By Dave Scherer, Contextual Learning Associate
I was doing an Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI) feedback session with a pastor named “Jenny” somewhat recently. She was very disappointed in her assessment results which had placed her in the orientation of “minimization”. In this orientation, individuals often overemphasize cultural similarities and miss important differences. I could sense that she was questioning whether this description really fit her. As I asked her to describe her new call to a mostly white suburban congregation, Jenny said “The whole congregation is pretty much the same.”. I pushed her a little bit more about the various diversity dimensions of the congregation (age, gender, family background, sexual orientation, abilities, education, etc.) when suddenly she stopped dead in her tracks. “Oh my gosh, there are a lot of differences here. I was totally minimizing my congregation, wasn’t I?” I could tell that Jenny was feeling deep shame about this. My job as her Qualified Administrator was to help her see that minimization is a tool that can be both harmful and helpful to her, depending on how and when she uses it. Here were a few of the things I tried to point out to her:
How it has helped Jenny
- It can be a helpful tool for uniting Jenny’s previously polarized community
When Jenny entered what was previously a very polarized congregation, her ability to see the commonality in the room, regardless of difference, was such an important gift to them. In the Intercultural Development Continuum (IDC) the continuum on which the IDI is based, creator Mitch Hammer believes that one has to pass through each stage in their development incrementally. They can’t skip a step in the process. This means that for Jenny’s wounded and polarized congregation, the only thing that was going to move them forward together was to focus on their shared values. Her sermons about being beloved children of God, regardless of political difference, allowed them to see the image of God in one another when they were struggling to do so. If she came in preaching “polarization” (the previous orientation in the continuum) every week to an already divided congregation, this would not have been effective in helping them move forward as a community. How do we find ways to proclaim the Gospel in ways that are developmentally appropriate and can move a community forward together?
- Jenny is usually able to avoid stereotypes
Jenny told me that she truly sees each parishioner as deserving of respect and dignity, regardless of their cultural background, sexual orientation, gender identity, etc. For people who are experiencing the weight of painful conversations about their differences, she has created a space for them to come share in the unity that they have in Christ. She was able to help them avoid the fragmentation of community that can come when we overemphasize differences. In her congregation, she truly believes that there is “neither Jew nor Greek” (Galatians 3:28). Jenny told me that some of her members who carry non-dominant identities have thanked her for her ability to treat them as humans first and not just reducing them to their cultural identities or an oversimplified stereotype. Can we continue to see the humanity of each congregant instead of only seeing them as a number or a demographic category to check a box?
- Jenny has used minimization as an effective survival strategy for herself
As a female-identifying pastor, Jenny has been in spaces throughout her career that have not been safe for her emotionally (or even physically). She has had to figure out when to minimize her non-dominant cultural identities and when she can bring them all into the room safely. She said, “Any time I experience a microaggression because of my gender, I have to ask myself whether I have enough energy to speak up or not. I also have to figure out if it is a truly teachable moment or if I just need to keep moving forward and ignore it.” Jenny was lamenting the fact that there had been times where she began to minimize her differences so much that she felt like she started to lose herself. “I just started to use ‘minimization’ as a default because I got tired of having to justify my right to be in those spaces with my male clergy colleagues. It eventually wears you down,” she confessed, with sadness in her voice. I encouraged her that this was an act of self-compassion and care that she should not feel bad about. Every person has to figure out what it means to navigate different cultural spaces authentically and appropriately. She too was figuring it out and needed to keep remembering God’s grace in the process. How do we provide grace and space for people with non-dominant cultural identities who have determined that the best way to survive in some of our institutions is to minimize some of their differences?
How it has hurt Jenny
- Jenny was missing important differences that were right in front of her
By overemphasizing the similarities that were in her congregation, Jenny failed at times to reflect on how her sermons might be “landing” on people with non-dominant cultural identities. For example, if she made statements about all of the congregation being Christian, did she miss the atheist who had come to visit that week? If she preached as if everyone was white in the congregation, did she miss the black visitor that week or even a long-time member who was phenotypically light-skinned but who is actually a person of African descent? By her overemphasizing similarity, she might be failing to respond to the important differences that are right under her nose. If she can’t do that with her white suburban congregation, how will she be able to see the contours of difference in communities of color? How do we see the differences that are right in front of us in the spaces that we have labeled “monocultural” and respond appropriately and authentically, so that we can see the contours of difference that are not in front of us?
- Jenny was not able to glean the gifts of expressing diversity
It has been proven that culturally diverse teams whose leaders foster contributions from all team members outperform more monocultural teams. When leaders stay in minimization, they may be prevented from experiencing the new insights that come from different people expressing their opinions or gifts in safe spaces. With her own fear of conflict, she had set a tone in her bible studies that did not elicit free speech from participants who had differing opinions. When they saw her emphasis on minimizing and avoiding conflict, they did not feel safe to express divergent points of view. How can we get better at exploring our differences in ways that are life-giving and provide new understandings and deeper relationships at the end of our conversations together?
- Her minimization can be harmful for her congregation members with non-dominant cultural identities
Jenny’s minimization had often resulted in a universalizing and norming of her own cultural patterns in ways that could marginalize someone who does not share those patterns. For example, Jenny’s decision-making processes, work patterns, relationship to time, conflict, worship, etc. are all culturally informed. If she is not aware of this reality when giving a performance review, she could likely give someone poor marks for having a different work style. She may label someone “unprofessional” for having a different conflict style. She might evaluate the vibrancy of someone’s faith based on the ways that she is emotionally calibrated. She may not stereotype people and treat them more individually, but having complete unawareness about how people’s cultural backgrounds shape how they interact with the world can be very dangerous and harmful.
Indeed we are all “one in Christ” (Galatians 3:28). We are all children of God from every nation with “all tribes and languages” (Revelation 7:9). However, if we do not notice the beautiful cultural particularities that God has created, we will miss the fullness of God’s amazing, generative diversity. Pastor Jenny committed to seeing the “difference that makes a difference” within her congregation so that everyone would hear good news. She is a work in progress like all of us, but God is working on each of us to refine our witness to ensure that the welcome that we extend to others really reflects the vastness of our God’s kin-dome. May it be so!