Stepping up to Lead When It’s Tough to Lead | Dr. Emanuel Cleaver of St. James United Methodist

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Dr. Emanuel Cleaver dives into how his church responded to COVID, how that affects local families, and how to encourage ethnic diversity.

Podcast Transcription


Jason Hamrock: Today, I had the privilege of speaking with Dr. Emanuel Cleaver. Now Dr. Cleaver is the Senior Pastor at St. James United Methodist Church in Kansas City, he’s also a community leader, author and engages and helps many pastors. We took some time to dive into how their church is responding to the effects of COVID, and how that is affecting local families, and how their church is making a difference. We also dove into the racial issues, and how he and the church are responding, and what the future looks like for their church. I’m really excited for you to learn from Dr. Cleaver.

Jason Hamrock: Emanuel, thanks for joining us today. Glad to have you on the podcast.

Emanuel Cleaver: I’m glad to be here, thanks for the invitation.

Jason Hamrock: Yeah, I’m really excited to talk with you about your church, and what’s been going on with the church since kind of COVID broke, and how you guys have responded. And so, looking forward to learning. You know, if you kind of look at what things, back in March, February, March, April, we had to just change and shift and do everything online. And were you guys prepared for that, or what was it one of those things were just shifting online was a challenge, or what happened there?

Emanuel Cleaver: Well thankfully, we had been streaming online for about five years, maybe a little longer than that. So, yeah, we’ve been streaming, so it wasn’t that big of an adjustment except for those who did not have Internet and who were not used to worshipping online. So for some, it was an adjustment, but we were able to keep having worship without any stops.

Jason Hamrock: Good. So now we’re in September now, almost creeping into October. How is your congregation doing? Have they, are they itching to get back, and are you back? And what does that look like?

Emanuel Cleaver: So we elected to not meet in person until next year. So I think there are some who want to get back, but understand, as the cases haven’t really slowed down here in, you know, in the county. In fact, our governor just tested positive in Missouri, the Governor and his wife just tested positive for COVID. So they understand, but I do think people are longing to get back together. So we’ve been doing every first Sunday, our parking lot communion, where people come to the parking lot and we take all the precautions and have communion. And people have been showing up, which shows I mean, people are itching to get back and fellowship and worship together.

Jason Hamrock: Yeah, yeah. I talk to a lot of churches. We’re seeing, they’re trying things, they’re trying just to get the community back together because they recognize I mean, that’s we’re wired to be in community, that’s how we’re, how God made us. And some churches are going, we’re having a struggle to get them back because we’re doing such a good job of creating a very comfortable, sit home in your PJs and just watch church. But it’ll be interesting when it comes to the new year, how you’re going to get everybody to come back. But I bet you do have those people that are really missing it.

Emanuel Cleaver: I do think it would be a challenge for some because they are accustomed to watching, joining worship, in the bed in their pajamas. You know, my wife is even worshipping, she’s on the treadmill. And so it’s just, it’s become a different sort of thing to get, it may be a challenge to break people out of that, that have.

Jason Hamrock: Yeah. Yeah. For our family, we’re now going to start going back to church because we can. But we’ve taken the opportunity, because we have two boys, two teenage boys, so we’ve taken the opportunity to to watch and then talk. You know, it’s just kind of let’s not run into our bedrooms or go a different route. So stay together and just huddle as a family, and talk about what we learned, and be challenged by it. So I think that’s probably, hopeful that’s happening with with families as well.

Emanuel Cleaver: Yes. Yeah, so we’re starting, we started off like that. We sort of got lost track, and so this Sunday, we’re coming back. We’ll worship at nine o’clock and then people can break to their growth groups, we have growth groups and Sunday school classes after worship on Zoom. So until people, you know, family members go to their respective classes after that.

Jason Hamrock: Yeah, that’s great. Yeah, I think you have to, as a leader, you kind of have to figure out how you navigate this uncharted territory like it’s been done before. So I’m sure, I’m sure it’s a challenge for you to keep the flock somewhat focused. And so what else have you guys done in terms of helping the community? I know you’re stitched to the community, you guys are big support to the community. But what’s some stuff that you guys have been doing that other churches could learn from?

Emanuel Cleaver: Well, right now we have 50 kids in our building, in our Paseo campus because the schools are not meeting in person, and these kids don’t have Internet. Either, they don’t have Internet access at home, and or their parents can’t stay home with them, so they’re elementary school kids. And so we’re able to spread them out in various classrooms to social distance, and have Internet access, to have adult supervision as they are doing classes online.

Jason Hamrock: Wow, yeah. I think that’s, at least where I am, that was a big issue.

Emanuel Cleaver: Yeah.

Jason Hamrock: Kids just, it’s they would struggle, especially the younger kids. My wife’s elementary teacher, so I hear it first hand. What a great opportunity.

Emanuel Cleaver: We’re also still doing our food pantry, both campuses. At the Paseo campus, the larger one, we have a food pantry every single week. At the south campus, we’re doing it every month. We’ve had several COVID testing stations here throughout the time at both campuses. And voter registration, we’re doing that this Sunday in our parking lot. So we’ve utilized our parking lots a lot in the last few months.

Jason Hamrock: That’s smart, that’s fantastic. Anything you can do, like the church just stepping up. And I heard a quote when the world hit pause when this all broke, the church hit go. You know, and it sounds like that’s exactly what you guys, not that you haven’t been doing that, but just probably more intentional on the bigger scale. Like bringing kids into the in the church and everything, that’s pretty cool. Well, so when it, so we’re in a time right now where it seems like our country is just, is just being turned upside down. All the racial issues, the election going on, all the COVID things with the illness plus the economic downfall from that, people losing their job and all that kind of stuff. As a leader, how are you navigating that and leading your flock, and your congregation? And what what can we learn in the big C church, from things that you guys are doing, and from your leadership?

Emanuel Cleaver: You know, that’s what’s been making this period so hectic, and keeping me busy with all of the things going on. We are, one of things that we’re doing, because there has been a history of tension between minority communities and law enforcement, it’s nothing new, it dates back decades, maybe centuries. We are a part of an initiative here in Kansas City where faith communities are partnering with the Kansas City Police Department, one to really help reduce crime, but also to build some bridges. And I don’t say, you know, to rebuild because I’m not sure they were ever there, but to build some bridges. So we’ve started that, and that’s been about a month ago. We have been involved in some protests and rallies. In fact, you know, last night I canceled Bible study because some of the other faith leaders and I thought it would be good to go down where the protests were happening and sort of stand between police and protesters to make sure things remain peaceful. So I canceled Bible study, and we had several members show up for that. And we did that last night, but we also did it several weeks ago. And I discovered, well it was shared, that when the faith leaders went down, when protests were happening a month or so ago, after George Floyd, the pastor stood between police and protesters, that was the most peaceful night in Kansas City. And every night after that was peaceful, so it just spoke volumes as to the influence that the church still had. I didn’t think that a lot of these young folk would even listen to a bunch of clergy, but to my surprise, that there was still a level of respect and they followed.

Emanuel Cleaver: And so just just getting involved with some of those things, also, you know, not just working with the police department, but also calling for some changes here in Kansas City with the way policing happens. Kansas City is the only major city in the country that doesn’t have local control of its police department. The police department in Kansas City is controlled by the state, the only city, the only major city in the country like that. And it dates back decades when there was a lot of corruption politically in Kansas City. Tom Pendergast, I don’t know if you’re familiar with that name. And so one of the things that we have been working on is getting local control, but also an independent policing police review board to handle complaints. And, you know, from my perspective, it protects police, but it also protects the community on both sides. So it’s just been a lot of work, and the church has been very supportive in those efforts.

Jason Hamrock: Yeah. Well, you know, of all the people who should be doing that, it’s somebody like you, a God fearing, Christ follower, leader who has a voice. And I want to say thank you for that work you’re doing because you’re an influencer and you can make things happen. I think that’s, if we’re not doing things, then we’re a part of the problem instead of a part of the solution.

Emanuel Cleaver: Right..

Jason Hamrock: So what would you, so what would you say to your white pastor leaders as well? How do you start to affect change inside of your own congregation? And because I talk to a lot of churches and we look at their church, and no doubt, it’s all white with a little bit of ethnic diversity, but a little bit. But then you look at the staff page, you can get a pretty clear picture. So what is church, how does a church move forward in that? If to truly be what I think heaven is going to be like, which is going to be like that, you’re going to see all kinds of color, which is going to be beautiful. But what does a church need to do, or where do they start?

Emanuel Cleaver: I think one, having conversations. We’ve actually developed a partnership with the largest United Methodist church in the country, which is in Leewood, Kansas, The Church of the Resurrection. And we developed a group called the Allies for Racial Justice, where there are six members from Church of the Resurrection, six members from St. James. And they are working, and they’ve been doing a lot of work over the last few years. One to bring our congregations together, where we have been worshipping with them, they worship with us. I actually just preached over at Church of the Resurrection maybe a month ago. Adam Hamilton, the pastor there, has preached here. Really just to have conversations, and get to know one another. And, you know, the way it all began, it was after, I think of Philando Castile, and Adam Hamilton and I sat down and had a conversation about our experiences with race, we did that in front of the congregation. And the way we did it is no Saint James person could sit with a St. James person, you had to sit with someone from Resurrection, and we did that intentionally as everyone is coming in. So Adam and I would have a conversation, and then we would invite them to have a conversation, and they would come back and we’d go back and forth. So first they would hear their pastors talk about uncomfortable experiences around race, and then we invited them to have the same. And so from that, the partnership has grown. So I would encourage churches really to start there, and really develop partnerships or fellowship with congregations that are not like their own, and I think you’ll see some change, some magnificent differences starting there.

Emanuel Cleaver: I mean, that’s just the starting point, now we’re trying to to build diverse congregation. Which, you know, to be honest, St. James is the same, we’re predominantly black with a few nonblack, white, Latino. But it’s you know, I wouldn’t, it’s not diverse. But I think, you know, one, we have to be intentional. So I think staffing plays a key role, if the staff is not diverse, I don’t know how you would expect the congregation to be diverse. And even looking at language and illustrations that we use in our sermons, and material that we use for Sunday schools, our growth groups, we have to be intentional, not all of it will translate to every culture. It’s hard work, but no one said kingdom work was going to be easy.

Jason Hamrock: No, not at all. And you’re not going to accidentally get there, right?

Emanuel Cleaver: Right. Right. You’re not going to trip, oh, here we are. No.

Jason Hamrock: Oh look it, we’re diverse. It doesn’t work that way. And I even speak into not only a church’s website, which is really evident. You can kind of look at a website and go, oK, you just get an idea, would I fit in there? And so, and I take a step further, you look at like their Facebook page, or their Google my business profile, which there’s all kinds of pictures, and that gives you a clear indication of what that church is about. Some churches don’t think about that, but if you want to be, if your goal is to be a diverse community, you’ve got to start acting like that, and being intentional about that, and then painting that picture. So people of any kind of color will feel comfortable going, I want to go there, right, and they’re obviously accepted and welcomed. And that’s a, at least from our perspective, that’s a good starting point. But I like. I really love your, first we’ve just got to develop a relationship and have a conversation. Start talking.

Emanuel Cleaver: Absolutely.

Jason Hamrock: Really valuable. So where do you think we go from here? I mean it, I mean churches are like, oh, there were so looking forward to 2020. And then, you know, all this stuff that hit, it’s like, oh, we can’t wait for 2021. And when you think about where you guys are headed as a church, and with this relationship that you have, what do you hope for when it comes to like the next year or two, or three, or five?

Emanuel Cleaver: Well, I think one, and we did have a lot of plans and big plans in 2020. But I think one, church is, what we’re looking at is do we need to restructure our entire staff, the way we’re staffing right now? Because I think even when this is all over, whatever that looks like, I don’t know that we’ll have a bunch of people rushing back to sit, you know, hundreds in a sanctuary together any time soon. So, you know, I know a lot of churches have already done this. You know, some call it a digital pastor or online pastor, someone that focuses on an online faith community. I mean, that’s something we’re exploring because I don’t think online ministry is is going to slow down any time soon. And I don’t, you know, even before COVID, but I think COVID just accelerated all of it. And so really looking at, you know, how do we structure our staff to make sure that we’re addressing the folks who are online?Because this, even before COVID, but especially now we have people worshipping with us all over the country. And so what do we do? How do we stay connected with them? How do we develop an online church community? And I know there are some churches that have done a great job. You know, the first comes to mind is Elevation in North Carolina. I know they’ve done that, but I think a lot of churches will have to to really explore that. So that’s that’s one of the big things we’ve already started talking about, how do we staff for the future?

Jason Hamrock: Yeah. Well, and for you to make that really difficult choice to cancel services all the way through the year. On the flip side of that, it’s giving you an opportunity and some time to figure out what does ministry look like in 2021? How do we budget for it, staff for it. What are those sacred cows that we’re just going to not do anymore? And what are the new things we want to do? And you know, I know Andy Stanley at North Point has made that decision. And it’s I think it’s pretty smart decision because it allows them to really not have to worry about when are we coming back and, you know, just being stressed by that. But going, nope, we’re done until the new year, so now let’s get the do the hard work of figuring out how are we going to relaunch in 2021. I’m sure you’re in that same stage.

Emanuel Cleaver: Yeah, that’s what we’re planning and talking about right now. What is it going to look like?

Jason Hamrock: Yeah. Yeah. Well, those are some pretty big decisions to make. It’s a good thing that you’re leading that church, and they got the right guy in the spot, even though it’s going to be difficult. So where do you get inspiration from? Like, share with us some books that you’ve been reading, or vlogs that you kind of tune in to, or podcast. Where do you get your inspiration from, other than the Bible, where do you get your inspiration from as you as you lead?

Emanuel Cleaver: You know, I listen to a lot of hip hop music from the 90s. I like, you know, some of the current stuff, but my heart is in the 90s, You know, I read a lot of articles, Christianity Today, Ministry Matters, a lot of stuff that Tom Rayner puts out. Just trying to, you know, read it and see what a lot of congregations are doing. I spent a lot of time combing through other congregations websites just to see what they’re doing, Facebook pages. You know, I’m of the philosophy, if you don’t have to reinvent the wheel, then don’t. And I can always learn from from other congregations. You know, I read, you know, the first book when I was going into ministry, the first book I read that my father gave me was James Cone, Black Liberation Theology. And, you know, that was the first one. And after that, I pretty much read all of all of his books. I like to read N.T. Wright New Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann. Yeah, I’m always looking at, you know, what I try to do when I’m when I’m reading, I try to read a scholarly academic book and then a practical book like a church leadership, or a church growth book to try to keep it balanced. You know, I’m inspired by a lot of that.

Emanuel Cleaver: But the biggest thing, I’m a part of a clergy group. We call ourselves Shift 180, and we meet every morning via Zoom. And pastors all over the country, eight of us, we meet via Zoom every morning at 6:30. And everyone, each day someone has the responsibility of giving the devotion, we talk about it and pray. And that has been a true blessing, I’ve gotten so many sermons out of that, so many ideas just from that group. And so that’s probably been one of the biggest blessings when it comes to inspiration.

Jason Hamrock: And that’s kind of, that’s your inner circle in a sense, right, that you’ve got to, you feed and then get fed.

Emanuel Cleaver: Yes.

Jason Hamrock: And then the rest of your your staff and your congregation, it trickles down to those guys. So.

Emanuel Cleaver: Yeah, yeah. And also actually do something called Mountaintop Time. I wrote a book in 2014 called Pastor on Track. And, you know, because I came to the conclusion that what we learned in seminary, no one ever taught us how to be pastors. There’s no class that says, here’s what a pastor ought to do. Pastors learn what to do based on what the previous pastor did and did not do, and that becomes your job description. And so the book is really about what pastors do, and what are the biblical perspectives of what our pastors are supposed to do. And in the last chapter is, I called it, Mountaintop Time, where you get away and really hear from God, vision, plan. And I do that, like I’m doing it pretty soon for 2021. And I think my staff hates when I come back from that, because that means we have some work to do, because I come back with a plan. So it’s not a vacation, it’s not a respite. It is simply, and I spend time about two weeks every day at a local seminary, the library, they have little small cubie where I can go in, pray, read, study, and I come back with the plan for each year.

Jason Hamrock: It’s like your little mini sabbatical.

Emanuel Cleaver: Yeah, now I do think I need a long one. But yeah it is, it is like that.

Jason Hamrock: Yeah, our pastor does as well, Instead of taking like a six month sabbatical every eight or ten years, he takes a month or so off every summer and allows others to preach. But it gives him time to just kind of unplug, and get realigned, and refocus with God, and where the spirit is leading him. And it sounds like he comes down and says, okay guys, this is what we’re going to do. And I think that’s, every leader needs that.

Emanuel Cleaver: I believe so.

Jason Hamrock: Yeah. And you can, because you, especially these days, somebody in your position, in your authority and leadership. You’re being pulled in so many directions that are even maybe outside the church, that you really need that intentional, okay, guys, I need to focus here.

Emanuel Cleaver: Yeah, and I got an example of five other pastors around the country who do that. One is a friend of mine, Matt Miofsky, who pastor’s The Gathering in St. Louis. And I quoted him in the book and he said, the reason he does it is because he found himself, you can get caught up working in the church, but pastors sometimes need to work on the church. And it just made sense, you know, you can get caught up in the day to day. And some of the small things, not that they’re not important, but we can lose focus on the bigger picture.

Jason Hamrock: Yeah, well said, that’s great advice for every leader. You get so far into the forest, you’re like, there’s trees around me, you know?

Emanuel Cleaver: Right.

Jason Hamrock: I can’t even see them.

Emanuel Cleaver: Yeah, exactly.

Jason Hamrock: Well, thank you so much! I appreciate your time, and your insight, and wisdom. A lot to learn, and chew on as leaders. And yeah, my prayer for for you guys is, is you guys…Kansas City is one of my favorite cities, and I was born there, and I love Kansas City. And as you guys are making a big difference, sounds like you’re making a huge difference there, I just pray that you guys, that the God keeps guiding you, and building His church in your church. Right? And that’s a diverse church, that we’re all disciples and following Jesus, and that’s the goal.

Emanuel Cleaver: Absolutely, that is our goal. And, you know, with God’s help, we’ll get there.

Jason Hamrock: That’s right. Amen. All right, well, thank you so much. And we’ll talk to you soon.

Emanuel Cleaver: Thank you. God bless.

Jason Hamrock: Well, thank you, Doctor Cleaver, you’re an inspiration and a model of what leadership looks like when it’s tough to lead. We all have to do work when it comes to the racial issues in our country. And I believe, I firmly believe the church should be the most prominent voice to speak truth to people, all people. Dr. Cleaver, his idea, that in order to change conversations need to happen first, that is great advice. Relationships need to be forged, you’re not going to wander into becoming a multi-ethnic church, it’s not going to happen. You have to focus on being a multi-ethnic church, and take the advice of Dr. Cleaver, go build relationships with others who are not like you. Just start there. Well, my prayer and my hope is that you lean on God and ask for His wisdom as you consider becoming a more multi-ethnic church. Thanks for tuning in, until next time, God bless.

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