Church in the 21st Century: Ethnic Makeup

I was at a Presbyterian celebration, when I heard a familiar sound piercing the air: bagpipes. And then, just as thunder and lightening travel together, I saw a sight that has also become very commonplace since I’ve become Presbyterian: men in kilts. I probably don’t have to tell you the color of those men. We all know.

During many Presbyterian festivities, we roll out the men in kilts. It’s a celebration of our roots, an acknowledgement of where we came from.

It can also be rather odd. I know of Presbyterian pastors who preach with a slight Scottish brogue—when they’re not from Scotland. I guess they have the idea that’s what a good Presbyterian preacher is supposed to sound like.

When I first became Presbyterian, I was often asked what my tartan pattern was. I don’t have a tartan pattern, so that question thoroughly confused me. When I finally understood what people were asking, it made me feel out of place, like I didn’t quite belong in my new denomination. As the years went on, I would hear the ethnic/Presbyterian jokes. For example, any time that glitter is being hoarded in the Sunday school classrooms like it’s as valuable as gold dust, I’m reminded that we’re penny-pinchers. We’re Scottish, after all.

In actuality, I can’t think of more than ten Scottish church members. And that’s counting all three churches that I pastored. We have roots in Scotland. But we also have roots in Korea. And we have some roots in the Global South. My friend Tony Aja reminds me that “Today, there are more Presbyterians in Mexico and Guatemala than there are in the US. There are more Presbyterians in Korea than there are in the rest of the world.”

Now why would I bring this up? Is it to be a kill-joy? Why would I care about a denomination celebrating its history? Do I have something against the Scottish? Do I have something against white men? Of course not. It’s just that we need to understand the message that we are giving to a new generation when we portray our denomination as purely Scottish. We think of this. When we choose to lift up one racial ethnic group over and above others, we are giving a clear message to a new generation: You don’t belong here.

You see, after the Hart Cellar Act of 1965, we began to welcome new immigration from non-European nations. This population increase was great for the growth of our economy in the past, and it will be great for our economy in the future. It’s added an incredible richness to our cultural and religious landscape. And it means that white people will be the minority in my daughter’s generation.

That doesn’t bode well for a denomination that’s 94% white. Things could change though. This could also be an extremely important opportunity for us as a denomination. After all, immigrant congregations are growing the fastest in our denomination.

But I have to say… right now… we’re kind of blowing it. How? What are we doing wrong? How could we fix it?

First, we need to take a good look at our ordination exams and wipe out the cultural bias.

What cultural bias? Well, I’m a white woman who made solid grades in seminary, and I failed one exam four three times (I changed this… upon reflection, I took it four times, but passed the last time). I don’t think I’ve ever failed an exam in my life. As I was preparing, people kept saying, “Write this for a 70-year-old Presbyterian. How would she read this?” That was a big enough cultural hurdle for me to fumble all over. I can’t imagine if I was a smart Latina trying to write the answers.

As we see from this report, non-white candidates have a much more difficult time getting through the ordination exams.

The PCC is deeply concerned that pass rates of racial-ethnic candidates on the ordination examinations are significantly lower than those of white candidates. Pass rates of white candidates in recent years on each examination have ranged between 65% and 77%. Pass rates of other candidates have averaged between 27-54%.

Second, we can to find a way to welcome Reformed pastors who have immigrated to our country. Often a Presbyterian minister has gone through all of the necessary steps to complete the ordination process in his or her own country. Then, when he or she seeks to be a part of the Presbyterian Church (USA), we do not allow that person to be a minister in full standing. Why? It’s because our ordination standards are different. For instance, we require a Master’s degree while another country might require an undergraduate degree. (It seems to me that four years of preparation is better than three.) Or we require Greek and Hebrew, while another country does not. (How many pastors do you know who are still using their Greek and Hebrew skills?)

Third, we can begin to welcome the immigrant communities already in our midst. I have heard an estimate that if we opened our arms to the immigrant communities that have already formed around us—the ones that already call themselves Presbyterian—we would have one million new members in our denomination.

Fourth, we can pay attention to the important shifts occurring with second- or third-generation immigrants. Right now, our progressive congregation is welcoming many wonderful second-generation Korean Presbyterians. We also see amazing female Korean clergy in our denominations. The needs and gifts of second/third generation immigrants are often different from their parents. How can we encourage their voices and learn from them?

Our country is seeing an incredible shift in ethnic makeup, as a new majority emerges. If we can embrace those changes, we can be ready for a vital church for generations to come.


15 thoughts on “Church in the 21st Century: Ethnic Makeup

  1. Just a comment on the whole Scottish schicht (I flunked Yiddish). First I’m Scots-Irish. My family emigrated here in the early 1700s.

    Americans don’t understand a couple of things about our “Scottish” heritage. First, bagpipes are an instrument of war and are generally not permitted in Scottish churches.

    Second the whole tartan thing is bogus. It was developed in the 19th C as a tourist thing. Seriously. There are books written about the fraud committed in developing the clan tartans. And besides kilts were originally blankets that my ancestors wore as clothing and then slept in.

    This whole Scottish thing seems much more prevelent in the South than in the North.

  2. The showiness of kilts and bagpipes in Presbyterian churches has left me cold for a long time, and seems more and more exclusive and good ol’ boy each time I experience it.

    Although I’ve been able to tolerate it a little more since realizing that it’s very similar to those who dress up and talk funny at renaissance fairs or Star Trek conventions. It’s not so much about celebrating heritage as it is about living in a fantasy world.

    Unfortunately, as you detail, it’s a fantasy world that has negative real world implications.

  3. Hmmmm. I hear that there are wealthy congregations that take their confirmation classes to Scotland.

    Where does Iona fit into this. Seems like “everybody” I know has either been or wants to go. Do ethnic Presbyterian want to go there?

    But as I understand it Iona attempts to embody some of the things that you list. And I don’t guess you get more Scottish than John Bell but he has introduced a lot of Presbyterians to a variety of sacred music from arounf the world.

  4. Oh

    And if I have my history correct very few American Presbyterians have direct connections to the Highland Scots. Most of us would find our roots with the rowdy and barely civilized border Scots/Scots-Irish folk.

    (Based on my recollections of reading DH Fischer’s Albion’s Seed)

  5. Thoughtful, well-researched, and needed as always.

    I especially was unaware of the gulf in ordination exams pass rates. What if the exam answers were written to be read by a 25 year old unchurched Latino woman? Might be a great thing for our denomination if that was the case.

    Thanks for this.

  6. And about the ord. exam thing. Don’t forget there are some who don’t think they are rigorous enough. I heard of a presbytery committee that in an oral exam asked a prospective new pastor to answer the questions that they didn’t choose to answer on the written exam. Of course this was more than a year after the person had taken and passed these exams.

  7. For full disclosure, I’m a white 33 year old male PCUSA pastor who has been called an “Evangelical Liberal with a high Christology.” Whatever that means, it actually kind of describes me. Anyway, in the fall of 2004, Austin Seminary sent me as a “student observer” to the grading of the PCUSA ordination exams in our region, which that year was in Oklahoma City. It was certainly an interesting (and somewhat frustrating) experience. The particular grading group that I spent time with was 100% white, but was about 50/50 on gender. There were some 70 year olds but only a few. The “typical” grader in that particular group on that particular year was a 50ish pastor (male or female) who had taken study leave to grade the ordination exams to help them brush up on the material. There were also a lot of 50ish elders of both genders who had taken time off of work to grade.

    Overall it was a fairly enjoyable experience getting to know some new people and to see behind the scenes. However, like most things (hotdog factories) there are things you wish you hadn’t seen (or heard) behind the scenes. On the first night we were there a theologian who had been assigned to that reading group (ours came from Virginia) gave a kind of Reformed theology 101 for the graders, which I sat in on. As I listened to many of the graders asking questions about the most basic of Reformed tenets I became uneasy that these were the folks who would be grading the exams. It was little more than a “buzzwords” training session. “Look for grace, sovereignty, providence, real presence, etc.” It seemed a bit like having your taxes done by someone who’d taken a one hour training course—not a good idea by the way. There was quite a bit of inconsistency in the grading depending on who the graders were. I saw several exams receive a 4 or 5 from one grader then a 1 or 2 from the next. It would then be sent to a third grader. How could the same exam be a 4 and a 1? By the end of the first grading period, there were several graders who had been identified by the staff as people who seemed to have no idea what they were doing. While those people were never chosen to be the third and deciding grader if the first two graders split, they most certainly continued to grade exams even though it was obvious that they knew little to nothing.

    Something that bothered me even more than that was that there was about a handful of graders who seemed to relish giving failing grades, and would even talk about the stupidity and incompetence of the exams they had been given. Seems coincidental that every exam that particular person got was written by an imbecile doesn’t it? Thankfully there were only a handful of these folks but enough that it was worrisome to me, especially since they were regular graders who came back year after year. They must have had a teacher in high school who always gave them an F and this was their way of passing on the abuse.

    The final thing that worried me about the grading process was that several of the graders had a very obvious axe to grind and both sides of the spectrum were to blame. I spent time listening to these folks for three 12 hour days so I don’t think I was reading too much into their words. There were the progressives on the lookout for Evangelicals, especially Fuller students. The graders don’t know what school an exam is from, only that one region never grades the exams from their closest seminaries. “Oh God, this must be another Fuller (or Gordon Conwell) student,” I heard some say. “I bet this is one of those young Calvinist guys I had to put up with when I was in seminary” and so on and so forth. Then there were the Evangelicals or old school Calvinists who were on the lookout for progressives. “Oh geez, can you imagine ever saying ‘Godself’ in a sermon? Yuck!” or “Another middle aged liberal woman, I bet.” These are all comments I actually heard. There were several graders on both ends of the spectrum who seemed to see themselves as gatekeepers trying to keep those darn Evangelicals or darn Progressives out. I wonder how many progressive students failed because they happened to get two Evangelical readers and how many Evangelical students failed because they happened to get two progressive readers.

    What I learned and took back to my fellow students as we studied for the ords was this: “Plug in the Reformed buzzwords wherever they make even a little sense and don’t say anything that can be identified as Progressive or Evangelical since you never know who will be grading your paper. Write for a white fifty-year-old pastor who loves the church enough to grade these goofy exams but has no opinions of her own.” That is exactly what I did and it worked like a charm. Once I got ordained, then I started having opinions. I’m not saying it’s right, I’m just saying that’s what I saw and what I did in response to survive.

    That being said, I am an Associate Pastor at a 1,000 member church and our Head of Staff is 60 and our other Associate is 52. I am 33 and I live on a different planet than they do. They think I’m crazy with all my talk of being a “missional church” and think I’m wasting my time using Facebook, Twitter, and services like Animoto to reach younger families. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be a young person from a different culture of origin and have to write to a 50-60 year old white pastor.

  8. @Everett: Wow. I’m having a serious WTF moment.

    Your account seems to highlight one of the main problems. We have a testing system in place without enough quality graders and without the necessary checks and balances of the process.

  9. I failed my theology exam because it was too reliant upon The Scots Confession.

    Also, bagpipe marches have been used for war, but there are lots of folk dance tunes and its own classical music.

  10. Im with you on the whole Scottish/bagpipes/kilts thing- Im not a Scotswoman, in fact, grew up in an Irish, mostly Roman Catholic family- going to church in a Dutch Reformed church (if you’re not Dutch, ya ain’t much, our Michigander preacher used to tell us- joking, we hoped…) I married a man of mixed race ancestry, and, we joke, our children are on the cutting edge….Irish/English/Chinese…, while I “get” the whole Scots tradition, it’s not me- or my family- and if that is true for me, a PCUSA pastor, who else is it true for–and how do we be both “realtively free and relatively bound” by our traditions and history? (to quote Shirley Guthrie)

  11. Just two things . . .

    First, I like bagpipes very much — in a troop, outside, marching along. War pipes are much too loud in the sanctuary (but then so is most organ music). I never have cared for the “kirking of the tartans” and see it as an unnecessary reminder of someone else’s past (much like communion tokens).

    Second, you ask “How many pastors do you know who are still using their Greek and Hebrew skills?”. I can count seven in 3 Presbyterian churches (in the DC Metro area) without having to spend any time lost in thought. The ability to share the meaning of the text underlying the NRSV is a clear asset whether it’s done in sermons or in study groups — and an ability that I presume you had at one time.

    We expect that our clergy will be educated — and retain much of the education they gained in seminary. After all, if Greek and Hebrew slip away, why not theology? Cristology? Willingness to study and be open to new ideas?

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