Building Diverse Leadership

ECF spoke with 2010 Fellow Altagracia Perez, Canon for Congregational Vitality for the Diocese of New York, this fall to learn her views on leadership training and the church today.

With close to 30 years in urban multicultural congregations, it comes as no surprise that the Rev. Canon Altagracia Perez-Bullard is passionate about building lay leaders who can address the issues of race, class, gender, and sexuality often hidden in plain sight in the life of our church. Perez-Bullard began her ministry in the Diocese of Chicago, where she was ordained in the early 1990s. In 1994, she moved to southern California where she served as rector of St. Phillips, Los Angeles, until 2003 when she was called as rector of Holy Faith in Inglewood, a city in southern Los Angeles County. Developing lay leadership was especially challenging in these diverse congregations, and she found few materials geared to the particular challenges they face. “I was always thinking that there must be some resources out there that I can use to help my work with this church,” she says.

But there weren’t many, and Perez-Bullard began to think about studying for a Ph.D. to help develop the resources the church needs to support urban multicultural congregations. In 2009 though, she was pretty sure that between her work as rector of Holy Faith Episcopal Church in Inglewood, California, and raising children, returning to school was “an impossibility.”

Until, that is, she heard of the Episcopal Church Foundation’s Fellowship Partners program and learned more about the organization’s commitment to equipping and empowering lay and clergy leaders to revitalize communities of faith. “I had used ECF’s materials in my church work,” she says, “but when I learned more about their vision, I was, like, these are my people!”

Colleagues encouraged Perez-Bullard to apply for a Fellowship, and she was named a fellow in 2010. She entered Claremont School of Theology and received her Ph.D. in Practical Theology with an emphasis in Religious Education this past May.

Her dissertation explored multicultural critical pedagogy and its application in the church. Based on Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and used in public schools, this approach teaches about issues of oppression—race, class, gender, sexuality—as a way to raise consciousness and develop leaders. “How do you apply that to develop lay leaders,” Perez asked, “to address the issues that they find in their context, so that each of them, with their diversity, become allies in transforming their world in the name of Christ?”

Coursework that included mediation, conflict resolution, interreligious dialogue and other areas of difference helped Perez identify tools to help build leaders who can respect and integrate difference in their approach to church and ministry. “I’m supposed to be working on a book proposal for my dissertation,” she says. “But time and procrastination continue to be a problem, even after my Ph.D.”

Working with congregations in New York
A year ago, Perez-Bullard left Holy Faith and moved back to her hometown of New York to begin work as the diocese’s Canon for Congregational Vitality. In that role, she works with lay leaders and clergy to identify their needs for training and development, designs workshop and training events in collaboration with others, and helps Latino congregations access higher education, financial resources, curricula and other resources in Spanish. She is also working to implement an ecumenical academy for lay leaders, Academia Ecuménica de Liderazgo (The Ecumenical Leadership Academy), a project begun by the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America that now includes The Episcopal Church and the Methodist Church.

Bringing congregations into the 21st century
Perez-Bullard’s work for the diocese often means working with vestry members on structural change and issues of race, class, gender, and sexuality to help them bring their congregation into the 21st century. “I think religious people, especially long-time leaders, think the church is exempt from issues that affect other institutions and organizations,” she says. “But just because you’re about God doesn’t mean you’re not a human endeavor. These issues have a serious impact on the way that you function.”

Her study and her experience have convinced Perez-Bullard that raising awareness and consciousness of the impact these issues have on our faith communities is the biggest part of helping congregations understand their mission in the world today. Once they recognize the ways race, class, gender, and sexuality affect their church’s life and ministry, there are resources to equip people to work toward positive change.

Perez-Bullard remembers the delicacy of her struggle as a parish priest to be pastoral and tender with those who look to the church for comfort, when she felt called to something more transformative that asks people to change and consequently, feel uncomfortable. That struggle is multiplied, she finds, when dealing with a diocese, and not just because of the number of congregations.

She thinks it has to do with identity. People in the church think of themselves as people who care about the issues of inclusion and justice, but often that identity is based on work their community engaged in decades ago. “So it’s hard to talk to people about issues of oppression and justice and transformation and social change when they think that’s what they’re all about,” says Perez-Bullard.

To get these leaders moving, she challenges them: How does your church reflect your commitment to inclusion and justice today? What does your leadership look like? Why are there no Latino members on your vestry? Why is your staff still a match for the dominant culture of the last 80 years?

Helping leaders become aware and conscious—leading them up that steep, first step to moving forward together in the church—makes good use of Perez-Bullard’s graduate work and her experience as a priest. “I’m grateful that I’m in Practical Theology,” she says, “where being a practitioner as a scholar is a value.”

What’s ahead for the church
Perez-Bullard sees signs of a growing awareness that things need to be different if we are to revitalize and grow our church. “Even the 80-year-old lady in the parish in a suburban location,” she says, “is conscious that, ‘wow, we have to change’.” And she takes hope in the congregations and networks where people are coming together to deal with issues and trying creative, new approaches.

She’s all for exploring new possibilities and listening carefully to the people we don’t already know. “I really do believe that we have something that world needs,” she says. “How do we get back to that work, as opposed to being a little social club for comfort?”

Perez-Bullard thinks our response to that question holds the key to whether or not we will get on with the business of sharing the gospel in ways that can be heard by those outside our churches. “So they’ll make time for us” she says, “because they recognize, ‘I need that…a bigger purpose…a sense of the sacred in my life…community…something that helps me transform the broken places into new life’.”

“If church on Sunday morning is not about those things,” says Perez-Bullard, “then people are not going to come.”