Goverment cannot do it alone, in America help is needed from the traditional churches to solve the problems of religion and education. The more things change the more they remain the same. Politically people were hoping for a massive change in the country over the past eight years, at a fundamental level the country is the same, spiritually we believe different things about each other, and it will be spiritually that we learn to become one people.

Leadership Challenges of Churches in Transition:
A Study of Three Churches


Delores E. Harris Harrison


             Eleven o’clock Sunday morning has been called the most segregated hour in America; it is church time in the United States, and the time set aside to go to the various religious institution, which represent our faith. We may work together in areas of employment; we may ride the same transportation services in order to get to that work, but when it comes to spending time with thee Almighty, Americans prefer to sit next to family and friends or at least someone who looks like them.

America is a nation in constant transition, moving from one neighborhood to another, and often selecting houses of faith in these different neighborhoods. Traditionally American lived and died in the same community; they worked the same job from young adult to retirement, and those who attended church sat in the same rows in the church occupied by their grandparents and parents.

The three churches discussed in this paper are going through transitional challenges relating to issues of leadership and diversity. St. Marks United Methodist Church (New York City) is a Black Church. It is experiencing generational conflicts as it tries to deal with the postmodern challenges of ministry. The Good Shepherd United Methodist Church (Bergenfield N.J.)   a traditional main line White Church that is having difficulty integrating a new ethnic group into the congregation. The Riverside Church (New York City) is an Interracial, Interdenominational International Church. It is going through the pains of changing values, changing goals and at the same time dealing with the changing vision of the role of the church and Christianity in America. The West has carried the mantel of Christianity for the past four hundred years; the East was also a major player in the message and purpose in the message in Jesus the Christ. Perhaps it is time to see how both the East and the West represent the Madonna and Child as a means of respecting change. The role of the church and the impact of diversity will be played out in the Riverside Church because its foundations is change and social justice, and as Riverside progresses, so does the Christian church in America. Analysis of the diversity and multicultural needs of these three churches can provide insight on the leadership strategies required to work with multicultural congregations.


St. Mark’s United Methodist Church

St. Marks United Methodist Church[i] is located in the center of Harlem. It is over 100 years old and can boast of having a distinguished middle and upper middle class membership in its past. St. Mark’s was a place where it was necessary to have what was considered the “proper” attire. In the Black tradition, that would suggest that you would wear your “Sunday best” when going to church. The church provided after-school programs[ii] during and after the depression.     The congregation consisted of lawyers, doctors, bankers, congressmen and state senators. The choir was famous for the quality of its musicians. Some of the first Black Americans to sing with the Metropolitan Opera Company attended St. Mark’s Church. The members were proud of their church, and were given opportunities of leadership that prepared them to accept responsible positions in the secular world. The church can hold between 1,500 and 2,000 people. Its Gothic structure is similar to City College of the City University of New York, located within walking distance.

The area in which the church is located was considered “Sugar Hill’ and was the home to upper middle class population. The church started to lose its population, as more and more members were able to purchase homes in the suburbs and hence moved their membership.[iii] Yet the church did not reach out to the new members coming into the community. [iv] Eventually many of the programs were discontinued, and today the membership consists of about one hundred people, mainly seniors. The average age of the congregation is seventy-five years old. Most of these members remember the church the way it used to be, and are reluctant to make any changes.

The Methodist conference, which owns all churches in the United Methodist denomination, has threatened to merge the church with another church, or close the church[v]. Although this would be a regrettable event to the St. Mark’s members, they are content to live in the past and celebrate the accomplishments of the church prior to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s. Concern about the needs of the post baby boomers were not considered in their best interest.

Thus, St. Mark’s Church is facing the issue of members reluctant to move into the postmodern world. The members live in the past and are unwilling to let the children of the 21st century step on the memories of the 20th century. An individual leading this congregation would need to have to have the skills necessary to help members respect the past while at the same time accepting the reality of the present. The leader should have strong plans for growing the Church and not permit the past to destroy the future. This position requires the strategy of courage. A church without youth and family services is a dying church. The pastor or leader must have the courage to prevent him or herself from participating in the death of a church.


Pastors should not be “fearful” about going up against some of the older members in the Church. One pastor of St. Mark’s suggested that he was having difficulty helping some members to understand that he was in charge of Church’s activities. He was reluctant to go against individuals, and was looking forward to the time when he would be leaving the Church and a replacement pastor would be sent in. He lacked the skills and the will to handle issues relating to the inter-generational conflict that was slowly destroying the church.

St. Mark’s suffered from a crisis in leadership.[vi] The older members were not willing to share space with the young, and there was no one around at the time able to help the church move from the past into the future. Congregations can and often do bully pastor lacking the skills to assume the “pack leader’s position.” A shepherd afraid of his flock would have a church full of conflict and eventually few members.

Fear of a congregation is not a good indication of leadership, and bullying of pastors is not a positive witness of Christian behavior. Congregations have changed the dynamics of the Jesus model. The disciples are telling Jesus what to teach and preach and who should be invited to the feast of the Holy Spirit. The pastor must take the authoritative role as spiritual leader and demonstrate competence and courage as the shepherd of the flock. St. Marks needs to select a leader who is confident in vision, and understands the challenges of the past, but with the courage to stand firm in the present and vision to lead into the future. Harlem once the capital of African American strength, struggle and power, has become integrated with white brothers and sisters working together for a new vision of the future.


The Good Shepherd United Methodist Church


The second Church to be discussed is the Good Shepherd’s United Methodist Church in Bergenfield, NJ, a largely White church. Bergenfield is a small community in Bergen County, considered one of the best places to live in the country with its excellent schools, senior citizen services, low crime rate, and excellent health facilities. As of the 2000 census it had 26,247 residents, 16,509 of whom are whites, 1,811 African Americans, 63 Native Americans, 5,357 Asians and 1,696 others. The median income was $77,187. Each of the major denominations has at least one church in the community. This case reports the events that occurred when diversity came to the church. In the United Methodist traditions, pastors are assigned to churches by district superintendents and expected to be accepted unless there are serious and legal reasons why the individual is not acceptable.

Change began to take place in the community and the Church with the increase in the Asian population and the large and growing Filipino population.[vii] This political move attracted more members of the group to the town. Bergenfield today has the largest Filipino population in Bergen County, and this Filipino population, which has a large Methodist population in their home country, was naturally attracted to the Good Shepherd Church. This was the beginning of change and conflict.

Meanwhile, the German members of the Good Shepherd Church were aging, as was the community. Many of the younger families have moved further north and purchased larger homes, leaving their parents and grandparents in the church. As a senior citizen population, they were not interested in programs or social action. Their mission activities included supporting some far away mission in countries they would never see, and they knew no member of the country would come over into their community.

Included in this group were the Methodist Women,[viii] a group that met once a month in one of the member’s homes. Methodist Women groups are powerful arm of the Methodist Church, and according to the bylaws all female members are automatically invited to join the organization. The Good Shepherd women’s group was operated like a social exclusive social club and made it clear that it was not interested in extending an invitation to the new comers.   The group did not accept any new members, and since they controlled all activities of the women and programs in the church, there were no programs.

Challenges began to occur when new families started to come to the church, the families were young and had school age children. The children attended the local schools and were doing well in the community. A Philippine Methodist minister brought over his congregation, and they became involved in the spiritual community of the church, and encouraging a new “Praise and Worship” Service. The Good Shepherd’s shift in demographics represented the significant contributions Asians were making in the mainline churches in the Northeast. The superintendent for the United Methodist Church district, in this area of New Jersey, is Korean, and continues the Methodist tradition of sending only the most qualified, educated and professionally trained pastors to UMC churches. The UMC focuses on strong spiritual witness with a focus on social justice, tolerance and strong family values, male and female pastors are given assignments to churches.

The Riverside Church

Riverside Church in New York City is sixty percent Black, yet it is not a Black Church; this is a source of confusion for many of the members who believed that the membership determines the category of a church. The theology and purpose of a Black Church, formed out of its unique history and heritage, is totally different from the theology of an interracial and culturally diverse church. Riverside is a social justice church, interested in issues facing the world regardless of race or nationality.

Riverside is as it has always been, the flagship of American Protestantism, speaking truth to power. Dr. James Forbes became the first African American minister in the prestigious Cathedral, and inspired middle, professional and upper class African Americans to join him in what was destined to become the greatest transformation in Church history. Dr. Forbes led Riverside Church for eighteen years becoming the second longest serving minister in the Church’s history. His retirement caused tension and conflict over issues relating to leadership style and the satisfaction of some the members of the congregation. It became necessary after years of conflict, to call Dr. Forbes, emeritus pastor of the church, back to the leadership role to help the church spiritually and emotionally prepare for the new senior pastor of the church. Rev. Dr. Amy Butler becomes the first woman to lead the Cathedral on the hill


The Leadership Role of Riverside Church


Riverside Church is not a black church. It history and experiences are different from the Black Church in America. Riverside Church is more like America, the country. People come to America from all over the world looking for a second chance and a spiritual transformation in lives and future. America says welcome, drop your hatreds and feelings of superiority and inferiority at the water edge and the airports, and join us in this newest experiment of God’s kingdom on earth. Learn how to put differences aside and work for the common good of all. The Riverside Church as the church of America welcomes the gifts, talents and diversity of the country and the world and says, Drop your fears at the front steps, this is God’s house and we have prepared a feast for you, there is room at the table come and eat.

The Church, unfortunately, has divided itself into two institutions. The congregation with its cultural diversity and underlining social issues still struggles to be the nice church as America struggles to be the “nice” country. There is no reference in sermons or music of the differences within the congregation. In the second institution, the social and religious mission of the Church is carried out. The hungry are fed and the needy are cared for. The meaning and mission of the Church comes alive in the second institution. Thousands of people come to the church for social and educational services during the weekday. They are grateful for the Church and its mission. The leadership skills and strategies required to pastor a church of this size and complexity are demanding. A pastor who becomes sensitive to and involved in all of the emotional details of congregational leadership would burnout in a short period of time.

The church requires strong management skills and a plan vision for the organization and management of a multimillion-dollar institution. The individual should have the same skills required to manage a Fortune 500 corporation, with people, goods and services. The individual should have excellent academic and theological preparations. The institution seeks an individual with the background and training of a college professor.

In Riverside Church, the increase in the Black population in the Church brought the awareness that the perceptions of peoples of color may be wrong. The silent majority of the Black middle class had traditionally remained in the “ Historical Black Church” calling little attention to themselves while quietly becoming wealthy and educated.

Riverside could handle token “color” because of its social justice nature, but it was not ready for the natives to drive fancy cars and have advanced degrees and business operation experience. It is one thing to help the poor; it is another to have the poor transformed into a class for which there is no sociological guidelines to validate expectations. Riverside was out of its depth, and it struggled to gain its footing and some form of emotional stability, and in the process, they made all the wrong moves, mistakes, and in general behaved badly.

The question and challenges for leadership, is how do you work with an organization, which changed its cultural expectations, not through any fault of its own, but as the results of the success of its own ministry. The world had come to the house of God, but was the house ready to receive the world? Jesus had invited thousands of people to come to the top of the mountain for a special sermon; He had the loaves of bread and fish, and plenty of wine, the question is could these people coming from different backgrounds get along?

The Bible never finished telling us the story, but Jesus must have had a powerful message, and powerful leadership skills. He made them listen to His voice and His message rather than to their own voices and their own preconceived messages. Jesus did not listen to the people; the people listen to Him and His profound message. The people on that Mountain forgot who they were sitting next to and restrictions concerning who was and was not forbidden.

It is in the church where the image that all men are made in the image and likeness of God must become a spiritual thought pattern. Sitting in the seat next to you will be hundreds of men and women of color and their families, and they are making a significant contribution to the church. Riverside Church as the flagship of American Protestantism, must take the leadership role in encouraging other churches to look at their multicultural populations and change the segregation and separation of God’s people. If man can work together in America, he can also pray together. Man speaks in many tongues, and God can hear the diversity of tongues, which creates the spiritual music of life.

The question is: Are the traditional Christian mainline churches really providing an open arm to a diverse population, or is the Christian Church a “white” Jesus church for people who look a white God? The Black population thus causes the church to pay more attention to its true self. In the American experiment, the Black man forced the new country to redefine itself and to live up to the visions set down by the forefathers.

The Black man is the lightning rod that constantly shakes up the society and turns it upside down when it is on the wrong path. The Black man came to the Riverside Church and ripped its seams wide open. The Riverside Church with its in-your-face approach to issues forced the congregation to look at the ugly hidden face of racism and puts it before the throne of grace for discussion. Riverside can and will handle the Black man coming in to Riverside and also the Asian and Latino man, and the Riverside Church will get back to the business of being the Church on the hill over looking the beautiful Hudson River listening to that Sermon on the Mount over and over again, and then going out and living the sermon in our lives.


The writer has been a member, at different times, in each of the churches discussed in this report. St. Marks UMC the church of my youth and young adult years and spiritual development gives a deep loving commitment to the church.

Good Shepherd UMC provided religious fieldwork training for my Master of Divinity internship, and is the local UMC in the community in which I live. This report discussed three different churches serving three different communities.

Riverside Church provided the spiritual background for the completion of the Doctor of Ministry dissertation in looking at the Role of the Church And Spirituality in address the issues of Teacher Burnout. It is also the Church where thirty years of my life has been spent; it is the Church of my heart.

This report discussed three different churches serving three different communities; a careful analysis of these three churches reveals that they are different congregations with the same problems. The problem relates to the role of the pastor as transformational leader in the lives of people struggling who come to the church searching for answers and directions. The report also revealed that if permitted, the congregation can and will bully the pastor and attempt to take over the leadership role of the church, if the belief is that the pastor is not taking the church in the direction wanted, or the pastor is moving too quickly in unchartered waters. Today’s leadership requires the type of leadership skills most people entering the field of ministry tend not to have or want. Today’s leadership in the church is a representation of what America is, and the challenges faced, relating to the people, diversity, cultures and expectations.

In America the country is better[ix] than the people.[x] The views and values of the people do not always reflect the positions or visions of the country. It is the same in many churches. The church must at times be better than the congregation. The country holds high standards for each citizen to reach. The mission of the church may at times exceeds the wishes and desires of the congregation. America works because she operates on this principle. Churches that are effective also work for the same reason. We must all seek to be guided by the Holy Spirit, and let our better angels guide and direct our feet.

There is no other nation in the world where descendants of white slaves, black slaves, white indentured servants, black indentured servants, white slave owners, black slave owners, convicts, settlers and the rejects of the world can transform themselves to professionals and outstanding citizens. In America, the past does not predict the future, and this is true in the field of religion and ministry. Americans by nature adjust to change and adversity, and she grows, kicking and screaming, into a better world.

In one of the churches[xi] discussed in this report, the white German community was hostile to the diverse population moving into the community and into the church. Yet careful observation will reveal that senior German women were going by the homes of the children and bringing them to Sunday school and Church. You would see a small brown hand resting carefully in the safety and security of the adopted mother for the day. The American system is at work. Sometimes the congregation is ahead of the pastor. Sometimes the Holy Spirit moves in its own good time to do the work of the Father. The future of the church lies in the theology of the Holy Spirit and the sociology of the family of God, as we are all one—made in His image.




[i] St. Mark’s Church provides an excellent example of the role played by the Black Church in leadership training, managing large organizations, and understanding the complexities of group dynamics.

[ii] These after school programs were responsible for the high academic achievements of students in the African American communities. The church was the academic support service for the schools.

[iii] Some members tried to stay in the community, but there was a significant decline of the academic progress in the public schools, and many parents moved to where their children would have a better chance for an educational opportunity.

[iv] The new members moving into the community represented the large influx from the Caribbean and Africa. The Caribbean and African population did not receive a welcome response from the members of the Central Harlem community, and as such found it difficult adjusting to the cultural differences between the African American, Caribbean and the African. The church did make an attempt to bring in Caribbean ministers as assistant pastors, the language and dialect concerns made it difficult for some members to accept.

[v] American Methodist churches are generally organized on a connectional model, related but not identical to that used in Britain. Pastors are assigned to congregations by bishops, distinguishing it from presbyterian government. Methodist denominations typically give lay members representation at regional and national meetings (conferences) at which the business of the church is conducted, making it different from episcopal government. This connectional organizational model differs further from the congregational model, for example of Baptist, and Congregationalist Churches, among others” Methodism – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


[vi] The previous pastor wanted to bring in a computer program into the church, and was told by one of the board members that computers were not necessary. This member stated that she used pen and pencils to do all of her work, and did not see the need for computers. Having been a witness to the remark, I was reluctant to press for out reach programs.


[viii] Methodist Women are an official arm of the United Methodist Church. It is a powerful organization. It holds monthly meetings, and attends conferences to discuss church activities. Each UMC has a Methodist Women’s unit. They are funded by the denomination, and they have a major say in the operations of the church. The Methodist Women at The Good Shepherd Church considered the organization their private club, and they went out of their way to exclude members.

[ix] The country contains the vision for America as set down by the Founding Fathers. The country is driven by its vision and not by its people. The people are often dragged kicking and screaming in to the future of a better hope for the country.

[x] The people come from all over the world. They bring with them their frustrations and prejudices. It is the Holy Spirit wrestling the devils of their human nature, which makes this miracle called America work.

[xi] The Good Shepherd Church demonstrated the ability and the willingness to work as a Christian family with the children of the church. A considerable amount of time was spent in intergenerational activities.

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