Black Pastor Appointed to Mostly White Church Creating a Multi-Cultural Church for Everyone
By Lindsay Peyton
Leading a predominantly white church as a Black pastor comes with challenges and opportunities, explains Klein UMC’s Rev. Lawrence Young. In this season of dismantling racism, the congregation is forward-thinking and hopes to pave the way for a more inclusive future.
Young summons the Parable of the Sower in scripture when Jesus tells of the farmer who plants haphazardly. Some seeds are eaten by birds, while others fall on rocky dirt. Others land in a patch of thorns, and some lay in shallow soil, without room to develop roots.
There are seeds that land on good soil and develop into a fruitful harvest – just like the Word of God may fall on receptive ears, instead of hardened, shallow or crowded hearts.
The same is true for building a more diverse church, Young explained. The soil must be ready to allow for growth. That’s what he found at Klein UMC, a congregation ready to work to make lasting change.
Now, in the current climate, the pastor and his flock are now poised to enter into often difficult conversations about race – with the hopes of reaching a brighter future for all. In fact, Young is receiving calls from members of his church saying, “You are in the right place at the right time to walk with us.”
Young is developing a series of engaging discussions for Klein UMC, in which culturally diverse families will share their personal stories. “I want to raise awareness -- and want to raise sensitivity without blame or shame,” he said.
Creating a greater sense of empathy is the goal, Young explained. He wants to open opportunities for healing and understanding. The experience will coincide with worship and include guided questions and small group conversations.
Young is confident that Klein UMC is ready for these talks, to learn from each other and walk together to build tolerance and sympathy.
Sometimes, he admits, that comes as a surprise to him. As a Black pastor at a predominately white church, he acknowledges there are times he has to push aside skepticism and embrace members in spite of their cultural differences.
“Klein has shown me that there really is a way that you can have strong differences and still come together as a church and do the work of the Kingdom,” he said.
Recently, after a sermon that followed George Floyd’s death, Young went back to his seat in tears.
“I got multiple responses from older white men, telling me, ‘I don’t know what you’re going through, but I need you to know that I feel your pain, that I’m with you,’” Young recalled. “Because we were in relationship, these people felt compelled to reach out to me, and that’s big. That only happens when you have time to give relationships root, so relationships can grow.
Young credits the church’s recently retired pastor Jerry Pennington with having the foresight to create this inclusive atmosphere. “He was really before his time,” Young said. “He believed it never made sense to have separate churches. All of his life, he was really trying to make something happen.”
Pennington explained that when he embarked on ministry in the 1970s, he hoped to build a more multi-cultural church experience. “I was open to that from the very beginning,” he said.
By the time that Pennington arrived to helm of Klein UMC, the church was celebrating its 40-year anniversary. The pastor challenged members in conversations about the next 40 years, where would the church be and how it could better reflect the community.
“We looked at our mission field – and it was extremely multi-cultural,” Pennington said. “We looked at the schools, and they were too. But the church was white.”
At the same time, Pennington wanted to reevaluate worship. He believed the church of the future would have a more spirit-filled service. The congregation decided to start a new, non-traditional worship experience.
“You can’t force this, but they wanted to make it more multi-cultural, more spirited,” Pennington said. “We started envisioning what that would look like, and we hired some consultants to help.”
The tagline of Klein UMC is “Where EVERYONE is welcome” – and the congregation wanted to ensure that message was clear and rang true.
Ephesians 2:19-22 was a guiding force: “You’re no longer wandering exiles. This kingdom of faith is now your home country. You’re no longer strangers or outsiders. You belong here, with as much right to the name Christian as anyone. God is building a home. He’s using us all—irrespective of how we got here—in what he is building.”
Klein UMC began a search for a leader of a new worship, someone who shared the church’s inclusive vision. Rev. Lawrence Young popped up in Pennington’s mind.
They had served as District Superintendents together at the same time. Pennington knew that Young had a unique gift and thought he would be ideal at Klein UMC.
Still, he knew that Young could be “associate” pastor in name only – that he brought years of experience with him. In addition to his time as a District Superintendent for the South Central District, Young spent 12 years as founding pastor at Abundant Life UMC in Lufkin and five years as Senior Pastor at Jones Memorial UMC in Houston, where he also started an Alzheimer’s support group and the nonprofit Sunnyside Community Development Corporation.
In addition, Young had moved to the North Georgia Conference, where he first served as pastor at Cascade UMC and then Warren Memorial UMC in Atlanta
“But I thought he might want to come home,” Pennington said. “On a whim, I called him up. I just couldn’t let it go without asking.”
To his surprise – and excitement, Young was up for the challenge. Still, the pastor had to go to the Pastor/Staff-Parish Relations committee. Pennington presented them with a list of candidates. Then, he told them there was also a last-minute addition – Rev. Lawrence Young.
Pennington said nothing to influence the decision. “But if you ever wonder if the Holy Spirit is moving, that night God was present,” he said. “They chose Lawrence.”
Pennington told them, “He’ll be associate pastor on paper, but he’ll have to be my co-pastor.”
Sally Brumfield was chair of the PSPR committee at the time. She said that the meeting was three hours long.
In the minutes, she recorded, “We should do something extremely different from what we have been doing. We should create a new worship experience.”
She also noted that they wanted someone with a dynamic personality, who would help the congregation reach out more to the community.
At the time, Community Impact Newspaper came out with a study of the school districts, showing they were 41.6 percent Latino, 14.3 African-American and 8.5 percent Asian, placing white students in the minority.
“The area has changed and is changing; we should change with it,” Brumfield said.
After the committee decided on Young, they invited him to preach a service in the middle of the week. “The people who came raved about his personality,” she said.
The entire experience felt divinely inspired, Brumfield added.
“Truly, it came from God,” she said. “We felt that He had been nudging us for a while.”
Klein UMC then changed its motto from “Where friends become family” to “Where strangers become friends and friends become family.”
Pennington explained that there is a meaningful difference – and the recognition that taking a few steps forward is a necessary part of change. He explained that friends can come to church to become part of the family, but getting strangers to attend requires proactive measures. Church members have to go out and met them where they are.
“Strangers may not be comfortable for us,” Pennington added. “If we’re going to do God’s work, you’ve got to be uncomfortable, especially if you’re really going to reach out and love your neighbor.”
Young started a worship service at the church “The Experience.” He and Pennington worked together for the next two years, before Pennington retired.
Pennington felt that for the work to continue at Klein UMC, Young should move into the senior pastor role. In the itinerant system, however, a succession plan could not be put into place.
Still, he held out hope – and Young was appointed as Senior Pastor on May 1.
“Klein was trying to find itself for years,” Pennington said. “Now they have a new future – to be the church that God is calling it to be in this day and age.”
Young felt as if Pennington was preparing him to be his successor for the past two years. He is now uniquely ready to help the congregation move forward.
“It’s really helping us to live out what this church believes its calling is,” he said. “I was helping them fulfill something they had already started. They needed my presence to go forward – but it wasn’t somewhere they didn’t want to go.”
In much the same way, Young was fulfilling his own path in ministry. “I felt this was my calling,” he said.
During his childhood in Southern Louisiana, Young experienced racism firsthand. “I watched Klan marches; I saw crosses burn,” he recalled. “I grew up with that. And while racism did not stop me, I watched it ruin so many lives of people I knew.”
Young then saw another side of white people when he was ordained as a Deacon of the Texas Annual Conference in 1990 and became the founding Pastor of Abundant Life UMC in Lufkin the following year.
“That’s exactly where God intended me to be,” Young said. “He took me to deep East Texas to show me the hearts of true Christian, white men in a way that changed my life forever.”
He found prayer partners who were white and also saw the potential of working together to make an impact. While in Lufkin, the pastor focused on serving youth from low-income families by offering a summer camp.
Because of his positive experience in Lufkin, the pastor said that he is able to better trust the white congregation at Klein. “They look me in the face and tell me, ‘I’m glad you’re here,’ and I can believe them,” Young said. “God started me 30 years ago on the path that I’m concluding now. This is exactly the place I’m supposed to be.”
Lasting change takes time, Pennington said. “It doesn’t happen quickly,” he said. “Be patient and prayerful. It won’t work if it’s forced.”
He also recommends using surveys to better understand members’ concerns and ideas, as well as hiring consultants to help implement change.
Laying the groundwork and understanding the importance of time and effort is essential, Young added. He believes that succession plans could be an ideal path forward, to help build relationships with new pastors who can make a difference.
“We must invest resources and spend time wisely, if we expect to get the best results,” Young said. “It would be an investment well spent. I’m living proof.”
Congregations can benefit from going on a journey to build empathy and embrace diversity.
This is hard work, Young added. “But you also walk into it knowing it’s going to be great, because it comes from God,” he said. “I walk into this knowing it’s a calling from God. It’s really an opportunity to do life-changing work, in ways you leave the world better than we found it.”