Learning to Be Agile Helps Church Leaders

Date Posted: 
Monday, May 2, 2016

“My understanding and compassion have grown.” That’s the testimony of one participant in a recent learning community in the Synod of Mid-America.

Leaders from three synod churches and from Western Theological Seminary met six times over the last year to learn from and with each other about cultural agility.

What’s cultural agility? According to facilitator Earl James, RCA coordinator of congregational Missional Mosaic and advocacy, it’s “adjusting your style so that you can more effectively communicate, negotiate, and build trust with others whose cultures are different from your own.” He borrows the definition from Culture Catch, an organization that equips leaders for cross-cultural business.

The importance of cultural agility for the church? “Helping people of various cultures find a home at the congregation’s table,” says James.

“We all have biases,” says participant Eric Nichols, a student at Western Theological Seminary. “To get an opportunity to participate in a learning environment that teaches you how to manage bias is a wonderful opportunity.”

For Christopher Poest, pastor of Faith Community Reformed Church in Stickney, Illinois, reframing the conversation took down the intimidation factor. Making it about agility—rather than competence or mastery—meant that he didn’t need to know every last thing about every group of people in his community in order to welcome them well. It gave him a place to start and an ongoing process to take it from there.

“It’s not just about learning how other people are—it’s learning that my perception was wrong or right, or my attitude was wrong,” says Alfonzo Surrett. “And it’s having a time that we can come together and pray and confess our sins. That builds strong relationships, and that’s what’s needed in the body of Christ.”

Surrett is pastor of Calvary Community Church (RCA) in South Holland, Illinois. The congregation is 40 percent black, 50 percent Caucasian, and 10 percent Hispanic. They have been working on issues of racial reconciliation since a 2005 merger brought together two churches that looked very different into one body. The congregation has seen the challenge of overcoming racial and ethnic differences, but also the beauty.

For Surrett, the learning community helped him see that racism isn’t just black and white. “Looking at racial issues, primarily I’m looking at them from an African American perspective,” he says. “But after dealing with more people from the Asian community and the Hispanic community, and listening to their stories, I see that it’s more.”

This cultural agility learning community is one of many learning communities the RCA is offering, exploring a number of ministry topics. It’s one way the denomination is living into Transformed & Transforming, its vision for transformation, leadership development, and missional engagement. Through a learning community, leaders share personal experiences, learn best practices, discover ways to discuss challenging topics, and get support for taking key lessons back to the entire congregation.

“It is not often that we discuss the issue of racial diversity so openly and its impact on our church community,” says Jewel Thomas, who serves as associate pastor at Faith Community Reformed. Having those conversations with other churches provides valuable insight, she says.

Thomas says she was able to take a lot of what she learned to her other job at a charter school. “It was also wonderful to have extended time to talk with members of our churches about these issues,” she says.

For Poest, cultural agility is not limited to racial diversity.

“One of the areas we’re really encountering it right now is our Wednesday night community outreach meal and education classes,” he says. “We have a sizable number of people from the community who come who are on the margins of society and food insecure and housing insecure, just from a very different socioeconomic reality than even our working class congregation is. That’s a different culture. How can we be more agile and more sensitive and more gracious and intentional in interacting there?”

Poest says the learning community equipped him and others to be more sensitive to these dynamics, and more aware of their own responses. That awareness has helped a few members build relationships with these guests—and in some cases, even friendships.

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