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Black Congregations Matter

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 Gregory Bentley

A high school classmate and clergy colleague of mine, Reverend James Ross, argues that the African American experience can be seen through the lens of five ‘Ps’: property, problems, performers, purchasers, and paranoia.

  1. Property: For 250 years African Americans were seen as chattel and worked from “can’t see to can’t see” to enrich the slaveholding class in particular and the nation in general. This is the foundation, along with the genocide of the Native people and the theft of their land, for the wealth of America and its super power status today.
  2. Problems: After Emancipation, what do we do with these four million ex-slaves? Houston, we have a problem, so let’s enact Black codes and vagrancy laws, keep them in their place with terrorist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan, and return them to a form of neo-slavery called sharecropping.
  3. Performers: Well, they sure can sing and dance and play ball. So let’s use them as entertainers for our amusement.
  4. Purchasers: Some of them have some money and want badly to spend it with us, so let’s do away with this pesky thing called segregation so that we can have unfettered access to their pocketbooks.
  5. Paranoia: Y’all see racism in everything. If you learn how to follow the rules, work hard, and be people of high character, you will make it in America. Stop blaming everything on racism. Y’all have had enough time to get your act together.

These five ‘Ps’ still persist in our day and time and are seen in the dynamics of the various responses to the non-indictment of Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and many others like it. It seems that the legacy of another legal case associated with Missouri – the Dred Scott Decision, which essentially concluded that no Black person in America had any rights which any white person had to recognize – still haunts us to this very day. So what is the Good News in light of this persistent and pernicious reality relative to the PCUSA? Is there a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole? Is there a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul? Yes there is! That balm is love and the application of that balm begins with affirming that BLACK CONGREGATIONS MATTER!

This love of Black congregations must be expressed in concrete, tangible ways in every council of the church from session to presbytery to synod and General Assembly. These councils must be intentional about serving as “Paracletic ministries” to come alongside Black congregations to equip and empower them to be the mission stations and face of the PCUSA in our local communities. And yes, that means putting the critical question to struggling Black congregations that Jesus put to the man at the pool of Bethesda: “Do you want to be made well?” Those who answer “Yes,” let’s put every resource available toward that end. Those who answer “No,” allow them to die with dignity so that we can focus all of our energy and effort on those who will and not those who won’t. The challenges facing our communities are too daunting and dreadful to be preoccupied with a self-referentialness that doesn’t allow us to see clearly what is right in front of us. Another way of putting this is that we’ve got to love our communities more than we love being Presbyterian.

I believe there is still a vision for the appointed time if we would but summon the courage to see and to seize it. The choice is ours and I hope we move forward with the spirit of an old hymn of the church, “A Charge to Keep I Have”:

A charge to keep I have, a God to glorify
A never dying soul to save and fit it for the sky,
To serve this present age, my calling to fulfill,
May it all my powers engage to do my Master’s will.


Gregory J. Bentley has served the Fellowship Presbyterian Church in Huntsville, Alabama since January 2012. When not juggling one of his many roles in local political and civic affairs, he enjoys good music, reading and playing chess. Rev. Bentley lives in Huntsville with his wife Diann and his daughters Miriam and Johari.

Our Challenge is Not Decline. It’s Racism.

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 Kerri N. Allen

It is often the case that General Assembly resolutions do not feel connected to our local congregations. As much as anything, that is because resolutions are statements about our life as a corporate body. This resolution is about how our larger denomination relates to Black Presbyterian congregational ministry and, as such, I believe that it can only go so far to address the challenge of being Black and Presbyterian. Black congregational instability is only one issue that is facing Black Presbyterians, and in 2018, I dare say that it is not the most significant. The challenge of being Black in the Presbyterian Church (USA) is not about decline. It is about racism.

Recently, I heard a preacher say that racism was not a stain on the American flag, it was the thread that sewed the flag together. The challenge of being Black in the PCUSA mirrors the overall challenges of being Black in the United States. That thread of racism that exists from the earliest days of European colonizers is embedded throughout every corner of this nation and, as such, is part of the very ethos of the PCUSA.

I know this from my own painful personal story on the “challenge of being Black in the PCUSA” that I shared publicly a few years ago. This experience resonated with many and I heard from close to 40 other ministers of color (including many Black Presbyterians) who thanked me for sharing a narrative that is all too familiar. Shortly after the election of Donald Trump, Dr. Camille Dungy wrote about the challenge of being Black in the PCUSA from her view from the pew.

As Christians, we should understand that racism is a sin. Sin demands a theological response of confession and repentance. While a generalized, sanitized lip service of “racism is bad” is commonplace in the PCUSA, explicit naming of the structural sin that permeates the life and history of the denomination has failed to occur.

When we are able to be honest about the Southern Presbyterian slaveholder money that built institutions, congregations, and denominational relics – many which are used for good – we will begin some real work of confession. When Northern Presbyterians recognize that many of their good intentions in “reunification” that led to the creation of the PCUSA also decimated the infrastructure of Black Presbyterian institutions, we can claim that we have made some honest progress toward confession.

From confession, the real work of repentance can take place. Real, biblical repentance is the only faithful path. Genuine biblical repentance is what Jesus shows us in his encounter with Zacchaeus. It goes beyond apology and requires actively turning away from previous actions, acknowledging the good pain and even anger that exists by those who have been wronged, and actively committing to do better. Biblical repentance is costly and uncomfortable, and it is the only path to reconciliation.

When those of us who claim to follow Jesus begin to take seriously theological imperatives that bring about justice and reconciliation, the frustrations that are expressed by Black Presbyterians will be addressed because there will no longer be excuses in addressing them. It is from that place that we can see real progress and wholeness in our relationships with one another.


Kerri N. Allen is a Reformed and womanist theologian, PhD student, and hospital chaplain. Originally from St. Paul, MN, when Kerri is not buried in a book or writing a paper, she enjoys hiking, travel, watching sports, cooking or spending time with one of her many nieces or nephews.

National Words for Local Work

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 Cecelia Armstrong

Let’s get this straight. I am a cradle Presbyterian, which means my church membership has only been in Presbyterian churches all my life. I happened to be raised in a congregation that eventually identified as a Black Presbyterian congregation. Yet, my experience as a cradle Presbyterian from Detroit, Michigan is totally different than my current experience as the associate pastor of the largest Black Presbyterian congregation in the denomination. In this congregation, a cradle Presbyterian falls short in status. For example, one of the very active children in the congregation acknowledges herself as a 4th generation Presbyterian. So, yes, she is a cradle Presbyterian but so is her mother, her grandmother, and so was her great-grandmother. In this environment, as I suspect in other traditionally Black Presbyterian congregations, there is more to existing than the standard stamp of being Presbyterian.

Photo from St. James Presbyterian Church Facebook page

In these historically Black Presbyterian churches, there is a culture that guides, governs, and determines the future for the survival of these congregations. The Black church of the PCUSA is steeped in rich tradition that seemingly gets lost in translation when being acknowledged at the national level. It is obvious that there is a reduction of Black Presbyterian congregations across the denomination, but it is also true that most Black Presbyterian congregations are buried so deep in tradition that it hinders the potential for some of them to survive. Sadly, the drastically needed support for the Black Presbyterian congregations comes with the risk of losing the rich tradition that made them who they were in the first place. This dilemma cannot and will never be resolved at the national level. Yet, the valiant efforts in the production of resolutions offers a glimpse of faded hope since the corrective issues may very well lie within the congregations themselves.

Here is what I mean:

  1. There was a resolution offered at the most recent General Assembly that stated that there are over 400 Black congregations and 80 percent are without a pastor, mainly because they are unable to support one. Yet the qualified pastors who are willing to serve with the minimal amount of support are usually not African American or are discounted because of their age and/or gender. Now neither of these criteria are legally binding deal breakers, but for a traditional Black congregation, these attributes are usually not sought to fill the pulpit. This is nothing a resolution at the national level can resolve.
  2. Most pastors who are selected to provide pastoral leadership fitting the desired criteria (based on tradition) are not traditionally Presbyterian. Furthermore, it seems that there is an unwillingness to seek the necessary credentials or the congregations are not willing to enforce the issue at the risk of losing the pastor. Those Black, relatively young, usually male, eligible pastors are bi-vocational, which impedes their ability to attend traditional seminary and complete the 18 required steps to be fully ordained in the PCUSA. Sadly, there are congregations who are willing to set this standard aside to embrace having the presence of a pastor at the cost of Presbyterian identity. This is nothing a resolution at the national level can resolve.
  3. There are far too many qualified Black female candidates who are deemed ready to receive a call who are continuously overlooked merely because of their gender, age, or lack of experience. Sadly, there are congregations willing to receive Black female clergy as pastor if she fulfills the duties of a hospice chaplain. These are congregations willing to die because they have given up hope to capture the prize young Black male candidate. This is nothing a resolution at the national level can resolve.

I agree with another member of our denomination who 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.” Being a part of the Black church of the PCUSA has peaks and valleys. My encounter with the peaks and the valleys were based on traditions and not resolutions. My challenge to any reader is to revisit the many traditions that have gone unchallenged and see if there is room for actions to actively resolve resolutions made for Black Presbyterians.


Cecelia D. Armstrong, an ordained Minister of the Word and Sacraments in the Presbyterian Church (USA), serves as Associate Pastor of St. James PCUSA, Charleston, SC.

A Butterfly Beginning

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 Antonio Lawrence

I have come to appreciate something that has become extremely critical in my personal and spiritual development. Any organization that is entrusted to the hands of humans will be flawed and will deal with issues that will keep it from being at is best. The church, especially the Presbyterian Church (USA), is an exception to the rule.

As a Teaching Elder (Minister of the Word and Sacrament) I have seen the church at her best and even at its worse. I have seen the church at its best when she lives her mission to protect and nurture the most vulnerable people in society. A church that has shown the ability to respond to the natural disasters of the world, and working towards long term recovery goals. I have seen a church stand for immigration reform for our sisters and brothers seeking a better life desiring to live out the American Dream. The very things that the church strives to be the best at are many of the same things that make us flawed. This church who actively seeks do justice outside the church must engage in redemptive reflection that seeks to address the suffering of those inside of our church that keeps us from living into the beloved community that we strive to be.

We must learn to wrestle like Jacob at Jabbock with our intersectional sins, known as race, class, and gender, that keep us from seeing the humanity of the individuals for whom we took a constitutional oath to call colleague. If the church is become the loving community God created it to be, we must allow ourselves to embrace the beautiful, yet never ending, struggle of becoming our better selves. In his book Illusions, author Richard Bach whom my late father challenged me understand, “What the caterpillar calls the end of the world the master calls a butterfly beginning.” The simplicity of the quote nearly masks the profoundness of its meaning – that all of God’s creations are destined to struggle as they try to fulfill their purpose. My desire is for the church to press through the safety and comfort of its chrysalis, much like the caterpillar does as it becomes a butterfly.

I want to see a church that is not afraid to wrestle with the uncomfortable realities of this world, even as we grow in our faith in life everlasting. A church that speaks out against injustice, looks out for the marginalized and disenfranchised, and tries out new ways to embrace our journey through Jabbock. Once the church embraces its butterfly potential, all perspectives and priorities will change. As a church, our vantage points will be more encompassing because we will be able soar to new heights and in different directions. We will impact more lives, save more souls, and be more like Christ. We will no longer be bound to the earthly injustices. As a church, we will be able to do more, because we’ve been able to experience and know more.

The metamorphosis of a caterpillar to a butterfly is filled with difficult days of struggle and change. Are we, the church, in for difficult days ahead as we struggle? The answer is a resounding, “YES”! And yet, we must take advantage of this golden opportunity. The chrysalis of the church – the thing that is keeping us earthbound – is our inability to be fearless in our pursuit of becoming. As I continue my transformation by tackling injustices large and small that keep black and brown bodies outside of the arms of liberty, justice and the pursuit of happiness. I know that if I start there, I can help others to soar as I go on to reach new heights on my own Christian journey.

My own transformative journey was shaped by an Eastern, North Carolina community that now calls me Pastor. The Rev. Dr. Michael C. Franklin calls the church an “anchor institution that is the bedrock of society” and, “a church that affirms the humanity of people that the world has given up on”. I have grown to value of what Dr. Kenyatta Gilbert calls a “relentless hope for the church”. It is a prophetic hope that names the reality of where we are, and points with an ethological hope towards a beautiful future. I still have hope. Do you?


Antonio M. K. Lawrence is the Senior Pastor of the Faith Presbyterian Church in Goldsboro, NC. Under his leadership with the help of the Lord, Faith Presbyterian Church has become one of the fastest growing racial ethnic churches in the Presbytery of New Hope. He is a graduate of Johnson C. Smith University and Princeton Theological Seminary

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.