Black Presbyterian leadership and churches

The whole church is in decline, but more than 80% of Black Presbyterian churches are without installed pastors. Warren Lesane Jr., Shavon Starling-Louis, Stephen Scott and Teri McDowell Ott discuss vital Black leadership.

Convener: Teri McDowell Ott
With Warren Lesane Jr., Shavon Starling-Louis and Stephen Scott

Last September, the Synod of the Mid-Atlantic gathered approximately 114 Presbyterians and guests at Massanetta Springs Camp and Conference Center to discuss “Vital Black Leadership and Vital Black Churches.” Warren Lesane Jr., the synod’s executive presbyter, has led the way for this Presbyterian conversation and advocated for the “Next Generation Initiative” that seeks to address the crises facing Black Presbyterians. Lesane says, “When White Presbyterians catch a cold, BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) Presbyterians contract pneumonia.” The whole church is in decline, but more than 80% of Black Presbyterian churches are without installed pastors. Even if pastors were available, many of these churches could
not afford to call them.

Stephen Scott, who serves on the synod planning team,and who has served as a pastor, presbytery executive, and Synod of the Mid-Atlantic moderator, helped lead this gathering as a White Presbyterian. 

Shavon Starling-Louis, co-moderator of the 225th General Assembly, moderated a virtual panel discussion with emerging Black Presbyterian leaders. 

The gathering concluded with leaders from PC(USA) agencies, including Diane Moffett, executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, engaging in a listening activity. Participants were asked to imagine this synod gathering five years into the future. 

Teri: Tell me more about the Next Generation Initiative. What work is being done and who is involved?

Warren: For several years, the Synod of the Mid-Atlantic has been in a state of inquiry, discovery and discernment regarding its role among the 14 presbyteries it seeks to serve. Ours is a unique synod as we were the last to be organized, the largest to be designed, and the most diverse in our constituency. Mid-Atlantic was the only synod to assimilate all four Black presbyteries and one Black synod into its new structure resulting from the 1983 Reunion. Those presbyteries and synod included Catawba, Cape Fear, Southern Virginia and Yadkin, and the Catawba Inter-presbytery Agency. It has been an awkward and, at times, adversarial season of compromises which led us to our present structure. In a
time of rising racial tensions, stoked by the new celebrity of White supremacist groups in the country, the synod is finding its ministry renewed by the need to offer an alternative vision of God’s people living in community, witnessing to compassion and justice for all.

During the synod assembly in 2017, a draft document for The Next Generation initiative was shared. This initiative seeks to respond to the critical shortage of African American clergy in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the need within every presbytery to be served by able Black leadership. In response to this challenge, the synod would identify, nurture and serve as advocates for the next generation of African American clergy, who would go on to serve congregations and ministries of the church.

We uniquely know of the contributions strong Black leadership and their churches have given to our denomination. We know of their losses, as well. We know that, in this time of polarization of race and class and politics, the Black church can lend its voice to create a healthier dialogue. These congregations, however, need renewed leadership and inspired pastors filling their pulpits. We can help and we must, lest we lose the powerful witness of the African American legacy of our church. The synod’s executive committee gave its approval allowing the Synod Assembly in 2023 to focus on the Next Generation Initiative and the status of African American churches. A directory of African American congregations has been compiled, enabling us to discover that more than one-quarter of Black congregations in the PC(USA) are within the Synod of the Mid-Atlantic. A directory of African American clergy (active, retired and CLP) will also be developed. The synod recruited, trained and empowered 12 Snapshot Facilitators from the following presbyteries to conduct individual interviews with leaders from each African American Presbyterian church. Facilitators from Coastal Carolina, James, Charlotte, New Castle, Eastern Virginia, New Hope, Peaks, Salem and Baltimore Presbyteries agreed to do the heavy lifting. They spent weeks contacting, interviewing and gathering critical data that is allowing us to assess the status, health, vitality and needs of these congregations.

“When White Presbyterians catch a cold, BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) Presbyterians contract pneumonia.”

Teri: What should the church know about the history of Black Presbyterians?

Shavon: The history of Black Presbyterians is a powerful and dynamic testimony of the Triune God’s faithfulness to and through a community of people who identify as Black or multi-racial Black and identify as a part of the Reformed tradition of Presbyterianism.

Many Black Presbyterians have historically been part of Black Presbyterian churches, and many have been part of cross-cultural contexts with a complex history of both affirming and abusive experiences of racial acceptance. Many of our historic Black Presbyterian churches remain injured from the absorption of the all-Black mid councils due to reunification.

Black Presbyterians are not a monolith. Instead, we have an ever-expanding, dynamic diversity in ways like; theological ideologies, worship styles, connection to our Presbyterianism, relationship with Afrocentricity, and social perspectives.

Teri: Why is it important for White Presbyterians to be a part of this discussion on vital Black leadership, engage in critical self-reflection, and support this work?

Stephen: White Presbyterians in the South, concerned about being swallowed up by the larger “Northern” church, had little awareness of the impact of the 1983 reunion on Black Presbyterians; the plan cost them governing bodies that supported and strengthened Black leadership and congregations. While serving as a pastor in South Carolina, I saw the benefits Black leadership brought to the whole church. But it was also clear something was lost in reunion. Our history in this region – slavery, the defense of that institution offered by Presbyterian theologians (we provided the ideological superstructure), Jim Crow, and widespread resistance to integration – means we who are White are obligated to support the recruitment and nurture of Black congregational leaders and Black congregations. Call it an aspect of reparations, though in relation to the larger moral question it will be a token contribution. If, as Warren Lesane has said, the Black church contracts pneumonia when the White church has a cold, I am confident that recruitment and support of Black leaders will have a conversely positive effect on the larger church, including on White congregations. Because of this history and these dynamics, because of the personal and family histories so many of us are aware of (I, for one, count enslavers and Confederate soldiers among my ancestors), I encourage White Presbyterians and White presbytery leaders to engage the issues involved and to support this Next Generation Initiative.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s 2022 statistical report noted that our denomination is 89% White. One of the tragedies highlighted at this synod gathering is that a majority of Presbyterians are unaware of Black Presbyterian history and its importance to our church’s story as a whole.

Teri: What did you hear from these young Black leaders? What should the national church know about their experience?

Shavon: The conversation with the emerging young Black Presbyterians panel consisted of seminarians Ryan Atkinson and Kirk Louis, and teaching elders Rev. Antonio Lawrence and Rev. Serenitye Taylor. Collectively, the panelists were honest and transparent, and spoke with care and concern about the ways in which God has called and continues to call people to serve the church. But the injustices present in the church create racially disparate barriers for thriving in pastoral leadership.The panelists were open about places of hope as well as the ways in which isolation, systemic racism, and intersectional identities have affected opportunities for financial sustainability, emotional sustainability, and authenticity in varying contexts. The implications of White supremacy culture within the PC(USA) is having real effects on Black bodies; real effects on Black bodies in White dominant spaces; real effects of internalized White supremacy culture on Black psyches. These effects were well testified to in the discussion.

The national church should know that we are being poor stewards, and hurting gifted people who love God and love the people of God, because we are not willing to deal in accountable, honest, and clear ways with the lie of White supremacy in congregations, nominating committees, councils and hearts.

Teri: In light of this important conversation about Black Presbyterian leadership and Black churches, what is your hope or dream for our church five years from now?

Warren: I hope barriers in the PC(USA) that dissuade young Black emerging leadership will be removed. I hope pipelines will be created that identify and nurture young Black leadership. I hope existing Black Presbyterian congregations will discover renewal and opportunities for mission within the communities in which they are planted. I hope we will see new expressions of our Black Presbyterian witness through New Worshiping Communities, fellowships or congregations.

Stephen: My hope is that in nearly every presbytery at least one or two Black congregations will benefit from the Next Generation Initiative in a way that will offer exemplary models to other churches, Black and White; I also hope to see new partnerships in mission between Black and White congregations as the latter realize their health is tied to the health of others.

Shavon: I dream that all our synods will invest in positions and resources for the care of our Black/BIPOC congregants and congregations. There needs to be gathering spaces for under-represented church leaders serving in any role to share what they are seeing, wondering about, and longing for that will heal and support them as they love God with all they have and love their neighbors as they love themselves.

I believe that this heart work can happen because we are a denomination that hangs our hats on our connectionalism. We recognize the Holy Spirit shows up when we gather and testify. The Synod of Mid-Atlantic’s Next Generation Initiative and the panel discussion I moderated felt like Holy Spirit truth-sharings that might spark more moments of the sort if we steward the blessing well.

Rev. Warren Lesane is a native of Mayesville, South Carolina, and a product of Goodwill Presbyterian Church, which produced more than 30 PC(USA) pastors. He received his Master of Divinity from Johnson C. Smith University, and he is the stated clerk of the Synod of the Mid-Atlantic.

Rev. Shavon Starling-Louis is co-moderator of the 225th General Assembly of the PC(USA). She received her Master of Divinity from Columbia Theological Seminary and is senior pastor at Memorial Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Rev. Stephen Scott is a graduate of Vanderbilt University and Louisville Presbyterian Seminary, and served as pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Statesville, North Carolina, for 20 years. As a mid council leader, he has served as moderator and transitional general presbyter of Salem Presbytery and as moderator and interim executive and stated clerk of the Synod of the Mid-Atlantic.