

When a predominantly white, middle-class congregation endeavors to minister to a community of color or a culture of poverty, it is too often based on preconceived notions rather than humble engagement. The best of intentions can fall well short if they are not based on relationship and knowledge of a community.

I would highly recommend that churches set up listening sessions (emphasis on LISTENING), focus groups, or other forms of engagement within a particular community BEFORE starting a ministry. This allows the community to be invested and empowered in all aspects of the ministry that you hope to provide.

3. Involve those communities in leading the ministry. This must certainly follow a great investment of time listening and talking with community stakeholders. Parents, relatives, friends, and neighbors surely know the needs of a community better than outsiders. It serves everyone well to make sure they have plenty of seats at the table. It is possible that willing and perfectly capable volunteers can partner with you to create a fully effective community-based ministry.

4. Connect with churches that are not like “our” church. Many of the students that we picked up on our church bus attended a congregation on Sunday mornings. These churches were often smaller or did not have Wednesday programs or children/youth ministries or even full-time ministers.

Yet, I only had two extended conversations with any of these churches in my five years of ministry. It is our responsibility to reach out and make the time to meet the pastors and people of the congregations that are already investing in a community. This opens the door to build partnerships, rather than working in isolation or duplicating ministries. Such an approach is Biblical, ethical, and will surely empower more people.

And finally…

5. Design the ministry around justice and equity. We can deny it all that we want. But underserved communities—particularly communities of color—may have a vastly different view on these subjects.

Rather than trying to dance around the “Elephant in the Room,” why not embrace it and confront it? Such conversations can prove to be difficult and painful, as they require tremendous reflection and self-awareness, especially among young people. But without them, we can never make progress towards the understanding that we need to move forward in uniting communities.

Asking communities to adjust their needs to “our” ministry style is not a sufficient outreach of the Gospel. It is an extension of the traditions and perhaps even the Slaveholder Religion that has permeated southern Christianity for hundreds of years.

We do not need more white churches who dance around the issues of justice and race and equity. Instead, we need churches that recognize these things as the very heart of the Gospel message of Jesus Christ. And we need to partner with communities and congregations that can teach us that.

By bringing these issues to light for ALL of our students, we had the potential to create a level of community and understanding that surpasses the “real world” and moves far closer to the call of the living Christ.

We are not called to be silent or passive or self-serving in our views on race and justice. The historical and Biblical Jesus call on us to speak out with loud voices of confession, repentance, and advocacy. This frees us to live the power of Jesus by serving others, rather than telling people to come and learn our particular method of ministry.

These are not easy things to confess and acknowledge before God, as my own sins and shortcomings have become plain for me to see. I do not say them to as accusation against anyone else other than myself. I remain far too concerned with my own security, salary, and safety to speak with the conviction that Jesus calls us to have. And I will answer before the Lord for this weakness.

My hope in writing this is that other communities will learn from these mistakes. Do not be intentionally antagonistic to your congregation, but do not withdraw when God’s justice and the lives of His children are at stake.

Speak kindly, but with boldness. It is time to put ourselves (and “our” ministries) aside for the greater good of the Gospel. Speak with the Spirit of justice, equality, and love for all people.

Such a Gospel is not an easy one. But it is the true one, and it is a Gospel that can be followed without regret or remorse.

 

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