Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion of Women and People of Color in Leadership in the Wesleyan Tradition

May 22, 2020

As a Free Methodist Elder, the Rev. Dr. Trisha Welstad is on the Portland Seminary leadership development team at George Fox University.  In her February, 2020 dissertation Welstad provides an excellent study not only of our own Free Methodist denomination, but of our sister denominations within the Wesleyan Tradition, including the Salvation Army, Church of God Anderson, Church of the Nazarene, and the Wesleyan Church among others.

Titling her work Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion of Women and People of Color in Leadership in the Wesleyan Tradition, Welstad explores the truth that our present churches are struggling to live out the true values of John Wesley and of B.T. Roberts.  Noting that our Five Freedoms are a “…modern representation that encompasses much of the belief of the founder, B.T. Roberts…”, Welstad explores both the current situation and recommended actions.

She says, in part:

“The majority of Wesleyan denominations began with theological belief rooted in social action, particularly as it pertained to abolition and women’s equality. Though their beginnings were radical, today the same groups are primarily homogeneous, representing a largely white congregational and leadership demographic, predominantly led by white males. With a historical theology of diversity and inclusion, this research seeks to understand why women and people of color are excluded from leadership roles in the Wesleyan Tradition and how it may affect the future of these denominations…(ix)”

Speaking of the 2019 General Conference of the FMCUSA, Welstad noted that the leading preacher the first morning was a female:

“lead pastor Colleen Hurley-Bates. Hurley-Bates recognized the beautiful mosaic of the church that includes all races, all genders, the outcast, the marginalized, the refugee. After citing 1 Corinthians 3:11 in reference to Christ having laid the foundation of the church, she made mention of the months leading to the conference and the difficulty faced by the members of the denomination (particularly with regard to the election of the bishops), calling for “lament in how we have wronged one another,” and accountability for what is said and done. Specifically, she says, “we need to ensure no matter what, moving forward, there is a full complement of voices at the table of race, and culture, and age, and gender, and experience. And we need leadership that is going to guide us to be a prophetic visionary shepherding people who will impact our neighborhoods, and our colleges and our world in life changing ways….”

After providing an analysis of all Wesleyan tradition denominations, Welstad notes the problem:

“The case of Wesleyan denominations being primarily led by Caucasian males may seem to be happenstance with elections of bishops or presidents. However, when looking at the regional leaders, those placed into lead pastor roles across the denomination, and the resulting actions, there is an obvious lack of diversity….”

The research, historical, cultural and biblical, is an excellent resource for understanding the complexity of the situation of not living up to our historic values within the Wesleyan Tradition.

She then suggests:

“The barriers presented from history, present-day circumstance, and future vision all affect the ability for women and people of color to live inclusively and equitably within the Wesleyan Tradition. Only in the last twenty-years have Wesleyan denominations begun to reclaim efforts to diversify, with minimal success, primarily at the programmatic level. As the research reveals, programs and compliance alone will not propel the integration of the whole gospel in the modern era….”

Welstad provides research on encouraging pockets of hope, one being the change in the leadership board of the Free Methodist Church for 2019 to 2023:

“The Free Methodist Church USA recently underwent a transition of leadership, as noted in chapter one, with the election of its new board of bishops. With two white males and one white female, the denomination saw its first move toward diversity in its history. Within an hour of the results from the bishop election, a new national board of administration was also elected, half of which had not served on the board previously. Through a potential mix of encouragement and disappointment of the bishops’ election, the board elected also made history, becoming the most diversified board in the history of the church, with nine females, four of which are women of color, and twelve males, half of whom are men of color….”

Welstad provides these valuable insights:

“It is clear that the Wesleyan Holiness movement faces a turning point in its history. As highly developed organizations who have structured their prophetic voices toward evangelizing and mobilizing leaders throughout the world, the need for continued efforts in diversifying leadership are unavoidable if the denominations are to move into the next millennium. Indeed, a revival of historical theology applied appropriately within a modern context is necessity….”

“The research of this dissertation, alongside the historical data, reveals the disparity between Wesleyan theology and practice. The Wesleyan movement was established as a radical prophetic voice, speaking truth to society while actively working toward reform into the biblical model of restoration. The loss of the prophetic witness over time on behalf of women and people of color has caused the Wesleyan traditions to mirror those of other evangelical churches. Largely ethnically and racially segregated, with men as leaders of the local, regional, and national church, the Wesleyan Holiness movement has lost the inclusivity and diversity it sought at its beginning….”

“While Wesleyans would say they ascribe to Wesleyan theology, the prevalence of non-Wesleyan theology is found throughout current structures of the denomination and its history. The challenge of Wesleyan denominations is to know their historical theology and its biblical roots to be able to practice well. To speak about topics such as social holiness, without the social aspect of those included, disables Wesleyan theology, and thus its practice….”

“Moving forward requires addressing each aspect of the challenges, which is beginning to happen on some level. However, more robust strategic planning and action consistently implemented over time will yield greater long-term fruit. The following pathways focus on the two areas least addressed by the current pockets of hope in the Wesleyan Tradition, namely leadership and integration….Integration has the potential to make the greatest impact in an organization. At the level of integration, diversity and inclusion are incorporated into decision-making, discipleship, leadership development, structural design, vision and mission strategy, and outreach….”

“As this research has revealed, leadership is a core component to enacting inclusion and diversity. Without those in positions of authority among the Wesleyan Tradition championing the work of equity for women and people of color, change to the entire network will not happen. Voicing values of diversity and hopes for further inclusion do not go far without behavior demonstrating stated values….”

“Transformation toward inclusive leadership of women and people of color is not elusive. Renovation of heart, mind, and practice takes place through practical equipping experiences. Diversity training, cultural intelligence courses, implicit bias tests, texts on courageous leadership, and personal coaching all play a part in developing the skillset of inclusive leaders….”

“New vision and practice would include new sets of training for leaders, new hiring practices, new language around leadership, and new standards for equity and inclusion at every level of leadership. Examples may include producing a slate of only females and people of color to balance administrative boards, executive leadership teams, pastoral pulpit supply, and doctrinal and ministerial appointment committees….”

Welstad concludes with this:

“For Wesleyan Holiness leadership to be prophetic shepherding leaders, a resurgence of the original vision of diversity and inclusion for women and people of color will need to be owned and lived out by the individuals and institutional systems and structures of Wesleyan denominations. Challenges of admission of gaps between belief and practice and concerted effort toward renewed belief and integrated behavior will need to be overcome. Leadership will be expected to consistently advocate and practice equitable and inclusive modeling through their own personal conviction and transformation of heart, mind, and character. Further, leaders will be the ones integrating systems of change through rewiring structural practice with regard to data, biased leadership, and implementation of equitable policy and procedures.”

To read the entire work click here.