A Review of The Courage to Lead: Leadership in the African American Urban Church by James H. Harris

[1] Most people are familiar with the phrase “you can’t judge a book by its cover.” There are times when you can’t judge one by its title either. The Courage to Lead tends to fall into the latter category in my estimation not for the lack of relevant material for which there is a great abundance, but because there appears to be a lack of clarity as to the author’s audience and purpose. It appeared to this reviewer that there were at least three distinct audiences, and probably more depending upon how finely one wishes to draw lines of distinction, each with its own peculiar/unique needs that the author was attempting to address. Consequently, because of this scattered approach, all are left with the feeling of not being adequately satisfied.

[2] Interestingly enough the three audiences I envisioned seem to correspond with the three parts into which the book is divided. The first would seem to address students and the poorly or “improperly” tutored. It seeks to convey James Harris’s use and understanding of “courage” by equating it with the “Call/election” to be a pastor in a congregation. In addition, Harris attempts to alert the young pastor to some of the pitfalls inherent in the preaching ministry.

[3] The second part, contrary to its title, seems to be addressed to the academy and seeks to provide a rational, historical explanation for an activist Black Church, and to affirm that such activist expectations still exist within traditional Black denominations. To support this thesis he introduces a prodigious amount of data collected from a limited survey that was conducted as well as information garnered from the 1980 and 1990 national census. There are several issues with the survey. There is the small sampling size, which he also acknowledges (338 responses from 10 urban churches in a southeastern Virginia city). It would be helpful to know the criteria by which the churches were selected, the total number of people surveyed and the method of distribution in order to determine the percentage of the responses received. Any of these factors could introduce a considerable degree of self-selecting on the part of those who responded, which would seriously skew the data. He also indicated there were churches that would not cooperate with the survey, although they were aware of what was trying to be accomplished. Why these churches would not participate would also be helpful information to anyone attempting to assess the merits of the data.

[4] Another concern related to the implementation of the survey has to do with the data gathering process. Was the survey done by distributing forms only to persons willing to participate; or were the forms widely and randomly distributed, or were there persons who interviewed and then recorded the responses of the interviewees or were they allowed to read and respond to the forms at their convenience?

[5] The way questions are framed also influences the way people respond to many issues, especially when the questions would appear to convey a value judgment, even if it is a subtle one. If the questions had been stated in a fashion that people could respond to with a more value-neutral response like “agree” or “disagree” with degrees of intensity added, the survey might have turned out differently. Few people would consider the issues being dealt with as “unimportant.” That’s an intellectual concept. If, on the other hand, they were asked how they felt about their pastor participating in those issues as part of his/her ministry, particularly if it took time away from them, I suspect the percentage of support would be somewhat reduced. One final observation related to the survey is that the inclusion of several non-historical Black churches such as Lutheran and Presbyterian, etc. further contaminates the study, because these denominations tend to have more clearly defined roles and expectations for their clergy, at least constitutionally speaking.

[6] The third part of the book seems to be directed towards those who want to engage society but apparently lack a constructive framework that enables them to achieve such engagement. The first part of this section seeks to provide a rationale for such an engagement, and the second section seeks to provide some parameters as well as guidelines for achieving engagement. In many denominations, these parameters and guidelines would be called “constitutions and bylaws,” and would be strictly adhered to by some parishioners even to the detriment of their congregations in some instances. It becomes an issue of identity for them, setting them apart from “the others.”

[7] The parameters and guidelines provided in this section of the book, if they were implemented as presented, would establish the local congregation as an “autocracy” with all power and authority vested in the pastor. The pastor’s relationship to her/his people is compared, by the author, with that of a doctor to a patient or that of a teacher to a group of students-both doctor and teacher are unassailable authority figures. Is there any wonder then, that there is a perception of a great divide that exists between pastor and laity? This role perception also places a tremendous burden and responsibility on the pastor by making her/him the primary decision-maker. This may also be a factor in why so many Black churches remain small. They grow until they reach the level of the pastor’s ability to control and manage his/her flock.

[8] Two concepts among the numerous points that he makes, that deserve to be both affirmed and reinforced are: 1) the enormous potential/power that is dormant within the Black church to bring about social transformation if appropriately roused and harnessed; and 2) the role of the pastor as educator and trainer. These two key ministry areas are either unrecognized or given very low priority by many clergy in the Black community. Most would quite readily agree that the Black church has historically been the source of leadership in the Black community, especially prior to the fifties and the sixties. It was the only legitimate, viable institution, totally under Black control that was allowed to exist among Black people. Because it had access to the masses, it could easily mobilize people to confront certain issues/problems that existed when the need arose to do so. Their voices could not be easily muffled.

[9] In the period prior to and during the Civil Rights Movement, the evils of segregation were very clear and very focused. Dignity and self worth were at stake. Access and equal opportunity were two of the primary goals that people were fighting and striving for. Dr. Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) were among those who were able to articulate these and other goals in a manner that people could commit to them. The youth element through the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) and others were able to generate enormous energy towards these goals so that other more conservative, “mixed,” organizations like the NAACP and the Urban League were forced to become more aggressive in their activities. When the walls of segregation fell, along with the death of Dr. King, leadership in the Black community sort of fell apart too, so it seems. Today, racism targets are not as clear and focused as they were before. In addition, integration has failed to deliver as previously envisioned. Consequently, the more subtle forms of racism encountered by our people today require a different style of leadership than heretofore. This is what I was looking for in The Courage to Lead. What are the unique leadership issues in this context that have to be addressed and what are some of the resources that are available for acquiring these new skills?

[10] Another area that might have received greater attention was the focus on the church as a community of Spirit filled and Spirit led people. It seems to me that the Black church today is in a position somewhat similar to that of the disciples following the crucifixion, (i.e., they feared for their lives and hid in the comfort of the sanctuary of their upper room). When the Spirit came, they cast aside their fears and moved out into the world because they feared God more than they feared man.

[11] That kind of spiritual empowering lasted for centuries until the church became a part of the establishment and lost a sense of its mission. Today, people are faced with the same dilemma as the first disciples. They discovered that challenging the power structures could not only get you hurt, it could even get you killed. So they retreated to the comfort and security of their sanctuaries and focused their attention on issues that are of small consequence. I suspect that the greatest challenge to leadership in the Black church today is enabling people to reconnect with their historical Spiritual power base. One element of that challenge is for the pastor to embrace the role of the suffering servant (along with all of her/his other duties) and help the people to discern what social issues and concerns that need addressing right here, right now. The Courage to Lead in that context, would be embracing the necessary skills that would enable people to deal with the issues confronting them in spite of their own personal safety and security.