By Annette Brill Bergstresser
ELKHART, Indiana (Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary)—A. Brian Leander, Ph.D., recalled the waters of the Demerara River in his native country of Guyana as he called Pastors Week participants at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana, to trust in God’s vision of all nations streaming to the mountain of the Lord’s temple (Isaiah 2:2-3).
A church planter, researcher and educator, Leander was the featured speaker for this year’s event, which was held Jan. 23–26 on the topic, “Cultivating Intercultural Leadership for Diversity-Oriented Churches.” More than 150 people from 15 U.S. states and Canadian provinces participated.
As a child crossing the river on his way to and from school, Leander would watch the colors of the water change as the river met the Atlantic Ocean.
“At times there would be a dividing line between them, and then you would see a swirl as the waters intermixed — like watching coffee with milk mix with black coffee,” he said. “That was the vision I saw when I read the [Isaiah] Scripture: A powerful stream of people like you and me, interacting and intersecting at a particular point that could only be created by the power of God. I solidly believe that we, together, have been called to a time such as this.”
During the event, Leander shared findings from his 2014 doctoral dissertation, in which he explored the relationship between cultural intelligence and leadership practices in multi-ethnic churches, or “diversity-oriented churches.” Giving impetus to his research were studies that have shown that while overall church membership is declining in both the United States and Canada, the percentage of diversity-oriented churches has continued to rise.
“The only way you’re going to be able to minister effectively to an intercultural congregation is that you’re going to have to dream prophetically about what God is going to do in your ministry,” he told his listeners. “If you focus on what other people are doing and on what has been done for so long, or the norm in your denomination, you’re not going to be transformational. You might add and subtract, but you’re not going to multiply. The seed of the fruit of the Kingdom of God is made for multiplication. And when it multiplies, it doesn’t bear fruit that all looks the same.”
Moses Falco, pastor of Sterling Mennonite Fellowship, Winnipeg, Manitoba, and a first-time Pastors Week participant, reflected that while he had expected the event to be centered on diversity, he did not anticipate that it would be “so Spirit-filled.”
“There was such a focus on the reliance on the Spirit in our work, and the worship and speakers all had that emphasis,” he said. “It played itself out in the way that we prayed for each other and gave spontaneous moments for the Spirit to work in our midst here.”
Falco said he would take back to his congregation not only the practical and intellectual parts of the conversations about diversity, but also “the experience of God’s presence in this work.”
A ministry of reconciliation
During the opening worship session, Leander focused on Ephesians 2:11-21, emphasizing that Jesus’s ministry of reconciliation accomplished two “otherwise impossible objectives” — reconciliation between humankind and God and between humans and each other.
“If the mission of the church is the formation of one body out of many people — who were previously divided socially — then it’s reasonable to expect that the local churches would be a suitable example of reconciliation,” he said. More importantly, he added, one could assume that the church would be aligned with the mission, values and practices of Jesus’s ministry — and by that alignment have oneness with Christ.
“I think that’s why we’re here, because we have aspirations that rise above what might be the norm in the church,” he continued, noting, “The Holy Spirit is choosing to break down the walls of hostility at their height.”
Leander, who is of Afro-Guyanese descent, shared that in September 1995 — nine months after becoming a Christian — he gave up a comfortable life in New York City to join a mission team to Georgetown, Guyana, where he had lived until age 8. A day after he arrived, he met his wife, Vanessa, a team member of Indo-Guyanese descent, and 11 months later they were married.
The five-member team set out to plant a church in a nation in which people descended from Africa and India lived on opposite sides of a wall. Within two years, attendance at the church plant was 175 on average, with Afro- and Indo-Guyanese people worshiping together on Sunday mornings.
Leander noted that walls keep people from intimate relationships with those who are different from them, leading them to perceive themselves to be “safe” in their isolation.
“What God has to do is break down the wall and force us into intimacy so that we understand that the wall wasn’t meant to be there in the first place,” he said.
He has seen God working in the lives of leaders of intercultural ministries, reorienting them so that they cannot go back to the way things were. Opening oneself to immersion in the role of Christ’s ambassador — “being in over your head” — is transformational, he said.
Leander offered participants seven distinguishing features of ministries of reconciliation:
- Leadership that promotes a vision that empowers all people to foster higher-than-normal levels of commitment towards being multicultural
- A leadership team that reflects the demographics of the church membership and the community
- Organizational strategies that are clearly articulated and supported by decisive action when inequalities and conflict in the church and in the community need to be addressed.
- A leadership development plan that is predicated upon the recruitment, training and professional development of future generations of leaders
- A formal plan to focus leadership with respect to organizational change
- Policies and procedures for conflict resolution and reconciliation at all levels of the organization and in the community
- Leaders who define, legitimize and reproduce the organization’s vision, mission, values and practices across generations
“The calling that is upon you is no fluke, no accident; you’re not delusional, and you’re probably in the right place right now,” he told his listeners.
Challenges congregations face
In his Jan. 24 teaching session, Leander brought several pastors of diversity-oriented churches into the conversation via video clips.
Mike Leonzo, lead pastor of Living Water Community Church in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, shared via video about the challenge of maintaining unity in his congregation of 35 different nationalities and varying educational, political and economic backgrounds.
“If the gospel of Jesus Christ is the centerpiece of what you’re doing, then unity can be maintained, but if you’ve come together around something other than the gospel, the wheels are simply going to come off,” he said.
Drew Hyun, a church planter and pastor of Hope Church in Astoria, New York, said via video that pastoring a multi-ethnic congregation requires humility and a deep commitment to the vision and work: “The biggest challenge is the humility, the pain, the missteps and the constant asking for forgiveness — wanting to improve and at the same time being willing to speak the truth about what I’m going through as I try to minister cross-culturally.”
Yet despite the challenges, Hyun said that a diversity-oriented church “has the power to proclaim the gospel in a radically inclusive way because it truly demonstrates that all are welcome at the table of Jesus Christ.”
Leander invited participants to discuss in small groups the greatest challenges their congregations face in becoming diversity-oriented.
Challenges named during reporting to the larger group included discomfort with different expressions of worship; contentment with the way things are; a lack of willingness to integrate the narratives of various church members into the congregation’s larger narrative; an inability to perceive and connect with the diversity that is present in the community; fear of change and loss of identity, and shame about these fears; and inabilities to acknowledge deeply embedded racism and to see the gifts that diversity can bring.
Kristin Jackson, pastor of Living Water Community Church in Chicago, said her group discussed the challenges and implications of how power is claimed, shared and used in multi-ethnic congregations.
“There are different understandings of power depending on where you come from,” she said, offering a logistical example: “Who uses the church van, and when, and who decides?”
Participants also named socioeconomic barriers and ideological differences; issues of unity vs. assimilation with the dominant culture; a congregation’s ethos reflecting the dominant culture rather than its diverse membership; maintaining a vision for diversity over the long haul; bringing younger people on board with the vision; and church leaders neglecting to provide representative leadership in communities that are changing demographically.
Shawn Lange, pastor of New Foundation United in Christ in Elkhart, said his group noted that there is more than one kind of diversity — not just skin color or culture, but people’s different backgrounds.
“[Another challenge is] the fear of rejection when we give off authentic witness … we want to allow God’s work to happen and have people be drawn in,” he added.
In response, Leander encouraged the group to persevere despite the challenges, both known and unknown: “If you start to add it all up, you will be overwhelmed. Leaders don’t count challenges; we overcome them.”
He shared with his listeners 16 findings from his doctoral dissertation, in which he surveyed 65 senior pastors and 92 top ministry team members. The common thread throughout was how much leverage a congregation’s leadership team can have in shaping its “diversity climate.”
“One of the catalysts is the openness to diversity of your entire leadership team,” he said, adding, “‘The way things have always been done’ is maybe the greatest dividing wall of all.”
Where are the apostles and prophets?
During worship on Jan. 25, Brian Bauman, mission minister for Mennonite Church Eastern Canada, preached on Ephesians 3, focusing on verse 5. He noted that Ephesians doesn’t say how God revealed the mystery that Christ came to reconcile all people to God, except that this message was given to the apostles and prophets.
“Which for me begs the question … where are the apostles and prophets today?” he asked.
“Somewhere in our history as a Mennonite people, we have silenced the apostles and prophets,” he continued. “We’ve dismissed them or sent them off to work in the marketplace or in other denominations, and they’ve succeeded there. But what if Mennonite Church Canada and Mennonite Church USA need to be hearing from the apostles and prophets now, because God is speaking to them now, because we’ve never been in this situation before, and we need to desperately have an Anabaptist radical reformation that begins to give shape to and walk into this diversity-oriented church?”
Launching a ‘ministry to ministries’
Inspired by Bauman’s message, Leander changed his morning teaching session to begin with a focus on apostleship, sharing about his own journey in ministry. After he and his wife were called back to the U.S. from Guyana to serve in a pastoral role, they ended up being terminated. Discouraged, he returned to secular employment. They also realized they were finding themselves on the margins in their church. They ended up following God’s call to move to Lilburn, Georgia, where they became part of a church of around 150 older white people that they happened to drive by one day.
“I did not want to be the only black guy in a white church in Georgia,” Leander said, but then explained how his three young daughters had wanted to return to the church because of the love they’d felt there.
From that church, Leander said God launched him into a “a ministry to ministries.” The congregation asked him to help them with strategic planning since he had business experience in this area. This led to a consulting engagement with one of the oldest churches in the Atlanta area, which had a history of racism and was located in an interracial community.
Leander referred to Bauman’s words about the need for apostles and prophets: “I want to encourage you to allow this session to revive your apostolic identity, because you will need to hold on to that to become the world changer that God is calling you to be.”
He invited participants to share in small groups about opportunities for cross-cultural engagement in their congregations and communities. Some that were named to the larger group included opportunities for interfaith dialogue, ministries with immigrants and refugees, using Spanish-language worship music, building connections with people serving in other local ministries, and changing perceptions of congregational culture.
Noé Gonzalía, a former pastor and now a lay leader at First Mennonite Church of Kitchener, Ontario, said his congregation has embraced a multicultural vision and has been integrating it gradually into their life together. The makeup of the congregation — which sent nine participants to Pastors Week — reflects parts of the wider Kitchener community, including people from Latin American countries and South Sudan. Gonzalía describes the diversity as a blessing.
“The biggest learning and encouragement is to see how the Holy Spirit is guiding us and challenging us to move forward in bringing God’s church to the world around us,” he said.
Developing cultural intelligence
During the last teaching session, Leander reviewed the Cultural Intelligence Scale with Pastors Week participants, who had completed the self-assessment prior to the event. Participants’ reports showed their capabilities in four dimensions: drive (interest in adapting to multicultural situations), knowledge (understanding of similarities and differences across cultures), action (ability to adapt when relating interculturally) and strategy (ability to plan for multicultural interactions).
“The good news,” he told them, “is that you can actually develop greater cultural intelligence.”
The most transformational dimension is drive, he said, noting that it was the strongest one among the pastors he surveyed in his research. Increasing one’s drive can in turn affect the other dimensions, helping raise one’s overall cultural intelligence. He added that for each pastor in his research, the motivation to grow in cultural intelligence was biblically based.
“They didn’t have higher knowledge or strategy; they were motivated by the gospel, and somehow God seemed to bless them,” he said. “What multiplied in them, multiplied in others.”
He encouraged participants to start at the hardest place — by working at increasing the lowest of their four dimensions, which will lead to growth in the others.
“Learning another language is an entryway into another culture like nothing else,” he added.
He said he wanted to give his listeners “little hammers to break the status quo.”
“You’re not going to go back with a big hammer, but little hammers — with steady tapping — so that you don’t break the entire system,” he said. “You put little cracks in it and eventually, those cracks themselves get filled in with new growth and learning.”
Worship and workshops
Each morning of Pastors Week began with worship led by Janeen Bertsche Johnson, campus pastor, admissions counselor and alumni director, along with fellow seminary faculty and staff members and students. Prayers, Scripture readings and songs of praise incorporated various languages represented in the seminary community.
Speakers included Bauman; Karen Martens Zimmerly, executive minister of Formation and Pastoral Leadership for Mennonite Church Canada, who preached on Ephesians 1:3-14; and Byron Pellecer, associate conference minister for Western District Conference of Mennonite Church USA, who preached on Ephesians 4. Participants also shared communion and were invited to receive anointing for healing and power.
The week also included eight workshop options on various multicultural topics; a reception to honor professors Mary Schertz and Daniel Schipani, who will retire in June; and an evening banquet with music provided by Nayo Ulloa and Rafael Chavez, musicians from Peru and Mexico, respectively.
At the close of Pastors Week, Amy Aschliman, pastor of Christ Community Mennonite Church, Schaumburg, Illinois, a first-time participant, said she found the event restorative and rejuvenating.
“It’s rare that I get a chance to sit back in worship services and receive the ministry of my competent peers,” she said, adding that she felt encouraged and inspired by her fellow pastors. “I feel reassured by the direction these conversations are going and energized to return to my church work.”
- A. Brian Leander, Ph.D., speaks on the ministry of reconciliation at Pastors Week at AMBS. (Credit: Jason Bryant)
- Pratik Bagh, 2nd-year MDiv student from India; Malinda Berry, assistant professor of theology and ethics; and Scott Litwiller, data services manager for AMBS; read Scripture during the Jan. 24 worship service at Pastors Week. (Credit: Annette Brill Bergstresser)
- Pastors Week participants took communion together during worship on Thursday, Jan. 26. “The more difference we bring, the more fully we experience the presence of the sacred in our midst,” said worship leader Janeen Bertsche Johnson in opening the time of communion. Above, Byron Pellecer, associate conference minister for Western District Conference, serves communion to participant Lillian Elias. (Credit: Jason Bryant)
- See additional photos in the Pastors Week 2017 gallery on AMBS's Facebook page.