Many white pastors have dedicated themselves to anti-racism. Yet leading predominantly white churches through racial justice work presents challenges and complexities that require a thoughtful and intentional approach. Engaging in racial justice work in our churches is a complex and ongoing journey that requires deep commitment, humility and a willingness to confront difficult truths.

Simply expecting these organizations to navigate issues of racism without guidance or support is unrealistic. While some churches may have individuals who are already well versed in anti-racism efforts, most congregations do not; there is a significant gap in preparedness between clergy and lay leaders regarding the congregational work of racial justice. Churches need help in transitioning from their current position to a more informed and proactive stance on racial justice.

Funded by a Thriving Congregations grant from Lilly Endowment, sociologists Mark Mulder, Kevin Dougherty and myself have interviewed more than 150 pastors, lay leaders and members in the United States and Canada associated with the Alliance of Baptists on their efforts to become anti-racist. In listening to the experiences of clergy and lay leaders who work with anti-racism committees and racial justice task forces, we have noted a few themes that stand out.

Here are some preliminary principles that might guide pastors and anti-racist volunteer leaders in enacting anti-racism today.

Acknowledge the church’s historical complicity in racism and racial injustice.

In the journey toward becoming an anti-racist church, perhaps the first and most crucial step is acknowledging the church’s historical complicity in racism and racial injustice. It is essential to have open and honest conversations about how race has interplayed within the church’s history. Through naming and discussing these uncomfortable truths, pastors and lay leaders can help their members understand the world in better ways and expose them to diverse ideas and voices that will contribute to a more inclusive and just society.

The importance of acknowledging and confronting the predominantly white church’s historical complicity in racism and racial injustice cannot be overstated. Anti-racist church leaders also emphasize the importance of analyzing and confronting white supremacy within the church. By naming and exposing these realities, the church can help individuals understand the world more deeply and grapple with the ways in which race has intersected with its history.

One pastor underscored the significance of addressing systemic issues of racism as a theological endeavor, saying, “For the church not to do so [analyze white supremacy] will constitute a profound theological failure.” Failure to confront the intertwining of theology with historical structures of racism will hinder the church’s ability to faithfully enact God’s presence in the world.

Be courageous in critically examining racism within ourselves and our own institutions.

The courage and risks involved in critically examining racism within our own communities or institutions are significant. There is potential backlash when confronting uncomfortable truths about racism within our own circles.

“Obviously, the political risks and consequences for a researcher who tells a different, unflattering story about his/her own community are very high,” one pastor said.

Creating a safe environment for open dialogue and questioning is essential in the process of leading a congregation toward anti-racism. The narrative approach emphasizes the significance of spaces where individuals can ask difficult questions without fear of judgment or hostility. Encouraging curiosity and a willingness to engage with uncomfortable topics can foster a culture of learning and understanding within the church community. It is through these conversations that individuals can challenge their assumptions, broaden their perspectives and deepen their commitment to racial justice.

Church insiders can model this process. Through the use of racial justice teams and “buy-in” from deacons and other leaders, church leaders can see the significance of engaging with community members and stakeholders in the examination of racism, and their perspectives and insights can enhance the impact and effectiveness of efforts toward transformation and change.

Engage the church’s unique capacity for repentance as part of the racial justice journey.

The church has a unique capacity for the conversion and renewal that is integral to the racial justice journey.

“The church has the language for what’s needed, right? I mean, we have the language of reconciliation, we have confession, we have repentance and transformation,” one pastor said.

These elements form the foundation for addressing systemic injustices and fostering change from within our congregations.

In the process of spiritual formation, repentance is central. Without active resistance to our typical patterns of thinking and acting, the momentum of our racialized society will keep us further affirming structures of white supremacy.

One pastor reflected on the act of repentance, saying, “Repentance is not about thinking of yourself as this awful irredeemable sinner all the time. Repentance is actually an invitation to just turn around from the place that you were going and try a different direction.”

Amplify the voices, experiences and leadership of people of color within and beyond the church.

The importance of listening to and amplifying the voices of people of color cannot be overstated. Church leaders actively engaged in the work of anti-racism recognize the necessity of prioritizing perspectives and solutions emerging directly from affected communities.

Such work entails immersive engagements with individuals from nonwhite communities — people whose experiences vary broadly in ancestral background, citizenship status and connection to whiteness.

One impactful strategy is the hosting of community forums and dialogues. These platforms serve as vital spaces for the voices and experiences of marginalized communities, fostering empathy, understanding and allyship among congregants. By actively engaging in these conversations and creating opportunities for authentic dialogue, the church can play a pivotal role in building bridges, dismantling barriers and promoting solidarity across diverse communities.

Adopt humility and a willingness to make mistakes as we learn to act as a church toward racial justice.

Of course, repentance is an ongoing and dynamic process. There is a continuing need for learning, self-reflection and commitment to the lifelong process of anti-racism work. Embracing a mindset that acknowledges our own limitations and readiness to learn is crucial in this journey.

Our leaders must model humility. When faced with challenging inquiries, they must be willing to admit they do not have all the answers — and willing to take the time to reflect on the questions. By modeling vulnerability and a willingness to learn, pastors can cultivate an environment where congregants feel empowered to explore complex issues and seek understanding together.

This approach not only promotes a culture of continuous learning but also demonstrates a commitment to growth and transformation in the pursuit of anti-racism within the church community.

Western narratives have historically portrayed white Christians as morally good. It is crucial to deconstruct these narratives and challenge the social presumptions that equate goodness with whiteness.

By critically examining these presumptions, the church can actively work toward dismantling racist legacies embedded in biblical commentary and devotional materials. Sermons, videos, small group guides and other resources must become more inclusive and foster an equitable community that reflects the true values of love, justice and compassion.

Being honest about the shortcomings and failures of the church is a vital aspect of this process. By acknowledging past mistakes, we live out what repentance looks like and actualize meaningful change.

Despite the resistance that may arise within the church, especially when cherished ideas, sentiments and Christian “heroes” are brought into question, it is imperative to analyze and address the white supremacy embedded within familiar faith narratives. Failure to confront these racialized presumptions would not only be a theological shortcoming; it would also be a missed opportunity to embody the spirit of repentance to enact justice in the world.