The Rev. Carol Howard Merritt: 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 times. 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.

[Taken with permission from Carol's Blog, Originally posted 8/15/11.]