This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is church-pews-600x240.png
Image: low camera angle photo of church pews facing the front of a sanctuary. Image courtesy of pixabay/marcino.

Originally published April 22, 2020.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously proclaimed that Sunday mornings contain the most segregated hour in America. MLK was talking about churches in 1960. Today, a small but growing reality is a move toward multiracial churches. These churches create a unique situation in which Black pastors have a seat at the table in predominantly white institutional settings. But, as recent research demonstrates, white pastors benefit more from leading a multiracial church. 

 Christopher Munn conducted a qualitative analysis using a national, stratified sample of 121 religious leaders to understand how race shapes inequality in multiracial churches. He looked at multiple social contexts (i.e. mentorship, leadership positions) and material resources (i.e. grant funding) that each leader described, weighing each social relationship by its potential benefit and perceived durability. Munn found clear racial differences in social capital, or the resources that come from social relationships.

First, white pastors hoard capital. They trap resources by sharing primarily with other white network members. This looks benign on the surface, as it commonly takes the shape of things like peer mentor programs, sharing social ties, and informal exchanges of resources in general. But access to these embedded resources is mostly limited to white men, and to a lesser extent white women. 

Second, Black pastors found a more symbolic seat at the table, in which their contributions were devalued and their access was restricted. For example, they could be paid a small sum for leading a diversity workshop for other church leaders, but were unlikely to find the more sustainable funds that white pastors were more able to access. 

In a telling example, a white male pastor serving on the board for a local healthcare system befriended the hospital’s CEO, and now his church’s nonprofit housing initiative receives $100K/year from that hospital. Racial inequality in wealth and access continues to matter, even in the leadership of religious organizations.