African American Pathways
Over 44 percent of Assemblies of God laypeople are nonwhite. The AG Executive Presbytery has 21 members and eight of them are ethnic minorities.
But the Fellowship’s leadership level between the pew and the top legislative body isn’t as diverse, especially when it comes to African Americans.
A pair of African American clergy — Darnell Keith Williams Sr., lead pastor of New Life Church International in Lima, Ohio, and Shannon E. Polk, associate pastor of Riverside Tabernacle in Flint, Michigan — recently wrote their Assemblies of God Theological Seminary doctoral dissertations on how people of color can gain a pathway to ministerial leadership.
“I felt a responsibility to explore this conversation of what it looks like to be intentional about cultivating opportunities for leadership,” says Williams, 53.
“Although the demographics of people in the pews have changed, people in leadership positions have not,” says Polk. “I wanted to better understand if there is some way to fix it.”
Both ministers have impressive credentials. Williams is an executive presbyter as well as vice president of the AG’s National Black Fellowship. In addition to her ministry doctorate, Polk earned a juris doctorate and is an attorney.
Blacks comprise over 11 percent of AG adherents and just under 2 percent of AG ministers in the U.S. Overall, the Assemblies of God is the most ethnically diverse evangelical denomination in the nation regarding attendees.
During his research, one white network leader told Williams that minority leaders are unelectable, not because of prejudice, but rather because of “invisibility.”
“When nobody sees them, nobody will vote for them,” William concedes. “How can we raise the visibility of minority leaders, including white females, who deal with some of the same access issues as our black and brown leaders? What can we do to increase awareness that there is someone who is skillful, waiting in the wings, to be deployed?”
African American Samuel M. Huddleston, assistant superintendent of the Northern California-Nevada District, has long acknowledged that African Americans often can’t advance unless someone in authority — in most cases white — opens the door for them.
“The leader — at the local or district level — has to be the one to say, What do I need to do to cultivate people who need to be raised up in the pipeline?” Williams says. Part of the solution, he says, is intentional mentoring and speaking invitations issued to ethnic minorities and white females.
Polk says mentoring and intern opportunities are especially crucial in order for women to advance. She also advocates that women obtain ministering credentials.
“You can’t influence policy in the Assemblies of God without being a credentialed minister,” says Polk, whose dissertation is entitled “Creating Pathways to Leadership for Women of Color in the Assemblies of God.” She wants to ensure that there aren’t artificial barriers preventing women of color, in particular, from receiving such documentation.
“If we look at the Executive Presbytery, the General Presbytery, and colleges and university leadership, we don’t see a lot of women of ethnic minority backgrounds,” Polk says. “But they’re in our pews.”
Polk says the issue for females often is simply being excluded from get-togethers because of their gender. Men typically are unfamiliar with women because they don’t network in the same circles, choosing instead to hang around with other males who think and appear the same, she notes.
“No one is asking me to meet for coffee; no one is inviting me to play golf to get to know me better,” Polk says. “My male counterparts are getting that kind of informal mentoring where they are able to share and to glean. Where do I get that kind of leadership development?”
Williams says black ministers aren’t interested in tokenism that doesn’t really address the problem.
“Nobody wants to be in a room with no voice or no vote,” Williams says. “I’m not talking about lowering the bar or compromising standards, but sometimes to create an avenue, space must be allotted.”
He notes that is what the Executive Presbytery did, with designated positions for various ethnic minorities as well as a female and an under 40 leader.
“We now have a beautiful, diverse team with different perspectives and experiences,” Williams says. “Our Fellowship is better because of that.” Whenever a board is overwhelmingly dominated by one race — whatever it is — Williams says that stifles conversation.
Such a purposeful focus may not happen in other settings because of traditional “implicit bias,” Polk says.
“In the eyes of some people, they only think of a leader as someone who looks like them,” Polk says. “If that’s so, then there are many women and people of color who will never be leaders.”
Polk stresses that change doesn’t happen organically. There must be intentionality on the part of the majority in leadership. Sometimes pushback comes from those who are underrepresented. Stereotypes may need to be shattered.
"We, as women of color, can do so much more than staple papers and take notes,” Polk says. “We can preach, teach, lead, and guide.”
Polk warns that if nothing changes at leadership levels, it will curtail both the growth and retention of ethnic minority adherents. Those from Generation Z (born between 1995 and 2012) in AG churches, regardless of color, are demanding racial justice, Polk says.
In the wake recent racial unrest, pastors have an opportunity to initiate the uncomfortable conversations they may have been avoiding for years in an effort to not alienate some of their members.
“If we’re truly trying to win souls for the Kingdom, we need to make sure it’s for the whole Kingdom, and not just a portion we feel comfortable with,” Polk says.
Williams is optimistic that real change is in the works.
“Eventually we will gain momentum to get to a tipping point where we start to see things shift,” he says.