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Luke A. Powery: The Holy Spirit can inspire us to understand one another’s humanity

For Luke Powery, it’s significant that different people heard their own native tongues from strangers’ mouths at Pentecost.

The impact of being able not only to understand another’s speech but to hear a familiar language from a stranger could provide a road map to navigating division.

Turning to the Holy Spirit and Pentecost as a means for re-imagining human relationships and pushing past divisions created by racialization is the subject of Powery’s recent book, “Becoming Human: The Holy Spirit and the Rhetoric of Race.”

“A turn to the Spirit is a turn to the human,” Powery writes.

Luke Powery

Rather than a call to uniformity and dropping conflict, the Holy Spirit’s work at Pentecost is a testament to how unity and diversity coincide for Christians.

Powery is the dean of Duke University Chapel and an associate professor of homiletics at Duke Divinity School.

He spoke with Faith & Leadership’s Chris Karnadi about the book and how the Holy Spirit can inspire us to become more human. The following is an edited transcript.

Faith & Leadership: How did the pandemic influence your writing of this book?

Luke Powery: I gave three lectures at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary around “Searching for Common Ground,” playing off Howard Thurman’s book “The Search for Common Ground,” and that was right before COVID, actually, in February.

Through everything in the pandemic, I think what was striking to me was our mortality as human beings and thinking about our shared humanity or lack thereof — the tensions that there were over mask wearing or not, the tensions between human beings across racial divides because of the murder of George Floyd.

Becoming Human book cover

The book is focused on those dividers, adjectives, whatever you want to call them, that have functioned in a way to separate people and not embrace our mutual humanity.

The pandemic brought everything to a head in many ways — our striking mortality as human beings. The pandemic should have been a time to help us get things in order, at least get our lives straight, our minds right, and it just, I think, became more tense and polarized. And so it was this call, which I have at the end of the book — a call to togetherness.

Ultimately, that’s what’s behind the book, this call to reconciliation. I try not to use that word, because it’s overused, but I think fundamentally, the book is a call to come together as children of God regardless of who we are, and trying to ground that in a kind of pneumatology.

As Thurman says at King’s funeral when he eulogizes, “We’re not quite human yet. We’re becoming human.” I think those words are so true for where we are today in this nation and really in the world. We’re not quite human yet.

F&L: How does the Holy Spirit change or work against the racialization of our world?

LP: For me, Pentecost is a metaphor for the gift of multiplicity that we see in languages, cultures, ethnicities. There is the embrace of, or the affirmation of, difference, and there’s not a hierarchy created.

It’s really this diversity unified. So racialization is a de-affirmation or a mode of dehumanization of the other, whoever that might be, in a kind of racialized hierarchy.

At Pentecost, there isn’t a hierarchy, and what’s central — or who is central — ultimately at Pentecost is God, and it’s not even our own particularity. Our particularity is not erased; it’s affirmed.

God is central, and God is the one who can bring us together. And so for me, what we have is this affirmation of the beauty of humanity.

At Pentecost, it’s not just the gift of speech but the gift of hearing and understanding in your own native language. What’s interesting is people are hearing their own native tongue in the mouths of the other who’s someone who’s different, not even somebody from their own ethnic background.

I think the Spirit drives us, leads us to a coming together, to unity, to mutual understanding, to the bodies that are again affirmation of the bodies of people, of all people, and as gifts of God. And so diversity, or difference, however you want to say it, is the gift of God.

It’s not something to be avoided or sort of ignored even. It’s the gift of the heterogeneous expression of the Spirit; that’s the gift.

Homogeneity and uniform communities are not the gift of the Spirit. It’s unity and heterogeneity; that’s the gift. And so the Spirit, I think, helps in opening that up in a way to help us embrace the humanity, no matter how different, of someone else. It actually affirms the humanity of others.

F&L: What do you think that unifying power of the Holy Spirit looks like in preaching?

LP: From the pulpit, it’s what our telos is as preachers. Is our telos to divide, or is our ultimate goal the move toward unity? Again, unity implies diversity, so it’s different from uniformity.

It doesn’t mean every single sermon is on a specific topic, but what is your thrust? Is it to see a community really be a community, which means it being diverse and not functioning with this racialization, which is dehumanization, but really seeing people as people?

There’s an overall thrust as preachers and in the community. How do we at the church find a new tongue, playing off Pentecost? How do we find a new language? How do we find a new way of talking about human relations?

I say “racialize” or “racialization” quite a bit in the book; I do that intentionally, because it’s something that’s done to us. It’s not something that is ontological. It is something that’s social.

We have this social inheritance and historical inheritance of race as a social construct, and obviously it’s shaped how things are in the world. It’s not as if we can erase that and say, “Oh, we’re going to change how we talk, and things we can do better.” But I think there is a way that we can talk about relations with each other across these divides that might be more helpful, more Christian, more Spirit filled.

Identities can become idols, and so before we even see someone else as a human being and talk to them like a human being, we’re already thinking whatever categories they are, whether it’s political affiliation or what we see them to be racially.

We don’t see them as a human being, a brother and sister. In the church, how can we find a new way, a new language? What is the more human way and more humane way for talking about these things in the church?

When the seeds of the North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies (now NAIITS: An Indigenous Learning Community) were taking root in the 1990s in Canada, becoming an accredited graduate school seemed like a far-off goal. The group of Indigenous scholars began having conversations, which blossomed into an annual symposium, an academic journal and graduate curricula.

“But when we held our first symposium, I don’t think any of us imagined that we might want to, never mind get to that point,” co-founder Terry LeBlanc said.

It wasn’t the main objective for NAIITS to receive formal ATS (Association of Theological Schools) accreditation, but when it did arrive in spring 2021, LeBlanc says it felt “vindicating.”

NAIITS is the only accredited Indigenous-led graduate theological school in North America. It offers four master’s degrees, together with an experimental accredited Ph.D. program.

LeBlanc

LeBlanc is CEO and director of Indigenous Pathways, a corporate entity comprising NAIITS and its sister organization, iEmergence, which focuses on leadership development in Indigenous and tribal communities. He completed his Ph.D. at Asbury Theological Seminary.

LeBlanc spoke with Faith & Leadership’s Chris Karnadi about NAIITS’ accomplishments so far and what the future might look like for the school. The following is an edited transcript.

Faith & Leadership: Can you tell me the story of NAIITS?

Terry LeBlanc: The idea of it began back in the late ’80s for some of us, mid-’90s for others, and came about as a result of the continuing challenges raised by varieties of individuals in the Christian church, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike, who criticized the idea that Indigenous culture and faith could be brought together in some fashion — or put another way, that one could be authentically Indigenous and authentically Christian in the same way that one could be authentically Euro-American or Euro-Canadian Christian.

So it began with conversations about how to address that, which led to hosting annual symposia on Indigenous theology and mission, which in turn led to the publication of a journal and the creation of a faculty and curriculum to teach our own programs in the broad compass of divinity.

F&L: Recently, you were accredited by ATS. How did that feel?

TL: Vindicating. I’m not sure that we had it in mind when we launched our formal programs, first in Canada in the late 1990s and then in the U.S. in 2001. But when we held our first symposium, I don’t think any of us imagined that we might want to, never mind get to that point.

F&L: What kinds of degrees do you offer?

TL: We offer four master’s degrees in North America: an M.A. in intercultural studies, an M.T.S., an M.A. in Indigenous community development and a newly framed M.Div. program. We also offer an experimental Ph.D. program accredited by ATS.

And in Australia, we offer an M.T.S. program, along with a grad certificate and a grad diploma, as well as the Ph.D.

F&L: How does the teaching work, with so many different people from so many different places?

TL: We had determined that we needed to do something to address the issue of many Indigenous students being reluctant to leave their home communities or territories to go for lengthy periods of time to study. So we had already determined that we needed to offer some of our programming in a virtual format, online within learning management software, as well as with Zoom and virtual videoconferencing.

But we also wanted to be sure that we created an in-person community experience, so we went to a trimester system, with two semesters, the September and January semesters, being offered in a virtual format, synchronous and asynchronous, and then the summer semester, which wrapped around our annual symposium on Indigenous theology and mission, being offered as an in-person intensive set of courses.

We’ve been doing that from the beginning, so going virtual with COVID wasn’t an issue for us.

F&L: What have you seen your students be able to do with their training in their communities?

TL: Varieties of things. Some have gone into spiritual care work as chaplains, some, in urban environments, doing street work or urban-based advocacy and ministry. Some have gone into pastoral ministry.

Others have become or are becoming community scholars in their communities or have gone on to do further study to advance their academic skills.

All of the graduates thus far have gone into vocations that connect to the disciplines within which they received their degrees.

F&L: Why is NAIITS so important?

TL: At this juncture, it’s important because it’s the only Indigenous-designed, developed, delivered, and wholly governed Indigenous graduate and postgraduate theological educational institution that is ATS-accredited in North America.

While there are other institutions teaching at the undergraduate level, and some at the graduate level, they are either teaching under the auspices of non-Indigenous governance or teaching under the auspices of other denomination-institutional environments.

NAIITS is unique, and that in itself makes it essential, since to be able to govern our own theological education, albeit within the parameters that ATS and the new standards of accreditation require, is critically important for us to advance our notion that one can be authentically Indigenous and authentically Christian.

F&L: In terms of the governance being Indigenous, how does that make the education qualitatively different for your students?

TL: Well, you could have the same course title, say New Testament Introduction. Offered from a Euro-Canadian or Euro-American seminary or divinity college, it will use mostly standard approaches to New Testament study, even though some will be more contemporary than others. They’ll use materials that are largely written by or taken from a Western philosophical and hermeneutical approach.

Whereas a New Testament introduction course that we offer will come from an Indigenous epistemology and Indigenous ontology and worldview and will use Indigenous frame materials, in addition to individuals from the Indigenous community who come in to provide community perspectives.

When we do a course, irrespective of what the course may be, it’s offered from an Indigenous perspective as the first order of business, not as a supplement.

F&L: How does theological education that is done by and driven by Indigenous people avoid some of the blind spots for the traditional Euro-American-centric theological education?

TL: Well, whether intended or not, by default, given the trajectory of the Western church, Euro-American as well as Euro-Canadian and Australian (or wherever it may be) approaches to theology have largely assumed that a singular worldview is the appropriate worldview through which to approach the Scriptures, through which to approach the ideas, the principal ideas of Christian faith and life.

As a consequence, this theology is not only blind in certain areas but oblivious to the fact that Christianity, or Christian faith — or, if you will, the following of Jesus — doesn’t originate in the Western environment.

There’s an imposed notion that Jesus was an American or Jesus was a Canadian, and the images, of course, tend to bear out the Eurocentric nature of Christianity down through the centuries.

There’s also certainly the idea that a theology rooted in the Western Enlightenment is an engagement with faith that provides a context for science and faith to coexist. And yet, at the same time, it doesn’t provide a place or a context where that coexistence can have a mutuality about it; it’s more that there are boundaries between the two, and on occasion, there are semipermeable membranes — but on other occasions, they’re completely separate.

Whereas with an Indigenous context, there is not an either/or epistemology at play but rather a both/and, so that impacts how we view not only the text of the Christian Scriptures but also other stories of experience and tradition of the pursuit of God.

F&L: What do you think the future looks like for NAIITS?

TL: Oh, goodness, I wish I were good at prognostication. Given that we’ll celebrate 25 years next year, and seeing what we’re able to accomplish with our partnerships and support, I foresee greater numbers of partnerships of differing sorts.

I can certainly see us creating perhaps a chair of Indigenous studies, which will have a Christian framework available for study but won’t be specifically a theological chair. It will be a chair of Indigenous studies that neither excludes nor centers Christian faith but rather sees Christian faith as one aspect of Indigenous life throughout our history.

F&L: Speaking of the partnerships, how can people who aren’t Indigenous support or partner with Indigenous theological development?

TL: Our partnerships with existing non-Indigenous institutions have been extremely supportive and beneficial.

We do provide up to 25% of our seats in any given degree program or course for non-Indigenous students — first, for non-Indigenous students who are engaged with Indigenous community, and then second, for non-Indigenous students who are wanting a non-Western approach to theological education.

Certainly financially, where we’re a not-for-profit, we are essentially people-funded. We’re tuition- and fundraising-driven — not that that isn’t the case for many other institutions — but we have a constituency that, as you might imagine, given the history of Christianity in treating Indigenous peoples, aren’t necessarily at the top of the list for Indigenous peoples support, and through no fault of our own.

While visiting Durham for job interviews in February 2015, I needed a haircut. I sought out the local Latino center, hoping to learn a bit about programs that I might support and to get a recommendation for a stylist as I scoped out the area.

Despite a rare snow, the center was open, although lightly staffed. Alex, the Central American facilitator of LGBTQ support services, greeted me kindly and gave me a brief tour, introducing me to the center’s work. When I asked for hairstylist recommendations, he pulled out a card and made a phone call.

“Yes, she is a woman,” I heard him say in Spanish. He gave me the address and directions and sent me on my way with a warm embrace.

The bells attached to the glass door rang as I pushed it open. Paco, a Mexican in his 40s, welcomed me warmly to the peluquería and then tastefully trimmed my short hair as we exchanged stories about each other’s families and day-to-day lives.

I continued making appointments with him for the next five years. I marveled at his social skills and styling talent while also gaining a sense of his insecurities and limited circles of trust.

When the pandemic began, I told Paco (whose name I have changed to protect his anonymity) that I would not be coming in for a while but would be sending him some money. I asked him to call if he needed me. It was as if we both understood that I was more than a customer; I was also a friend with documents and with mutual concern for his safety and well-being.

One day, some months later, he did call. I was gardening in the front yard and put the spade down to give him my full attention. Paco was worried, speaking fast. An immigration officer had come to his door, and now Paco was convinced he could be deported soon. He told me where to find his cash in his apartment and asked whether I would be willing to wire it to a cousin in Mexico if he were to be picked up.

Gratefully, his fears were not realized. He continues to work and live locally but with the precarity shared by an estimated 10.5 million of our Mexican siblings in the U.S., fully one-fourth of the U.S. foreign-born population.

How is this possible? Nothing more represents for me the fracture and pain of federal inaction than our lack of success at updating our immigration laws, a major public policy priority for my church for more than two decades. A recent Pew research survey found that 4 in 10 Latinos worry that they or someone close to them could be deported, even though only one-third of Latinos in the U.S. are immigrants.

Our nondocumented sisters and brothers are not “in the shadows” so much as in a cage of fear in a land where they give so much while often suffering wage theft or enduring harassment and threats.

Latinos, for a long time primarily clustered in nine states (Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York and Texas), are now dispersed throughout our nation, joining and leading us in worship, fixing our roads, remodeling and landscaping our houses, caring for our elderly and our children, finding scientific cures, gifting us in all of the arts, and solving our tech problems. As the Sustainable Economies Law Center (SELC) and Prospera emphasize, Latinos are not taking jobs; they are creating jobs, yet “there is an increasing hostility toward immigrants in our workforce and in our communities.”

Advocates in some states are combatting hostility with welcome campaigns. In Nebraska, an effort entitled “We Are Home” shares the message “Immigrant Nebraskans are lights in our families and communities.”

The message continues: “Congress has not meaningfully updated our immigration laws in more than 35 years, causing unnecessary harm to local families and communities. It’s time for full inclusion of family and longtime community members.”

The FaithAction ID initiative and similar parish identification card programs bring together churches, nonprofits and police departments to foster greater security and avenues for immigrant participation. Efforts supporting dignified work are especially life-giving.

Immigrant entrepreneurs in rural communities are finding support with bilingual business development specialists at the Center for Rural Affairs, with links to banks where business owners can open accounts with an individual taxpayer identification number (ITIN) issued by the IRS to those with documents to prove their identity and foreign status.

In North Carolina, the Cooperativa Latin@ Credit Union offers microbusiness savings accounts for those with a government-issued ID from any country and a valid ITIN.

Groups like Prospera in Oakland, California, help enterprising immigrant women learn how to overcome internal and external barriers and launch successful cooperative enterprises. Interest in this business model is growing, according to the SELC. To fill the gap in bilingual legal and technical help, they are partnering with Prospera to offer training and resources, including this website with state-by-state legal information for cooperatives.

The SELC and Prospera have a vision of building a national ecosystem to support immigrant-owned cooperatives. “Why immigrant-owned cooperatives?” they ask. “To address the root causes of wealth inequality and institutional racism, we need to put ownership and control back in the hands of those most marginalized by the dominant economy.”

What would it look like if churches helped realize this vision and collaborated with community partners promoting kin-dom values? One exemplary effort is Omaha Catholic Charities’ immigrant microbusiness training and startup loan program. In 2020 it received an innovation challenge grant to share its training model and curriculum with six other Catholic Charities agencies across the U.S.

I pray that more of us in Christian leadership will seek out ways to support local immigrant businesses, prioritizing them and partnering for organizational vendor and service needs, including catering, translating and tech, while also staying attentive to — and participating in — needed advocacy for just and humane immigration reform.

As a personal solidarity exercise that might be a simple Christian practice for you also, consider this: Try a barber or hairdresser at a peluquería. Don’t do it to save money but to connect and to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with God.

Nothing more represents for me the fracture and pain of federal inaction than our lack of success at updating our immigration laws, a major public policy priority for my church for more than two decades.

 

Suggestions for visiting a peluquería

  • Offer a greeting and request what you need: “Buenos dias. Deseo un corte de pelo por favor.” [Hello. I’d like a haircut, please.]
  • Wait for an answer or a motion of where to wait or sit.
  • If you want to know how much they charge, ask, “Cuanto cuesta?” (Brush up on your numbers before you go. “Quince” is 15. “Veinte” is 20. “Veinte y cinco” is 25.)
  • Demonstrate with your hands or a photo what kind of cut you would like.
  • Try to make some small talk if you know some Spanish or try a few questions in English and see whether you are understood and can converse a bit. Smiles will also go a long way.
  • At the end, give a big tip, even double the amount charged. Don’t get a cut there to save money but to connect with a sibling.

In their long friendship, economist Laura Ullrich and pastor David Brown have talked a lot.

“We like to meet for coffee and talk about deep things that other people may not find as exciting as we do,” Ullrich said.

Ullrich, who is the senior regional economist for North and South Carolina for the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, met Brown when she moved to Rock Hill, South Carolina, and he was the pastor of the church she attended.

Brown worked as a pastor for two decades before becoming a consultant and coach as well as a registered representative with New York Life. He also is the founding pastor of a community of disciples in Rock Hill called The Welcome Table.

So when Brown began teaching in the D.Min. program at Duke Divinity School, he invited Ullrich to come to his strategy class to talk about economics.

Ullrich talked about trends and data; Brown put the information in context as a pastor.

Following that model, Ullrich and Brown share their thoughts on economics, ministry and Christian life in this interview with Faith & Leadership’s Sally Hicks. The following is an edited transcript.

Faith & Leadership: Why do you think pastors should understand economics?

Laura Ullrich

Laura Ullrich: I would argue that economics can explain just about anything, because it explains how people and firms and organizations — which could also be a church — make decisions in the presence of scarcity. Scarcity of resources, scarcity of time.

How are people making their decisions [about] where they attend church, whether they attend church, how often they attend church? When they’re making decisions about how to allocate their time, that’s economics.

Another issue is the racial wealth gap. I personally think this is an important topic for everybody to understand — that some of the structural foundations of the economy since the founding of the United States prevent some families from growing the same kind of wealth that other families have.

Pastor David Brown

David Brown: I would add to that, I think that theology can be a lens through which a lot of how we experience things can be understood.

The sort of economics that Laura deals in from day to day is built on that idea of scarce resources. From a Christian point of view, we worship and follow a Jesus who was inaugurated in a kingdom where the bottom line was abundance.

It’s not an economy, perhaps, that we will experience on this planet. But our calling as Christians is to move our lived experience in this world toward that ideal.

That interplay between the scarcity that we actually experience in our economy versus this vision of what human flourishing might be — I think that’s the tension in which we live as followers of Jesus.

F&L: How can pastors or congregants or Christian individuals use this information?

DB: I would say that for those of us who are Christians, and Christian leaders, it’s a spiritual crisis as well. How do we respond faithfully to the volatility that’s going on around us?

What do we actually learn from in times of volatility? Can we sense new directions of God’s spirit that are moving us into new ways of being through disruptions? Are disruptions actually a learning opportunity for us?

Moving into the future, all leaders are going to have to intentionally increase their capacity to deal with change, uncertainty, volatility.

I think the other way to come at it is through the best of our tradition and heritage and history. How can we not be paying attention to economics and the situation in which our neighbors are living?

I think Jesus talks more about money than just about anything. The law and the prophets really talk about how we order society to lead toward human flourishing.

Our goal, our telos, our end goal in Christian leadership, what sets us apart from other types of firms or businesses or other types of leaders, is that we’re framed by the beginning and the ending of the biblical story.

We’re framed by the goodness of God’s creation in the beginning, and we’re framed by the re-creation we believe is in process and will come to completion one day.

F&L: What would you like people to understand about economics?

LU: I think that leaders of churches have a responsibility to try to make people aware of what the world looks like outside the walls of their particular churches, because even on the same street, it can be very different. And data can help with that.

A big part of my job is educating people about what’s actually going on. It’s really easy to get tunnel vision. If you live in a community with people, including in your church life, that look very much like you, have income levels that are about where yours are, you really can be in a place where you do not realize what the data actually show.

Has the wage gap between men and women or Black individuals and white individuals narrowed? Yes. But what are the data around what’s actually going on in terms of wealth?

The most recent data show that Black families are 20 times more likely to have zero or negative wealth than they are to have a million dollars in assets. That comes from the Institute for Policy Studies.

So a church that relies on white membership might have a pretty constant stream of money from people leaving money to them in their wills and things like that. They’re also getting regular large gifts from people as they start giving away assets as they get older.

A church with predominantly Black membership may struggle from a financial point of view in a way that’s likely different from a white church simply because of that statistic.

On the behavioral economics side, there are things that leaders within churches can do to encourage tithing or increase tithing. There are ways that they can practically impact the financial viability of their churches by thinking through how people make decisions.

What engages people at a deeper level than they might be giving otherwise?

So I think there’s a practical side of it, too, just from actually funding your organization. I’m sure it’s something pastors don’t feel as comfortable talking about, but it’s a very important part of running a church.

DB: I think No. 1 is the ability to look up from trying to preserve our institution and to see what God is up to in the world around us. And to believe that the Spirit is already at work, that God is already on a mission in the world outside the institutions of our churches.

Listening, asking questions, really assuming that we have something we can learn from our neighbors who are similar to us in some ways and different from us in other ways.

Take an asset-based approach to our neighborhoods, and to our ministry alongside our neighbors. Instead of focusing on problems we might solve — especially white, resourced churches — really look at what assets are in the neighborhoods around us. How can we invest out of our resources in those assets?

And when we share those things that we have with one another, and when we build on the assets that God’s planted in the community, that’s really where this vision of God’s kingdom begins to take root and bloom.

F&L: Does a policy focus make sense, or do you see other ways to effect change?

LU: Churches and all organizations have to be careful with policy, because you don’t want it to be overly political.

But there are certain policies that really aren’t political in nature. There are some policies where it’s pretty clear that if there were relatively small changes, it could have a big impact.

An example was the GI Bill. When the GI Bill was passed, years ago, on paper it looked like it was this amazing opportunity for all veterans.

But then when you actually dug in, there was a major push in the South, specifically, in Congress and the Senate, to get the GI Bill to be locally administered versus federally administered. And the impact of that ended up being pretty significant discrimination at the local level.

And so the reality was the GI Bill could help you buy a house as a veteran, but those opportunities were not equal across race and gender. Redlining was in place with banks, so you couldn’t get a mortgage in a lot of the predominantly minority neighborhoods. And in the South, many of the white neighborhoods had covenants that said minorities couldn’t live there.

So the practical application of this local policy, the fact that it was locally administered, resulted in some pretty significant discrimination.

So that’s an example of a policy where decisions that were made led to generational outcome differences. At the time, if people had been more aware of how these decisions were made, maybe something could have been different, right?

DB: There’s a good bit of variance across denominations in this area. There may be specific ways in which denominational structures either encourage or discourage that.

You can hardly read Scripture and not be called to act for, not just the common good, but the flourishing of all people. So I think our faith requires us to be political but not partisan.

I think there are two things that are helpful here. One of them is oriented toward the past; one of them is oriented toward the future.

Oriented toward the past, I think that particularly white Christians and churches who have been a part of the power system in the United States can acknowledge and repent. And repentance isn’t just something you say; it’s something you do.

And then the forward-looking piece: I’m teaching strategy, where the rubber hits the road for ministry. There’s this interplay between theology and economics and Christian practice.

One of the ways we define strategy in the class is “what we are doing in the present.” Everyone has a strategy; how well thought out, how intentional it is, is the question.

I think that to be more intentional about that would be to say, “Who is it that we are as churches? What are we called to do? What is God’s intention for us? And how are we living into that?”

I think that’s more than just, “How do we keep the lights on in the church building or pay down the mortgage or increase our budget?”

F&L: What is your advice for folks struggling with whether there is going to be a recession?

LU: There are a lot of people that were literally taught in school that the definition of recession is two quarters of negative GDP growth. That’s not true. There’s no true definition of a recession. However, because so many people believe that definition, that changes how they make decisions, right?

I think people are right to feel unsettled right now. We have the highest inflation we’ve had in 40-plus years. The last time inflation was this high, David and I were in preschool.

And for a large percentage of the population, this is truly causing them stress. It is difficult for them to maintain their lifestyle right now compared with how it was six months or a year ago. So the discomfort is understandable and real.

On the more positive side, for most of us, the only recessions we remember well are the COVID recession, which was a bizarre situation, and then the Great Recession, which is called the Great Recession because it was so significant.

A lot of people who are working today don’t remember the recession in 2001, or in 1992, 1993. They were recessions but were not as significant. So when a lot of people hear “recession,” they think of something more extreme than it might be in the end.

As of right now, employment remains very strong. We are adding an impressive number of jobs in the U.S. each month. Until that pattern changes, it is less likely that we will officially be in a recession.

F&L: David, what do you think church leaders should do in this period of uncertainty?

DB: Pastors and other church leaders have to intentionally cultivate a sense of hopeful realism.

As pastors, part of our calling is to be companions and shepherds of our congregations as we move through life together. You can’t do that with either a Pollyannaish sense of optimism or a sense of cynicism.

The place that I would start is with a core belief statement, that the God that we believe in is a God who has guided God’s people through all sorts of times of uncertainty and challenge. God invites us to be active participants in that story of ongoing redemption. God’s grace and love will sustain us no matter what.

Even in the midst of all that’s going on, and the real actual pain and uncertainty, God is still present in the lives of God’s people. And so we can find reasons for hope.

When we share those things that we have with one another, and when we build on the assets that God’s planted in the community, that’s really where this vision of God’s kingdom begins to take root and bloom.