The resolution states that “inclusion, diversity and a ‘seat at every table’ is critical to the success of the conference and helps to eradicate the sin of racism.”
The resolution was submitted by Black Methodists for Church Renewal, the Holston Conference group representing an African American caucus of The United Methodist Church. The resolution was adopted by a majority vote of the Holston Annual Conference on June 10, 2019.
The resolution calls for the inclusion of at least one person of color serving on all conference committees, teams, and task forces, as well as the cabinet and “any and all leadership groups.”
“We haven’t done as well as we could or should have,” said the Rev. Barbara Doyle, who presented the resolution as then-chair of the Holston Black Methodists for Church Renewal.
In the nearly two years since the resolution was adopted by Holston, racism has been elevated as a national crisis by Black Lives Matter protests, the Jan. 6 insurrection in Washington, and police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others.
In June 2020, denominational leaders launched the “Dismantling Racism: Pressing on to Freedom” campaign, a churchwide initiative to work toward racial justice.
In Holston Conference, Bishop Dindy Taylor and the Extended Cabinet have committed to learning more about racism and establishing a Dismantling Racism Task Force.
In August 2020, Bishop Taylor’s office invited clergy and lay members to submit applications for the Dismantling Racism Task Force. Seven months later, the 12- to 18-member group has not been announced.
The most recent “Journal,” published in 2020, shows that most Holston teams include at least one person of color, with some exceptions.
“We have a long way to go to implement the sentiment of the resolution that was passed by the 2019 Annual Conference,” said the Rev. Sharon Bowers, director of inclusion and dialogue at Emory & Henry College and member of Holston Black Methodists for Church Renewal.
The 2019 resolution calls for a list of available United Methodists of color who may be nominated for teams or leadership positions. A list or database of potential nominees would aid the Committee on Nominations in improving diversity, said the Rev. Terry Goodman, conference secretary and nominations committee vice chair.
“We may be overlooking persons of color,” Goodman said. “We’re intentional about it, but in my opinion, we need that list in front of us.”
When the resolution was adopted by the Annual Conference’s vote in June 2019, “persons of color” was defined as “all ethnic groups.”
Many leadership positions, such as the Extended Cabinet or conference staff, are not filled through the Committee on Nominations but by appointment, hiring or board selection. The Extended Cabinet (17 members) and Holston staff (about 30 in the Alcoa office) each include one person of color.
Groups such as the African American Ministry Task Force and Commission on Religion and Race include several persons of color. The Witness Ministry Team includes two. The Communications Advisory Council includes one. The Stewardship Ministry Team includes none.
“We need to get past ‘tokenism,’” Bowers said. “There are enough Black, Latinx or Hispanic members to serve at every level of the conference, if we invite them to.”
“We’ve seen that throughout the years, when committees elect one person of color just to say they have an ethnic person on board,” Doyle said. “It’s not rocket science. This is not NASA. We’re the church, and we should be working together to make sure there are more qualified persons of color in every group.”
Most team and committee members listed in the 2020 “Journal” were nominated in 2016, before the “seat at every table” resolution was adopted, Goodman pointed out. Members of teams are installed every four years and serve four-year terms. During the in-between years, the Committee on Nominations only fills those vacancies created by resignation or death.
An updated 2020 roster of team members was not installed last year because the pandemic prevented the Holston Annual Conference from meeting in person and following the standing rules process, Goodman said. This year’s 2021 Annual Conference date or format (in person or virtual) has not yet been set.
“We do pay attention to diversity as well as matching people to where their gifts and passions are,” said Lori Sluder, assistant to the bishop, referring to the nominations process.
Statistics show that persons of color are underrepresented in the pews of Holston’s 853 churches. Out of about 153,000 current members in Holston Conference churches, 2,550 are Black, according to Database Administrator Donna Hankins. The Holston membership includes 644 Hispanic persons and 469 multi-racial persons. There are fewer than 400 total members identifying as Asian, Pacific Islander, or Native American.
Demographic diversity in Holston communities varies. In Chattanooga, Tennessee, 31 percent of the population is Black, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. More than 6 percent of Chattanooga's population is Hispanic or Latino.
In Hillsville, Virginia, 96 percent of the population is white.
“Our communities are ravished with two pandemics, COVID-19 and racism, while much of The United Methodist Church is silent,” said Donna Mosby, current chair of Holston Black Methodists for Church Renewal (BMCR). “The Council of Bishops launched a new antiracism campaign and initiative in June 2020, [and] very little change has occurred. The efforts of the BMCR need to be focused on how that initiative is realized in Holston Conference.”
Mosby suggested commissioning a committee to evaluate Holston’s current teams and leadership, “evaluating the processes and institutional structures that hinder inclusion.” Mosby is also president of Holston Conference United Methodist Women.
Bowers suggests following through on the resolution’s call to assemble a list of available nominees that will help decision-makers nominate and appoint more persons of color to leadership positions and groups. She also suggests a conference- or cabinet-level “director of diversity” or “director of multicultural inclusion” position, as well as anti-racism coordinators in all of Holston’s nine districts.
“'A seat at every table’ is not the answer. It’s only the beginning,” Bowers said, referring to the resolution. Fulfilling the minimum of seating one person of color at every United Methodist table is not acceptable and will not do enough to dismantle racism, she said.
“The pandemic has set us back,” Doyle acknowledges, “but we still have phones. Have we done enough, are we doing enough to follow through? We should address that and revisit the resolution at Annual Conference.”
- Read the 2019 'Seat at Every Table' resolution.
- See the UM News story, Black caucus: Racism still challenges church (March 26, 2021)
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Holston Conference includes 853 United Methodist congregations in East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and North Georgia.
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.
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