Engaging with Diversity in Ministry

Image by Nathan Dumlao (unsplash.com)

Rev Ermal Kirby is a Methodist minister who currently combines two part-time roles: Superintendent Minister of the Barking, Dagenham and Ilford Circuit, and Research Officer with the Susanna Wesley Foundation, where he has been carrying out a project on cultural diversity and Methodist circuit ministry.

In this post, Ermal summarizes the initial findings from his research, and the discussion at the subsequent Symposium at the Susanna Wesley Foundation.

The Methodist Church in Britain is increasingly diverse in terms of the cultural and ethnic origins of its members and ministers.

During 2016 and 2017, the Susanna Wesley Foundation (SWF) at Roehampton University conducted interviews with ministers involved in cross-cultural ministry, to discover how cultural backgrounds and attitudes to diversity influenced the way in which ministry is offered and received.

Following the interviews, a Symposium was held at Methodist Church House. It brought together research participants, members of the Belonging-Together Ministers Group, Church Officers, and people with a special interest in inter-cultural ministry. It was held three days after the terrorist attacks on London Bridge and around Borough Market, and two days before the Poll for the General Election, emphasising the urgency of the issues.

I was the Symposium Facilitator and conducted the research on behalf of SWF. I emphasised that the aim of the day was not simply to hear the outcome of the research, but rather to enter into a process that would help us uncover ways of engaging with diversity that could be applied both in the Church and in the wider society.

I used a series of diagrams to illustrate the different approaches that were often used to shape responses when people were faced with that which was different.

To see these diagrams and to read Ermal Kirby’s full paper ‘The Daffodil, The Rose, and the Hibiscus: exploring diversity in ministry’, click here.

I reported that the interviews had shown that within the Methodist Church there were different views about the most appropriate model for engaging with diversity: some Circuits expected ministers to conform to the culture of the congregations they served and to be assimilated; some ministers thought that their mission was to convert the churches and Circuit to the ways of doing things that they had followed in their countries or cultures of origin; many felt that the best that could be hoped for in a culturally diverse Church was mutual toleration.

I suggested that there needed to be an open conversation at all levels within the Methodist Church about the assumptions and aims that underpinned inter-cultural engagement. Applying the insights more widely, the Symposium was asked to consider ways in which the models might relate to the terror attacks on Westminster Bridge, the Manchester Arena and London Bridge, and to the attitudes revealed in the Brexit campaigns.

The Symposium was deeply challenged by the notion of “mutual irradiation“, where we discover new combinations of our diverse ‘atoms’. It acknowledged, however, that often there was a lack of vision and imagination to start conceiving new possibilities, and in practice there was a reluctance to face the risk of bringing something new into being.

The day began with a medley of songs from Sri Lanka, Argentina, Zimbabwe, and South Africa; the songs reflected the enrichment that is possible when ‘we all delight to prove’, ‘the gift which [is] on one bestowed’.

The Symposium ended with a commitment on the part of those who attended, to continue exploring the ways in which we could be co-creators with one another and with God in our richly diverse Church and Society. Priority areas identified were:

  • Diversity in Theology and the approach to Scripture;
  • the Formation and Development of Leaders; and
  • Engaging the next Generation.

Anyone interested in being part of this continuing work is invited to contact the Susanna Wesley Foundation.