Christian leaders in the city get neutralized almost as fast at they appear. I could give you a list of a dozen or more personal friends and colleagues that have thrown in the towel, had the rug yanked out, or have regressed into apathy just in the past couple of years. Part of the sad truth is that a hugely disproportionate number are African American -- among the most needed leaders in our urban ministries.
In his great book Reconciliation Blues, Ed Gilbreath paints a picture of coming into a room full of CCDA leaders, all forlorn, heads down. Palpable Discouragement. I think for most ministers in urban America this picture resonates.
So why is this the case? I believe that the overall spiritual, emotional, physical and financial impact of urban ministry is simply more than "normal" people can deal with.
One problem is that many if not most urban ministry leaders are being prepared in notoriously non-urban frameworks. Success is defined in efficiency, relative comfort, and all-too-often distinctly partisan terms. Theology itself, as well our sense of ortho-praxis, is done in the sanctity of the air-conditioned, well stocked, comfortable classroom. The racial, economic, physical, social and spiritual context of the urban center constantly challenge what one has always heard before.
About a year ago I went to a highly regarded leadership forum in which one of the most recognizable Evangelical leaders in the country (I'll call him Jack) did a workshop called "the life cycle of a leader". I was looking forward to it because I knew that he had been highly effective by most standards, I had really appreciated his teaching in the past, and I knew that he had faced significant trouble during his ministry (I also had a sense of skepticism about the super-leader model but was keeping this at bay). By the time the guy was done talking, however, he had "charted" on a white board a line that looked like a stock market growth chart during a time of nothing but affluence. Up, up, up.
Who could possibly live a life like that, let alone lead ministry in which everything is always up, up, up. . . on to the next level of success -- the top of which was reserved for a few super-duper leaders like Moses, Jesus, and Jack.
Regardless of Jack's optimism about ministry leadership, this is not only a false confidence in one's personal leadership, but a patently unbiblical example to hold up for Christian ministers. It is also a destructive standard to carry into the urban context. It won't happen. It can't be maintained. It is a front. A hustle. It's untrue.
In the urban center you will get wounded as you enter into the suffering of others. You will fall into pits, face persecution, deal with obstacles unknown and almost unimaginable in the affluent and "safe" places beyond communities of relegation. The urban leader is alternatively viewed as "hero" by those who would never dare to go there, and as villain by those who don't think a responsible adult would allow their children to live there, go to school there, etc...
Of course the truth is that urban leaders are neither hero, nor villain, but simply parts of the body of Christ who are surrounded by other parts of the body of Christ. I don't think "super-peoples" are what is needed for urban ministry either. Rather, people who know they are weak, and therefore remain dependent on God. As one of my closest mentors once told me: "Expect God to work slowly but consistently . . . and expect lots of problems. That's how God normally works." Outside of scripture. . . . truer words were never spoken!
All of that said, there are some specific issues that must be considered about the challenge of urban ministry and why so many leaders hit the dirt or skip town. I want to suggest a few possibilities and love it if you add your perspective:
1. The urban spiritual battle. The urban context almost inevitably involves reconciliation between people who just don't "get" each other (racially, economically, and educationally).
2. Change. The rate of change and information is so intense, you can't ever really get used to it - you are never all caught up!
3. The need:give ratio. The amount of need in your face on a daily basis radically exceeds anyone's capacity to give to the point of "fixing".
4. Family. Are the kids safe?
5. Money Irony: It is expensive to live in poor neighborhoods.