Even the best seminary church administrative guides are often insufficient to meeting the specific needs of the social and political structure of black churches, a structure forged in the crucible of slavery and racism, which has fostered a disposition and outlook that generates patterns of social behavior unique to our cultural experience.
I came across this book today. A friend tossed it to me and
asked me what I thought of it. A quick skim through, and I was
pretty impressed by the author's grasp of the unique qualities,
resources and needs of the black church in America. Even the
best seminary church administrative guides are often
insufficient to meeting the specific needs of the social and
political structure of black churches, a structure forged in the
crucible of slavery and racism, which has fostered a disposition
and outlook that generates patterns of social behavior unique to
our cultural experience. I'm not suggesting that white
seminarians are incapable of equipping black pastors, but that a
one-size-fits-all approach will certainly fail to effectively
serve every community. Our community requires a full
understanding of these social patterns, their origins and
effects on church life in the black community. This is an
extraordinary primer on black churches in America.
Christopher J. Priest
6 November 2002
Traditional Patterns of Power in Black Baptist Churches
Power is defined in Webster's New World Dictionary as the
“ability to do or act— vigor; force; strength; authority;
influence.” One has power who, possessing authority and
influence, acts vigorously from a position of strength to bring
about change or achieve a desired goal. Any investigation of
power arrangements in black Baptist churches has to commence
with the office of the pastor.
The Office of the Pastor
All the power/authority exercised by the black pastor is that granted by the congregation under God, the eternal head of the church. The pastor's role, his function, and his style of operation directly affect the success or failure of the congregation.
Why is the role/function/style of operation of the pastor so important? A young woman said this to the pastor when asked to unite with a church: “When considering a church, I take a very close look at the pastor and try his spirit by my spirit. God is the same and the people will act up the same way everywhere; so, if I dig his style, that is where I'll place my membership.”
Several years ago the late Ira De Augustine Reid, eminent sociologist, conducted a very extensive study on the educational background of “Negro” Baptist ministers. One of the many questions posed related to laity expectations of the minister.
I asked ministers and laymen from all sections of the country to give their opinions on the type of preacher desired by the Baptist people. They all seem to agree on several requisites, namely:
1. He must have a divine call to the ministry.
2. He must be able to mix and mingle with the people.
3. He must believe what he preaches.
4. He must be a good organizer.
5. He must be able to make himself heard and must present his material
in an understandable manner.
In West Africa, religious leaders were considered elders. The elders' authority rested on a religious foundation because they represented the community before the ancestors, the living dead. The respect that black preachers had in some quarters was carried over from the African tradition that the chief had religious duties to perform as head of the clan. As head of the church, the black minister's divine call mandated spiritual leadership to a people frustrated in earthly power.
In part, that spiritual leadership had to be communicated through the preaching of the gospel in “basic black.” Basic black meant articulation in the black idiom that lifted people from where they were to where they had to be. Inherent in basic black was mass appeal to all groups within the black Christian religious community.
The following is a written statement given to Ira De A. Reid for his study of black Baptists:
It might be justly said that the Negro Baptists want a preacher who can reach the will of man through both his intellect and his feelings. However, if the preacher does not have a two-fold approach, the people will settle for one who has an emotional approach as over against the intellectual approach.
Furthermore, the black lay person has considered the pastor a father, regardless of the leader's age. It is not unusual for an eighty- year-old church member to tell a young pastor, “You are the father of us all.” And to the pastor's wife these words would be uttered, “You are our mother.”
The fatherly image of the pastor has been linked to that of a shepherd. The shepherd led, fed, protected, corrected, and supported the flock. For black people, the shepherd was the pastor; the flock was the congregation; and the sheepfold was the church building. The spiritual nature of the office of pastor has caused many black ministers to consider themselves servants of God, servants of the church, and servants of the community. The desire to assume the role of servant has, however, been crushed by the people's insistence that the pastor assume a stern and lofty role and demeanor. The servant often had to become the firm and strong master, neither servile nor subservient.
Pastors secure within themselves have never required lofty perches from which to minister to their flocks. They are free to be themselves as well as to be the “Eternal's handymen.” For example, F. Douglas Ferrell, a pastor in Los Angeles, California, actually constructed the church edifice with membership assistance, built his own home, and assisted many of his congregants in the construction of their own domiciles.
Building upon the solid foundation of spiritual leadership, the black preacher validates his credentials. As a result, he can follow truth wherever it leads him and can provide sustenance for the flock over which the Holy Spirit has placed him.
The pastor is commander-in-chief by virtue of his call by God and the people, and often by virtue of his training. For the pastor not to assert himself is a sign of weakness. The “humble” pastor in past years often found the reins of leadership removed from him. Thus, the black pastor took full control, using his charm, mystique, charisma, and skills to keep from being considered ineffectual and weak. His authority to command came from God. “I am that I am” sent him (see Exodus 3:14). In some churches,. the officers and members did not open a window without order or permission from the pastor. Laymen have often been heard using the remark, “I'd rather be asked up than down.” The traditional black pastor was used to giving orders and seldom took orders. To take orders tends to be considered a sign of weakness.
When and how does a pastor receive the reins of power in a church? Gardner C. Taylor says that the new minister becomes pastor as time moves on. When elected and installed, he is not truly the pastor. He becomes the pastor as his ability becomes respected and he grows in the hearts of the people. To become pastor means that some officers release authority. The power to lead a congregation is not a natural concomitant of the call. The right to lead must be earned and, improperly used, can be taken away. People invest power in the leadership of the pastor. He needs the wisdom to know how much power he has and when and where he received it.
The Ashanti in Ghana had a well-developed “enstooling and destooling” process for chiefs. The one enstooled could remain on the stool (seat of authority) as long as one led the people positively and enabled them to achieve their goals. Whenever the “enstooled” ceased to lead positively, the Ashanti had elaborate ways of “destooling” a leader. What has been said of the Ashanti could be true of other tribal groups in Africa. There is reason to believe that this enstooling and destooling process found its way into black Baptist churches.
Gardner C. Taylor again claims that, “Some churches have to be built, but most had to be won by the pastor.” The late Miles Mark Fisher once said to a fledgling pastor, “Young man, don't use your influence until you get it.”
The late Wade Hampton McKinney had this to say to his son who was about to embark on his first pastorate:
While helping my father plow the land we were sharecropping in Northeast Georgia, he told me to bring the wagon from under the tree out to where he was working in the field. This was my first chance to drive the team of mules. No sooner was I in the driver's seat than the mules bolted. The wagon overturned. My father pulled me from under the wagon and said, “I should whip you, but you've been whipped enough.” The wagon was loaded with manure. Then he gave me some advice which has stood me in good stead down through the years. “The next time you drive anything, take the reins before you grab the whip.”
Part of the strength of a pastor has been caught up in the idea that he is like all men; yet he is at the same time something different.
A church officer once said to Sandy F. Ray, eminent Brooklyn pastor, “You are a man just like I am.” Pastor Ray replied, “Since we both know we are men, let us examine the phrase, 'just like I am.' How did you get to Brooklyn?” “I came up here to work during the war,” was the reply. “And how did I get here?” Pastor Ray asked. “Oh, we called you and brought you here,” was the reply. “And you are a man, just like I am?”
Moreover, the pastor's strength has been basic to sound governance of the corporate life of the congregation. He has to understand the power he has. He is required to walk a tightrope in the exercise of power and authority by leading the people with a sense that the power he utilizes was delegated to him under the watchful eye of the eternal God. Far too often a black pastor has been called a dictator unjustly. He is not a dictator, but his role has to be clearly understood in light of the congregation in which he has been called to function. When a black pastor tells someone to do something, he is not speaking for himself but for the congregation.
Elliott J. Mason was asked on one occasion, “Do you believe in the strong pastor or strong democracy in the black church?” “It is not a question of either/ or, but both/and,” he replied. “A strong pastor maintains democracy. He keeps things in order, minimizes power grabs, maintains the balance of power. When someone or a board calls the pastor a dictator, it simply means that the pastor is keeping that person or board from dictating.” In crisis situations, the strong pastor remains calm. He knows he can reach more people on any given Sunday than his opposition. The strong pastor never minimizes opposition, but seeks to neutralize it. “Make sure that the opposition is fighting the church,” 0. Clay Maxwell, Sr., was heard to say. “Never let it appear he's opposing you, but the church.” “If you kill a person who is opposing you,” elucidated Wade H. McKinney, “he will have a resurrection. But if the people kill him, he is dead, indeed.”
The strong pastor can smile in the face of groundless opposition and can overlook the statement of a deacon who was famous for saying, “Let us support the pastor's program; if it succeeds, he succeeds, and if it fails, he fails.”
A strong, fatherly, concerned pastor inspires people to follow his and their Christ, not with strong-armed tactics, but by loving them into basic Christian discipleship.
Deacons, along with the pastor, have enjoyed the distinction of occupying the only two scriptural positions in the church. Some deacons consider themselves the church's spiritual fathers, ruling elders who serve and assist the pastor in the shepherding of the flock and, as a rule, have been basically loyal to the pastor and the church, in spite of pressures brought on them to function differently.
On the other hand, there have been deacons and other officers who felt it their solemn and sworn duty to protect the congregation from the pastor. Others considered themselves as employer and subsequent boss of the pastor.
Most deacons have recognized the importance of maintaining the integrity of the institution. Maintaining the integrity of the institution was interpreted as the support or trust given to a position or recommendation presented by other members who have done “their homework,” even if one has not heard the proposition previously.
In the average black Baptist church, the deacon board is the power board. Generally, if this board is part and parcel of the “With-the- Pastor Club,” the only way that church can go is up. Often, however, the deacon board can be racked with dissension because of latent ambitions, power struggles, or the eclipse of one clique and the ascension of another clique.
Deacons have usually risen in influence in the church according to seniority, pastoral appointment, educational opportunities, specialized training, “mother wit,” “jungle smarts,” “moxie,” self-assertion, or ability to perform well at several levels. Deacons and all other board personnel are, according to black church understanding, church officers in a board context.
Many churches have, unfortunately, permitted the dichotomization of the type of persons to serve on the diaconatie (boards of deacons and deaconesses) and on the board of trustees. Older ministers felt that every issue that could conceivably be brought before the church was either spiritual or material. If it was spiritual, it was referred to the deacons. If it was material, it was referred to the trustees. Sometimes, conflict between the two boards ensues. It is to the dismay, disgust, and pique of many a black church trustee to learn that as the pastor and deacons go so goes the church.
Often there are trustees who feel it their duty to stand between the pastor and people, not understanding that black congregants disallow intercessory unavailability to the pastor. By and large, however, black churches owe a great debt of sincere gratitude to church trustees who have given unstintingly of themselves, their time, talent, and treasure to care for the church over, above, and beyond the call of duty. Most ministers have enjoyed happy relations with those who handled the resources committed to them by the people of God.
Depending upon the church in question, church clerks have been invested with a great deal of power, due to the crucial record-keeping function inherent in the office. A church treasurer and/or church financial secretary have had power, too, because it has been their responsibility to determine whose voucher would be honored and which debts and creditors would be paid at any given time. Money is power, and those who receive or disburse it automatically possess power, defined and circumscribed though it is.
The Negro church operates through small fellowship groups. These groups can be roughly divided into three classes: (1) Service Groups— such as choirs, usher boards, gospel choruses, flower guilds, etc.; (2) Fellowship Groups— such as men's clubs, women's auxiliaries, missionary societies, etc.; (3) Interest Groups— such as church school, state organizations, age group circles, etc. These groups, in spite of my arbitrary categories, have as their primary mission the financial support of the institution. It is common for a single church to have twenty-five or thirty small bank accounts in as many banks in a major large city. Most often, each group is duplicated, as in an organization for children and youth. In a single church there will be a senior choir, a youth choir, and a children's choir. This multiplicity of groups affords an opportunity for “everybody to be somebody.”
The pastor who tackles the task of centralizing all the auxiliary treasuries into one church treasury has often had his days numbered and full of trouble. His successor, however, generally benefits from his sacrifice to place all funds under bond.
Of significance is the fact that leaders of auxiliaries have served long terms and gained power by virtue of years in office. Experience or skill is respected. Because capability in music has been a skill needed and greatly respected by the black church, the choir director has generally been given high regard and is often an autonomous authority responsible only to the pastor. Church officers and music committees give circumspect and often permissive attention to the requirements Of the church Musician.
The questions of power which usually emerge from the auxiliary groups deal with:
—the parameters of participation, rights, and responsibilities of the groups to the church;
—the sanctity of their special days;
—the use and handling of their funds.
What are some of the basic black church auxiliaries?
The Music Department has been called the war department of the church simply because there is more potential for conflict among groups that meet often than among those that don't. Frequency of interaction often makes groups organized to engender creative tension repositories of degenerative tension.
The organist, pianist, and/or choir director are usually selected by the pastor or recommended by the pastor to the music committee. Where there is a minister of music, that person clears all music personnel through the pastor.
Choirs have elected officers, purchased music and robes, conducted special events, and participated in visits and exchanges too numerous to count. These activities have not only enriched the church, but also have created another arena for participatory growth for its constituents.
Ushering in the black church has been far more important an activity than the same role in its white counterpart. The ushering units of the black church are often large, departmentalized, and paramilitary. Although ushers march with soldier-like precision, guard entrances and exits zealously, direct the traffic into the sanctuary and parking lots as policemen, ushers also sponsor programs and purchase uniforms for themselves and equipment for the church building. Like choirs, they have senior, junior, and youth usher boards.
Many of the usher boards sponsor a nurse's unit and equip a “recovery room.” Again an arena for service development, fellowship, and growth has been created.
Church School and Baptist Training Union
Church attendance was at one time directly related to church school attendance. Some church schools with large, adult classes and well-departmentalized instruction for children and youth often rival the church itself.
The superintendent in some churches is the “pastor” of the church school. In some instances, the church school is better organized and conducted than the church. Because the church school is the major training arm of the church, potentially or actually it is a tremendous power base.
Never a serious rival of the church school, the Baptist Training Union (successor to the BYPU, Baptist Young People's Union) has been the Sunday evening training arm of the church, which sometimes provides the bait to bolster the evening worship hour. The degree of power this group exercises varies with the people involved.
Women's societies are usually fairly calm and disciplined. But here again, a power pattern is at work which moves from the president of the society to the church kitchen. The greatest missionary work is administered through the women's society. The largest representation in the Convention is from the women's society. Among the women there is found the sponsoring of workshops, study groups, church beautification programs, teas, style revues, banquets, and dinners. “The Negro church is a reflection of the matriarchal society which is common to Negro family life,” Charles Sargent declares. “Although the leading officers (preachers and deacons) are limited to men, it is the women who dominate the life of the churches. Because the female,” Sargent continues, “is the dominant force in family life, she also has the responsibility of maintaining the community which is evident in the church.”
Reporting on the 1971 session of the NCBC (National Committee of Black Churchmen) held in a church in Chicago, Illinois, Cornish Rogers described the predicament of the pastor refusing to allow a woman delegate to speak from the pulpit. In explaining that the church had voted into being such a regulation, and that 80 percent of his members were women, the pastor proclaimed that in his church “the women rule and the men preside.”
Many black women, who believe in “equal pay for equal work,” claim that they could take over the church if they so desired. However, they recognize the need for viable images of black males and support the church which keeps the men “out front.!'
In the average black church there is a women's block of power that functions as a prime mover. In some churches it might be the women's society; in others the deaconesses' or mother's board or young matrons. Every pastor owes much of his strength in a church to the support of the women.
Celebrations and Special Days
Among the Akan people of Ghana, celebrations and festivals occurred every twenty-one days. The Akan calendar was reckoned on the basis of nine festivals, bringing their year to full cycle. At these celebrations the chief “fed the ancestral stools,” and the entire community rallied behind the chief as he performed the sacred rites.
Such celebrations provided opportunity for the elevation of the deeds of the chief and for regeneration of the society itself. Disputes of all types were settled after the stools had been fed. In this context, regeneration meant the reinforcement of social values and the strengthening of the solidarity of the community. Fun was a by-product of the festival. On the occasion of the festival, part of the regenerative process was contained within many “praise speeches,” which granted a recital of past glories and history, legends, proverbs, and the wisdom of the fathers, and provided the genesis of the oral tradition which even now obtains in the black church.
Laughter on these occasions grew out of appreciation, for much joy was expressed. The Akan people discovered the secret of maintaining harmony, joy, gratitude, solidarity, and genuine accomplishment within the family. Far too often Western culture looked askance at these festivals and relegated them to the limbo of a backward, aboriginal people in need of the “fruits of civilization.”
The black church, following its African heritage, has raised a goodly portion of its finances through special days, which serve as vehicles of social benefit as well. The participation of members involved in the activities of special days is often executed in a dramatic way: men versus women, complete with general chairpersons and co-chairpersons, captains, committee members, and group members. A goal is voted, and often individual or group quotas are set. The real motivation comes, though, in the setting of the individual quota. What enthusiasm is generated! Nothing beats the individual participation of a maximum number of people on their days. Their activities serve as a model of social and communicative interaction worthy of in-depth research. The power patterns, the dress, and the self-images on parade are something to behold.
Anniversaries of churches and auxiliaries have been promoted as another means to raise money and to enjoy wholesome fellowship. During church anniversaries and homecomings, many members return from all across the nation. They contribute financially and thus receive great recognition. The older the church, the more proud the members. The churches which celebrate the pastor's anniversary often do so through the traditional pastoral reverence characteristic of many black churches, or out of a genuine respect for his leadership. It is a “give him his flowers while he lives” service.
Strengths and Weaknesses of Black Baptist Churches
Just as has every other institution, the black church has strengths and weaknesses, the delineation and development of which deserve an entire printed work. Here written, then, is what must be understood to be a brief summary of strengths and weaknesses.
Some Strengths of the Black Church
The black church:
Serves as a station of personal affirmation which attracts large numbers of persons;
Provides a rallying point for development of ideas on religion, politics, and all issues affecting immediate welfare;
Provides, because of its often limited personal and financial resources, a springboard for creativity through which those limited resources can be overcome;
Tends to impact greatly on the total community rather than just on its members;
Reposits the history, customs, traditions, and faith of black people;
Provides an arena for ongoing leadership development.
Some Weaknesses of the Black Church
The black church:
Often tends toward an anti-intellectualism which gives low priority to financial support of education;
Experiences daily confrontation with needs incommensurate with resources available;
Lacks, in too many instances, a trained and/or committed leadership;
Tends to nurture a sense of insecurity that disallows intra and interdenominational cooperation;
Tends to rely on an oral rather than a written record of organization and administration.
While black Baptists have enjoyed a glorious history of support
of missions in Africa, the Caribbean, and portions of Latin
America, the overall support and total commitment to historic
and emerging missions by Baptists has left much to be desired.
Black Baptists have not generally supported education in the local church or at the college or seminary level. A concept of total stewardship awaits further development in the black church. The socially imposed exigency of limited funds and its subsequent delimiting functional capability has developed in some congregations the tunnel vision that causes them to set priorities within their walls rather than without.
Black churches' funds have often been diverted to institutional maintenance. Away from education, missions, etc., to purchase and/or reduce indebtedness on facilities often deserted by whites in search of greener suburban pastures.
On the plus side, black church support of civil rights goals has constituted a legitimate “home missions” program. Many a civil rights organization would have closed shop if churches had not opened their doors, received freewill offerings, provided rent-free facilities, and offered general sustenance for survival.
Shades of the Black Church
Additional insights into black church strengths and weaknesses are revealed in a discussion on the “shades of the black church.”
There are three cultural shades in the black church. The shades are Negro, Mulatto, and Black. However, 90 percent of the churches in the black community are Negro, irrespective of labels, such as Baptist, Methodist, Holiness, and the like. The Negro church is not integrationist although it has enjoyed periodic moments of fellowship. It may talk brotherhood, but its basic commitment is to its own. The Negro church rejoices gladly and loudly and makes no apology for what it does because it is deep in the “black idiom and the big heat” and still has “wall to wall folks.” As the late Louis Boddie of Chicago used to say, “I ain't got no sheepskin hanging on my study walls, but I got sheep standing around the walls.”
The Negro church, though basically conservative, has been an oasis of human love and understanding and will usually forgive any failure on the preacher's part except the failure to preach. Often called anti-intellectual, the Negro church is slowly changing as the third and fourth generations graduate from colleges and universities. Not enough Negro churches have been involved in the struggle to unshackle the chains binding people. The Negro church, though afraid of the word “black,” can become Black much more quickly than the Mulatto church.
The Mulatto church, contrary to belief, is not solely based on skin tones or shades of its members but on the adoption of white styles, white goals, and the imitation of white middle-class values and standards. Some Mulatto churches are “whiter” in behavior than some white churches.
To a degree, the Mulatto church has been integrationist. It is comprised of blacks in basically all-white denominations and “silk stocking” Baptist and Methodist congregations. Far too often, these churches have separated themselves from their poorer brothers while still attempting advocate roles through such groups as the NAACP or the Urban League. Unfortunately, some Mulatto congregations separate themselves from their less fortunate brethren and consider themselves a breed apart, only to discover in most instances that they are too dark to be white, yet too white to be black.
Mulatto churches, for instance, turn up their noses at gospel music because they do not wish to be identified with the singing of “cornfield ditties” and consider the anthem to be a mark of having arrived musically. While the Negro church has an acculturation problem, the Mulatto church has an identity problem. However, the Mulatto church that fails to adopt some semblance of black soul is in trouble, especially with its youth. The Mulatto church is generally blessed with capable, competent leaders in key positions in society who could, if ever they resolve their identity problem, help deliver liberation to the masses. In an effort to keep pace with the time, some churches in the black community vacillate between the Negro, the Mulatto, and the emerging Black church, depending upon which choir is singing within a given church. There is a “Negro Sunday” when the gospel choir sings, a “Mulatto Sunday” when the Senior Choir mounts the loft, and a developing “Black Sunday” when the youth of young adult aggregations try to “put it all together.”
The Black church is in revolutionary evolution. It will be a church demanding a clergy trained to an understanding and pride in its people, its history, and its faith, prepared to lead black people wherever truth requires. It will be a church eclectic, borrowing from all traditions and making them its own. It will be a church whose music will consist of stately anthems, gut-soul gospel songs, beautiful organ themes, persuasive pianos, bongos, drums, and guitars. It will be a church where celebration and festival, rejoicing and praising will be high on its agenda as it attempts to divest people of the “Gutenberg Syndrome” and put them in touch with their own humanity.
Since black is the mother of all colors, the Black church will be committed to all people. It will be universal and inclusive. It will be the church identified with the oppressed because the eternal God takes his seat among the disinherited. It will be the church surviving and living because it will welcome to its bosom all people who sit with the oppressed. The Black church is God's new creation.
Black churches, impacted upon by the civil rights thrust of the 1960s, reflect the subsequent changed self-identity of the black society and appear to be in the process of becoming the Black church.
The emerging Black church supports a value system with standards of excellence, which reflect black society's acceptance of its culture as a viable, meaningful, and productive way of life. It is a church evolving in black perspective. it doth not yet appear what we shall be . . .” (I John 3:2).
Floyd Massey, Jr. and
Samuel Berry McKinney
6 November 2002
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