10.30.19

The Calling to Dignity

It’s been my custom to read good Christian books to the members of our church as they trickle in for our mid-week Bible study. For about 5-10 minutes I read aloud as a way to focus us and another small way to introduce the church to good thinkers and writers whose works edify the Church. Currently, we’re reading Andy Crouch’s excellent book, Strong and Weak: Embracing a Life of Love, Risk and True Flourishing. I highly commend the book and this Pass the Mic interview with Crouch.

Recently we read a subsection of Strong and Weak chapter 6 entitled “The Calling to Dignity.” The subsection really struck the group in a positive and unique way. It prompted us to see and appreciate some things about traditional Black Church pastors we perhaps had not seen before or appreciated in quite the way Crouch put it. The chapter meditates on the ways leaders must bear hidden vulnerabilities–weaknesses and threats that they cannot share with those they lead without harming them. The bearing of that hidden vulnerability has an unusual relationship to dignity for marginalized communities according to Crouch.

Here’s Crouch’s comment:

[There is] a paradox that is often hard for privileged people to understand. The more a community experiences shared vulnerability without authority–the more that poverty and oppression have shaped a community’s experience–the more likely that transformative leadership from within that community needs to bear hidden vulnerability.

I have had the great gift, at several seasons of my life, of worshipping and working in African American churches. It took me many years, as a young white man, to understand why leaders in the black church so often carry themselves with what initially seemed to me like excessive amounts of visible authority. A pastor wearing an expensive suit, driving a late-model car, and protected by layers of administrative staff and formality, presents very little apparent vulnerability to the world. Such leaders appear, especially to outsiders, as residents of something perilously close to the Exploiting quadrant. In middle-class and professional-class white churches, we expect more casual attire and emotionally transparent demeanor from our leaders.

But I gradually came to understand that black church leaders in fact bear a tremendous amount of vulnerability, even if it is not readily apparent. Their vulnerability can be personal: vanishingly few white Americans who drive late-model, high-end cars have ever been stopped by police simply on suspicion that the vehicle is not theirs–whereas many, many black pastors have experienced this insult to their dignity and accomplishments. But more importantly, as representatives of a historically subjugated community, black pastors live every day bearing the nearly unbearable burdens of a community that has been shaped by oppression and violence, prejudice and ignorance.

And the appropriate response to this hidden vulnerability is in fact public dignity–representing the community not just in its vulnerability but in its God-given, image-bearing authority. It may be appropriate for a pastor in a privileged and powerful community to emphasize his vulnerability by saying, “Just call me Dan.” But it is entirely appropriate for a pastor in a community of vulnerability to model authority and expect to be addressed, especially in public, with his full title and family name.

To be sure, there can be exploitative leaders in the black church just as there are in every social system–very much including the white church, where leaders can use transparency and modesty as a cloak for manipulation. But healthy leadership in a context of oppression often requires levels of visible authority that might seem unhealthy elsewhere. What brings transforming hope in that context of suffering is the presence of leaders who balance the community’s vulnerability with their own representative authority. And when you truly get to know the most faithful and courageous leaders in the black church or any minority community, you come to understand that in contexts of oppression, authority is itself a great risk and a most vulnerable calling. (pp. 125-127)

Have you ever thought about how pastors carry the vulnerability of the community and meet that vulnerability with representative displays of authority? As Crouch acknowledges, this can (and has been) exploited by the unfaithful and wolf-like. But it’s also important to understand how pastors should use their authority and displays of it to represent those they serve and lead in marginalized community. At the least, it ought to prompt us to take a closer look before we judge the church and its leaders purely on external shows of authority, strength and even affluence.

Thabiti Anyabwile
Thabiti Anyabwile serves as a pastor of Anacostia River Church (Washington DC). He is the happy husband of Kristie and the adoring father of two daughters and one son. Holler at him on Twitter: @ThabitiAnyabwil

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