Multicultural training helps churches adapt to changing mission field

August 05, 2013

By: Jerad Morey

Last year, the number of non-white American children under the age of one was greater than the number of white children of the same age. In many Minnesota counties, the under-five age group is already what is considered “majority-minority,” with non-white children outnumbering their white counterparts.

The demographics of our mission field are changing. What are we doing to adapt?

A couple of years ago, Common Table, a group of Minnesota Conference staff and volunteer leaders, asked the Conference Commission on Religion and Race (CCORR) to help the conference develop multicultural competence—and that effort is now underway and growing.

“Common Table realizes the need the church has for becoming the inclusive church referred to in the [Book of] Discipline,” says Rev. Bescye Burnett, recent CCORR co-chair and pastor of both Janesville United Methodist Church and Elysian United Methodist Church. “If we as the church are going to be connected in the global world, we need to understand culture and the impact culture has on communication and relationship.”

What is multicultural competency? Essentially, says Burnett, it is the ability to effectively communicate in cross-cultural situations and relate to a variety of cultural contexts.

Burnett, an African American, is passionate about helping the conference develop this competency. Her first career was as a librarian and “as a minority, usually [I was] the only person having to learn how to communicate with others in their culture,” she says. Her graduate education exposed her to the idea of inclusive community and “how I could truly live with a love for the other”—a love she now wants to share with fellow United Methodists.

For the last two years, the Minnesota Conference has been partnering with the Kaleidoscope Institute, a spiritually centered organization that provides inclusiveness and diversity skills training and coaching to churches and church leaders. Especially relevant to faith communities, the process begins with understanding oneself, transitions to appreciating the differences of others, includes skills practice, and eventually concludes with assisting communities in creating sustainable missional ministries.

Thus far, the Minnesota Conference’s work with Kaleidoscope has looked like this:

In fall 2011 and summer 2012, Minnesota Conference leadership—the Board of Ordained Ministry (BOM), the Cabinet, conference staff, and members of the Common Table—received the full Kaleidoscope training.

Churches were then invited into the process. A local “navigation team” of CCORR members has learned to deliver the training thanks to funding from a grant from the General Commission on Religion and Race. Six congregations completed the training in 2012, and up to ten more will be invited to participate by the end of 2013.

The training consists of visual activities and small group reflection in which participants explore both the gifts and the blind spots that come with being a part of their own race and culture. They also practice being welcoming and learn to more broadly understand how some actions (and omissions) could be seen as unwelcoming. Participants examine their own racial identity, their assumptions, and how their race or culture may have affected the way they are treated and the way they treat others.

Another element of the training is the “Kaleidoscope Bible study,” in which small groups read a Bible passage, first listening for a keyword, phrase, or image; share with each other what they heard; and then repeat the process while paying special attention to certain topics, including asking the question “What does God invite you to do, be, or change through this passage?”

Rev. Rhodie Jacobson, Board of Ordained Ministry (BOM) co-chair and pastor of Community United Methodist Church in Monticello, says the training—which he went through—was “eye-opening,” adding: “Since they began with my personal views and perceptions and held them in the light of the views of others, it was directly helpful. The exercises proved to be humbling.”

Jacobson says it is “vitally important that the good news of the resurrection goes to each and every one of God’s beloved. All clergy and laity must be able to extend the genuine invitation of grace to everyone.”

CCORR and Common Table have set ambitious goals for the conference’s multicultural competence development. Among them: Conference leaders will commit to the intentional use of practices that invite participation, diverse voices, and perspectives, and create a more level playing field that takes into account different communication styles, backgrounds, and roles. Additionally: Churches will feel empowered and equipped to grow and change in response to the continuously changing diversity around them.

“The Minnesota Annual Conference vision is to reach new people, cultivate spiritual vitality, and heal a broken world,” says Burnett. “We believe that it is through the work of [multicultural] competency we can continue to fully integrate this vision into our concept of cultural inclusiveness.”

TO LEARN MORE: If you're interested in developing your church's skills in communicating within its increasingly cross-cultural mission field, e-mail Rev. Bescye Burnett or call her at (507) 234-5350.

Jerad Morey is a member of Mosaic in Brooklyn Park and a freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter (@Jerad).

Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church

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