What do John Lennon, Johnny Cash, David Bowie, Led Zeppelin, Jim Morrison and the Red Hot Chili Peppers all have in common? They have graced the cover of Rolling Stone, a monthly magazine founded in 1967 featuring music, politics and pop culture.
What does the church have in common with Rolling Stone? A recent interview with the founder of Rolling Stone magazine, Jann Wenner, reveals a truth that hits hard for the church, too: White men rule the roost, and the people in charge like it that way.
In his new book Like a Rolling Stone: A Memoir, Wenner highlights the top musicians he has interviewed for the magazine. No surprise: all are white men. When a journalist questioned Wenner’s omission of females or people of color as musical giants, he said there were not any musicians that were equal to those he included.
Specifically, he said the reason no women were included was because no female musicians were “as articulate enough on this intellectual level” as men. For Black male musicians, a similar reason was given. “They just didn’t articulate” their musical philosophy at a high level.
And to rub salt into the wound, Wenner admitted that in retrospect, he probably should have sprinkled in some diversity to make his list more palatable. He said, “You know, just for public relations sake, maybe I should have gone and found one Black and one woman artist to include here that didn’t measure up to that same historical standard, just to avert this kind of criticism.” He rationalized his choice, however, explaining that he was just “old-fashioned and I don’t give a [expletive] or whatever.”
Reading about this story, I felt a stab to the heart. We do the same thing in the church.
And if we are honest, many people who oversee hiring for church positions might justify their choices by shrugging and saying, “What can we do? We’re old-fashioned.” This is a way of communicating that churches don’t know how to read women’s resumes, which often look different than men’s because of gaps for caregiving and histories of second-chair roles during pastor searches. That churches aren’t comfortable being stretched by new viewpoints from the pulpit. That churches think, consciously or not, that “different” equates to “less than.”
But perhaps here is where the similarity with Wenner ends. I’d like to believe that because we are church folks, we actually do care.
After all, we follow a Jesus who taught and listened to women and who commissioned the women at the tomb to be the first Christian preachers. We follow a Jesus—himself a man of color—who crossed racial barriers in his parables and in his interactions.
And yet, our systems of accountability when it comes to pastor searches are weak. In the free church world, there is no one to tell congregations that they must consider candidates that are female or of color.
And in all polities, congregations and judicatory bodies too readily accept the assertion that “our church just isn’t ready yet” for a pastor who is not a white man. (By the way, the lack of candidates isn’t the issue. Most mainline seminaries are more than half full with faithful people who are women, non-white or both.)
So, are women and people of color not selected into senior pulpits because “they just didn’t articulate” preaching and leadership at a high level? Or—more likely—is that simply coded language for not being a white male?
The church suffers when it can’t reflect on this language and the fears behind it—and then do better. The fullness of the gospel cannot be expressed when only one gender and one racial identity—buoyed by power and privilege—proclaim it.
A new understanding of God and the world emerges when the voices in the pulpit take on different registers and come bearing a broader range of experiences.
This is a Jann Wenner moment for the church. It is time to search our hearts and examine our practices, asking how the church continues the sexism and racism reflected in society.
We can seek out anti-bias training, learn about and then repent for the (often unintentional) harm our assumptions and actions have caused. We can look for authors or speakers who come from different backgrounds than those of the majority of the people in the pews.
When it’s time for a pastor search, we can train ourselves to pause the process and say, “Wait. Really?” when we hear the excuse, “There just aren’t any qualified female or Black applicants.” Then we can broaden the networks we’re using to find candidates.
We have work to do, church. But we are up to the task, with the Holy Spirit’s help. May that Spirit spark in us an ability to hear the good news of God’s love articulated in a beautiful array of languages and perspectives, just like on the day the church was birthed.
Rev. Laura Stephens-Reed is a Professional Certified Coach who helps clergy and congregations navigate transitions with faithfulness, curiosity, and hope.