I Can’t Breathe

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Carlton Johnson and Denise Anderson are curating a series highlighting African American Presbyterianism. We’ll hear from individuals serving black churches about their ministries and the challenges and opportunities they encounter. How do resolutions or decisions made on the denominational level impact these churches, if at all? What are we going to do as a denomination to address the systemic racism that brought us where we are today? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Kelle Brown

We are the church that is becoming, the church that is and will be. The church and all of her people are in the hands of the Maker God, who never has stopped the act of creation, and who is never disinterested or disconnected in God’s creation. God’s love and presence flows. Pours. Showers. Floods and splatters. For this, we give thanks.

In lieu of this assurance, I support the words of a fellow Presbyterian concerning the limitations of the resolution regarding the Black church and its connection and support, or lack thereof. The colleague shared, “It has been my experience that resolutions occurring at the national level of the church do not trickle down and do not have tangible impact at the local level. Despite the resolution’s merit in naming the diminution of Black Presbyterian congregations as a significant problem, it does virtually nothing to stem the tide.”

Photo from the Plymouth Church Seattle United Church of Christ Facebook page

The tide has not been stemmed, and African American churches are ceasing to exist because of it. I resist saying dying, because Black churches are more rightly succumbing to the institutional supremacy that is pervasive without much challenge. The theology of the African American Presbyterian church is strong and life-giving. The people of the churches are as faithful as ever they’ve been. The intelligence, deep wisdom, willingness, and energy are all in place. Yet, no church is an island unto itself, and the best sense of our connectional covenant binds us together for the sake of our shared faith and sustenance. The PCUSA is gifted by the presence of all its peoples, and is blessed by its churches of color — not simply to fulfill some quota of diversity — but so that God can forge and knit us together as a vision of the Beloved Community.

While the acknowledgement of the larger church by way of the resolution is necessary and in many ways hopeful, we must acknowledge that it is a particular privilege to lament, assess, and consider while the most vulnerable congregations struggle. Black churches have been sharing for many years the disparity and being treated less-than-equally. Strategies are dreamed, and curricula are created, and prayers for reconciliation go forth while the systems of oppression churn along unhindered. Often, there is collective jubilance that comes too easily. Many celebrate the agreements of process that may one day down the road lead to equity. In the meantime, another church has died.

The slow pace of “justice” and creating inclusion in itself is an injustice. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. warned, “This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.” We have waited and watched, and this kind of church is exhausting and debilitating when the realities of the world call for the church to be a place of refuge and respite. It’s like taking the time to debate oxygen’s worth and efficacy while holding the hose and watching a person gasp for air. We have to become more spiritually agile and open to God’s movement when folks whisper, “I can’t breathe.”

In essence, the trickle down concept of which the quote references is a problematic American norm, and the myth of its effectiveness is perpetuated again and again, all while knowing that the paradigm is not infused with spirit, equity or justice-making. Reconciliation and healing don’t happen in a vacuum. Repair isn’t begun with thoughts and prayers, when clergy of color are often culled rather than cultivated. Repair in this sense has to be dedication to the clergy of color who dare to remain a part of the church. Repair must be dismantling systems of oppression, and acknowledging the present trauma of participation. Repair must be authentic discipleship, journeying alongside one another in courageous and liberative ways.

Let us honor the African American church and her resilience which is often the needed authentic voice in the world, and thank our Creator that God is endowing us grace to move forward. Let us believe that our collective right action will grow and sustain all of our churches. And let us endeavor on until we have stemmed the tide, and joined in the vision of Amos where God justice rolls down like a mighty stream upon us all.


Kelle Brown is the current lead pastor of Plymouth Church United Church of Christ. She is a recent graduate of San Francisco Theological Seminary, completing her D. Min, and is involved in justice work and reframing church as it pertains to systems of oppression and authentic welcome. She enjoys writing, singing and loving life with her daughter Indigo and grandmother Dorothy.

Changing the Perception

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Carlton Johnson and Denise Anderson are curating a series highlighting African American Presbyterianism. We’ll hear from individuals serving black churches about their ministries and the challenges and opportunities they encounter. How do resolutions or decisions made on the denominational level impact these churches, if at all? What are we going to do as a denomination to address the systemic racism that brought us where we are today? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Amantha Barbee

“It has been my experience that resolutions occurring at the national level of the church do not trickle down and do not have tangible impact at the local level. Despite the resolution’s merit in naming the diminution of black Presbyterian congregations as a significant problem, it does virtually nothing to stem the tide. Not to mention, it fails to connect to similar efforts of previous assemblies”

Resolutions are a grand way for an institution to make public statements about issues regarding either a part or whole of a body. Very often, at their core, the resolutions typically hold the studied opinions of those who penned them. They will cause emotive expressions of support, rejection, or lack of care to that small percentage of the institution who actually read them. Unfortunately, an enormous amount of time and effort goes in to denominational resolutions. I think they are necessary more so for those outside the denomination. “Others” will look for documents such as these to learn a particular stance of a denomination. It is just that, a denominational stance, and not an individual stance. We are not the denomination but a part of. This is where the problems lie.

Photo from Statesville Avenue Presbyterian Church Facebook page

The “diminution of black Presbyterian congregations” is a serious problem as well as the diminution of Presbyterian congregations, no matter the ethnic background. With the rapid growth of non-denominational mega-churches coupled with the increasing number of families opting out of organized religion all together, we all stand at a crossroad of an “if-then” reality. As much as I personally love the structure of the PCUSA, it is archaic at its core and makes it difficult to maneuver with certain freedoms at certain levels if one does not fully understand the constitution. When the government of the church has very similar qualities of the federal government it poses a problem with those who are ill at ease with the federal government and the church.

This is not great for promoting the institution. Pew Research Center reports that 40% of churched African Americans are Baptist. The closest to that is Pentecostal with 6%. 8 out of 10 African Americans report that religion is important to them. The Presbyterian church is the total antithesis of the Baptist church. The Pentecostal church is even further distanced from Presbyterianism. The PCUSA is fighting a historic battle with how African Americans worship. We are a highly educated, financially charged, and white institution trying to attract a historically oppressed, undereducated, financially underserved people. Our African American numbers should come at no surprise to anyone.

I left the Baptist church after 45 years. The majority of my African American friends are Baptist and many of them have left the Presbyterian church to become Baptist. I left because I felt that as a woman in ministry my opportunities would be greater outside the Baptist church. Additionally, I found the governance of the Baptist church oppressive. If I had not been in leadership I am not positive that I would have made the change. As a leader in the church it made sense to me. As a layperson, it really didn’t matter as much. Most church attendees are not in leadership and, as in most denominations, do not understand the nuances of the government. Therefore, it really does not affect them in the same way.

Worship style has some bearing on the public opinion, but I honestly think that has less to do with the declining numbers than a missed comradery. What can the PCUSA do about that? Perhaps launch a nationwide campaign to African Americans which speaks to freedom of thought, speech, and governance, and encourage African American congregations to invite their congregations to offer a contemporary service to attract those with a more charismatic background. With that encouragement will have to come financial support to hire worthy musicians to include vocalists to assist in worship. This is an expensive undertaking, but in order to attract African Americans we will have to change the perception of the PCUSA. Without changing the perception, the numbers will continue to decline as our older members pass away.


Amantha Barbee is pastor of Statesville Avenue Presbyterian Church and chair of the Charlotte Clergy Coalition for Justice. She stood between protesters and police with other interfaith clergy when Keith Scott was killed by police in 2016. She is a recipient of the Charlotte City Center Partners Special Achievement Award.

Plenty Good Room at the Table

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Carlton Johnson and Denise Anderson are curating a series highlighting African American Presbyterianism. We’ll hear from individuals serving black churches about their ministries and the challenges and opportunities they encounter. How do resolutions or decisions made on the denominational level impact these churches, if at all? What are we going to do as a denomination to address the systemic racism that brought us where we are today? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Jerrod Lowry

A critique of General Assembly Resolution 05-09 said:

“It has been my experience that resolutions occurring at the national level of the church do not trickle down and do not have tangible impact at the local level. Despite the resolution’s merit in naming the diminution of black Presbyterian congregations as a significant problem, it does virtually nothing to stem the tide. Not to mention, it fails to connect to similar efforts of previous assemblies.”

The critique of the resolution is correct – no General Assembly action will reverse the decline of black Presbyterian congregations and lead to numerical membership growth. If the desire of the resolution is for the General Assembly to assess and address what keeps potential members from joining or even visiting black Presbyterian congregations, then this statement is correct: “resolutions occurring at the national level do not have tangible impact at the local level…[the resolution] does virtually nothing to stem the tide [of diminution].”

Commissioners from the Presbytery of Coastal Carolina at General Assembly (photo from Presbytery of Coastal Carolina Facebook page)

However I am also assuming that the concern of the critic is the numerical diminution – reduction or dwindling – of congregational membership and not the equally plausible lessening or weakening of an important voice at Presbyterian tables. Could the critic of the resolution also be talking about the minimizing of influence and power of black congregations in the life of their mid-councils?

The resolution acknowledges that such decline is taking place as an intentional result or apathetic neglect as black committee members are discouraged from sharing their perspectives, committees on representation in particular presbyteries are not doing the work to ensure voices from black presbyterian congregations are represented around Presbyterian tables of influence, there is not flexibility in an ordination process seems too rigorous for seminary graduates that opt to drop out of the ordination process, capable young adults in black congregations are not being mentored to be vocal members at tables of leadership, or black Presbyterian congregations are allowed to extend calls to non-Presbyterian pastors who may not value our connectional system nor feel compelled to participate in the life of the church beyond congregations of call. Each of these charges in the resolution could very well be part of what the critic calls the “diminution of black Presbyterian congregations” – a systemic lessening of influence in addition to numbers.

Even if the concern of the critic of the resolution is not about the membership size of black churches but a failing power and prophetic witness from black Presbyterians at Presbyterian tables, it still holds true that no resolution from General Assembly will immediately reverse nor empower black congregations to alter bad actions that have caused the black Presbyterian presence and voice around Presbyterian tables to be minimized. Neither this resolution nor the criticism of the resolution will transfigure a system that allows black congregation shrinking numbers. Neither this resolution nor the criticism of the resolution will change that black Presbyterians feel their voices remain unheard and under valued at Presbyterian tables.

Last but not least I think the critic missed an important opportunity to applaud and further advance a concern raised in the resolution that challenges those who claim to value “voices long silenced.” The critic should have noticed that a resolution concerned with a marginalized community does not adequately address those on the margins of this same marginalized community. It should be applauded that this resolution asks that research be done to address the reality that African American Presbyterian congregations are slow, at best, to extend calls to female clergy. Such a study would document a well-known problem. However, I’m disappointed that neither the resolution nor the critic of the resolution share similar concerns for our out and proud queer clergy colleagues without pastoral calls. I have no doubt that a study of those who are extended calls to serve black Presbyterian congregations will also reveal that LGBTQ colleagues are under represented at rates that reveal some are black-balled from the call process to serve black Presbyterian congregations.

At a recent General Assembly, Rev. Jim Reese shared that black Presbyterians “stayed” at tables designed to restrict their presence and reduce the influence of their voice. It appears that both critic and authors of the resolution agree that not much has changed. I also agree with both critic and resolution authors that there is a great deal of work to be done with and within black congregations that will help us embody today the proud legacy that we inherited from our foreparents.


Jerrod B. Lowry is the General Presbyter/Stated Clerk for the Presbytery of Coastal Carolina. He previously served as Head of Staff for Community of Grace Presbyterian Church in Sandy, Utah, pastor of St. Paul Presbyterian Church in Louisburg, NC, and the Associate for Specialized Ministries for the Presbytery of New Hope. Jerrod is a proud graduate of Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary in Atlanta, GA.

The Church that is Becoming

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Carlton Johnson and Denise Anderson are curating a series highlighting African American Presbyterianism. We’ll hear from individuals serving black churches about their ministries and the challenges and opportunities they encounter. How do resolutions or decisions made on the denominational level impact these churches, if at all? What are we going to do as a denomination to address the systemic racism that brought us where we are today? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Floretta Barbee-Watkins

“It has been my experience that resolutions occurring at the national level of the church do not trickle down and do not have tangible impact at the local level. Despite the resolution’s merit in naming the diminution of Black Presbyterian congregations as a significant problem, it does virtually nothing to stem the tide. Not to mention, it fails to connect to similar efforts of previous assemblies” – Paul Roberts

The sentiments of Rev. Paul Roberts echo the frustration of many in the church, but most specifically, Black Presbyterians. The disappointment of a top-down decision can be seen as it relates to the recommendation to mid-councils of the PCUSA to recommit to having an active “committee on representation” as well as raise awareness of the declining nature of black congregations in the PCUSA. However, the problems and challenges of the state of Blacks in the PCUSA cannot be viewed or resolved with technical changes.

Photo from The Avenue Presbyterian Church Facebook page

Our denomination is still predominately White; therefore, at best we can make sure that Black people are represented on all committees. However that will not resolve the racist, sexist, or even patriarchy that is foundational to the way we have done and still do things. Further, “raising awareness” about the decline of Black congregations does nothing to address the systemic causes related to the reduction of Black congregations.

For this reason, I can only partially agree with Rev. Roberts assertion that resolutions do not trickle down to mid-councils or congregations. Moreover, no General Assembly resolution can begin to address the complexities of implicit bias, patriarchy, sexism, or racism. Additionally, resolving that mid-councils raise awareness offers no practical or intentional action that can be measured qualified or quantified for change.

What we also must recognize is that the General Assembly is made up of teaching and ruling elders who are from our presbyteries. Therefore, the notion of hierarchical decisions trickling down is not an accurate description. Each voting member comes from the files and ranks of local congregations.
The challenges to overcome are complex:

  1. Class issues. Only those who can afford to take off work to attend meetings can participate (or those who own their own business).
  2. Age issues. Those who are retired, are typically selected to participate in a meeting or conference that will require several business days of work.
  3. Polity issues. The assembly can affirm a vote; however, it must be ratified by the presbytery before it becomes effective.

Other issues can be highlighted and found to offer no resolve as it relates to the way we currently do the work of the Church. Is there a better way? Are there other ways to create a dynamic, energetic, creative, and relevant denomination that still honors our reformed tradition?

Here’s the deal! The answer is yes, but these issues are far more complex than offering a quick fix. Warren Bennis once said, “The critical quality of a leader that determines how that leader will fare in a crucible experience is adaptive capacity. Adaptive capacity allows leaders to respond quickly and intelligently to constant change. It is the ability to identify and seize opportunities. It will enable leaders to act and then evaluate results instead of attempting to collect and analyze all the data before acting.”

The General Assembly is not designed to do this, but presbyteries and local congregations are. If a “change is gonna come,” both presbyteries and congregations will have to examine practices, acclimate quickly, and be trained in thinking adaptively rather than offering a quick fix to complex issues. We will need adaptive change over technical change to create what’s next. There is hope for us because the Holy Spirit is actively at work. This is what we believe.


Flo Barbee Watkins is a justice seeker, teaching elder, agitator, disruptor of norms, lover of Jesus, lover of people, lover of change. Flo is an Atlanta-born Charlotte resident, military veteran, doctoral candidate, lover of bourbon, cuban cigars, and sartorial professorial attire.

Black and Presbyterian

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Carlton Johnson and Denise Anderson are curating a series highlighting African American Presbyterianism. We’ll hear from individuals serving black churches about their ministries and the challenges and opportunities they encounter. How do resolutions or decisions made on the denominational level impact these churches, if at all? What are we going to do as a denomination to address the systemic racism that brought us where we are today? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Paul Roberts

Here’s why I am not a fan of resolution 05-09 from the 223rd General Assembly.

It has been my experience that resolutions occurring at the national level of the church do not trickle down and do not have tangible impact at the local level. Despite the resolution’s merit in naming the diminution of black Presbyterian congregations as a significant problem, it does virtually nothing to stem the tide. Not to mention, it fails to connect to similar efforts of previous assemblies: Freedom Rising Initiative of 2016, black church growth strategies of 2012 and earlier, and the New Wineskins papers of the mid 1990’s.

Photo from Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary Facebook page.

My 30 years as a Presbyterian has in many ways been defined by voices who have consistently named this problem. Yet, denominationally, the problem has only gotten worse. If we’ve known this for 30-plus years, and conventional processes haven’t addressed the problem in all this time, how much longer are we gonna content ourselves with doing the same thing over and over again! This is mind-boggling to me and personally I have no time or energy to devote to this insanity any more.

Also, this resolution assumes that the future of black Presbyterianism is inextricably tied to the preservation of its roughly 400 congregations. I don’t accept that. For sure, these congregations have an important legacy and rich tradition, but history suggests that the relationship between African-Americans and the Presbyterian Church is much bigger than our 400 extant churches, much more complex, and much richer. I believe the same is true of our future.

I believe the way forward is to organize new African-American congregations, new intercultural congregations, and new multi-ethnic congregations and let the witness of black presbyterianism move forward from those new places. Enough with the resolutions. Enough with the investigating and reporting back 12-24 months later. Just enough.

And here’s a challenge!

For the last eight years, NEXT Church has been asking itself–
What is the Holy Spirit doing in the world?
What is next for the church?
What can NEXT Church do to help create what’s next for the church?

Maybe the next frontier for NEXT Church is to use the learnings of the last eight years as a foundation for planting some new churches. Black ones. Brown ones. White ones. Red ones. Blue ones. Mixed up ones.


Paul Roberts is is president of Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary in Atlanta, GA, a position he has held since 2010. He is a native of Stamford, CT; however, he grew up in Bradenton, FL, which he considers his home. Paul graduated from Princeton University in 1985 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Architecture and African American Studies. Prior to his career in ministry, Paul worked in advertising in New York City. He later received the Master of Divinity degree with a concentration in New Testament Studies from Johnson C. Smith Seminary.