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Cheryl Sanders: Finding identity in the world

Pastoring a church you grew up in has its benefits and challenges, says a pastor and professor of Christian ethics at Howard University. Still, the focus must be on charting a course for the future.

June 14, 2011

Since the Third Street Church of God in Washington, D.C., started in 1910, it has had only three pastors. The first pastor served there for 57 years, and the second for 25 years.

Cheryl Sanders has been its senior pastor since 1997.

She also grew up in the church, and her family has been active in it since the 1920s. Her mother was literally born in it.

“I have always been connected to the church,” Sanders said.

Sanders got her call to go into ministry during her sophomore year at Swarthmore College. But it was very clear, she said, that she wasn’t supposed to change her major to religion or attend seminary at the time. “So I stayed on the same academic track that I was on,” she said.

After graduating from Swarthmore, she worked at the U.S. Department of Transportation as a mathematician. While working full time, she signed up to take a black theology class at Howard University. She took at least two more courses in the divinity school before moving to Massachusetts, where she worked part time while earning a master of divinity and a doctorate in applied theology from Harvard University.

Today, in addition to pastoring the 200-member Third Street Church of God, she is a professor of Christian ethics at Howard University and the author of several books, including “Ministry at the Margins,” “Saints in Exile,” and “Empowerment Ethics for a Liberated People.”

Sanders talked to Faith & Leadership about pastoring the church she grew up in, how her work as a former mathematician has influenced her leadership, and the relationship between her roles as a pastor and a professor. The video clip is an excerpt from the following edited transcript.

Q: You’re a third-generation member of the church that you now pastor. Tell me about your family’s relationship to your church.

My grandparents were members of Third Street Church of God. The church started in Washington, D.C., in 1910 as a house church by people who had migrated from North Carolina to Washington in search of employment and economic opportunities, which many African-American families did in the first part of the 20th century.

My grandparents migrated from North Carolina in the 1920s. My mother was actually born in the church. The church was like a settlement house, and her parents had a room in it. The church has been in our present location since the year my mother was born, which was 1927.

My brother and I grew up in the church, and my children, my husband and I worship there. So with my children, it’s four generations.

That’s our church -- our spiritual heritage. It’s a small church, so you know everybody and everybody knows you.

Q: How does that affect your pastoral leadership? Say you’re at a meeting, is it hard for you to look around the table, see people who knew you as a little girl, and try to tell them what to do?

Well, it isn’t my style to tell anybody what to do other than my children, and I don’t do too well with that. But yes, to be accepted as a leader by people who knew you before you were born is a challenge.

It’s one of those things, though, you just can’t worry about, because if you get in a mindset of having to do a certain level of deference to people who knew you when, then you can’t go forward yourself. At the same time, you don’t disregard the fact.

I appreciate that there are people there who have known me my whole life, but I’m not going to be hindered by that. I’m not going to be disrespectful to them either.

Q: Before you became a pastor, you were a mathematician. How has that influenced your pastoral leadership?

History taught me that in ancient Egypt the mathematicians were the priests, because mathematics is regarded as a revealed knowledge. So I have never seen being a mathematician as contradictory to being a pastor or an ethicist. Ethicists, most of us anyway, are philosophers. It’s all about knowledge.

But there’s a certain discipline that mathematics brings to thinking, especially to critical thinking, that I think has served me well.

The downside of it is that being a mathematician can be an isolated cerebral endeavor, and sometimes when you’re in leadership, it’s better to have a background in how to manage the unquantifiable aspects of how people relate to each other.

Q: You’ve spent time at both predominately white and predominately black institutions. Talk about how they’ve influenced you.

I’m a child of the ’60s. So during the late ’60s, when I was in high school, I was the person who started the black student union. I mean, I was the radical person, because it was just really clear to me what the justice issues were and what was at stake. And then one thing that drew me to Swarthmore College was that they had gotten a lot of publicity with a major protest.

Oh, the kind of thing that happened at Swarthmore was happening at schools all over -- either it was the Vietnam War or black power -- and that was happening all over the place. What was different at Swarthmore was that when they took control of the administration building, the president died of a heart attack. And so that made the front cover of Life magazine, and it was a big story. And I was so impressed with how articulate the students were and how they handled it so well.

So when it came time for me to make a decision where I wanted to go to school, I was influenced by what I regarded as the quality of intellect that I saw in the black students there, and I was like, “That’s the place where I want to be.” And so I continued my student activism, if I could call it that, at Swarthmore.

But looking back on that experience so many years later -- I realized that a lot of things that the students were pursuing, the adults had no clue. The people who were supposed to be grown-ups -- we would call them the administration or whatever -- but they really didn’t know too much more than we did about how to effect change. So it was an exciting opportunity.

It wasn’t so much separatism as it was finding one’s identity in the world. And so I don’t think, then or now, I see the world as simply categories of black and white.

But the challenge, particularly in a Christian perspective, is how do we get along? I mean, how do we make reconciliation work? How are we truthful about the things that have separated us, and then how do we chart our course for the future so that everybody has a fair opportunity for a good quality of life?

Q: You were the first female pastor of your church. How do you balance respecting the tradition of this church that you have such a connection to with meeting the change that you just talked about?

Our church is in our 101st year. In 100 years, we’ve had three pastors. So that makes it not such a big deal of, “Oh, you’re the first one.”

I have never made a big deal about being the first anything -- the first black, the first woman. That’s not important to me. But being the third after the first pastor served for 57 years and the second pastor served for 25 years -- we don’t change pastors very often -- I don’t intend to break either record.

I was already serving at the church when my predecessor died unexpectedly, and I did continue in a leadership role in the aftermath of his death while the church was deciding what they wanted for the next leader. It wasn’t clear to me at that point that I should be the next pastor. I just knew if I was associate pastor and the pastor has died, that I would have to step up and continue to preach.

It’s been a challenge to pastor a church where you’ve already served and where you have certain commitments and traditions. What I’m trying to do now is to help our church envision our second century. We have lived our first century. God has blessed us, and we spent a whole year celebrating it. Now it is time to move into the 21st century.

Q: What is your vision?

The urgent thing that I see for now is how do we strategize to improve our ability to send out a message to people who, for whatever reason, don’t see it as a given that they should be in church or follow Christ.

In a way of speaking, getting that message out has always been the mission of the church. But in an age of social networking, I believe the church has to have a virtual presence and an online presence. We need to be doing podcasting and Facebook and tweeting and websites and email, and using every available avenue, not only to get the message out, but to reach out to people who don’t necessarily fit the traditional mold of what a church person is like.

That also means at the same time that we reinvent ourselves in our face-to-face interactions in our worship and in what we offer. We have to move into this century and make sure that we have a good intergenerational mix within our congregation.

Q: Have you found any resistance in moving into that vision?

You always have culture wars on one level or another in a church.

You have people who prefer not to sing anything that was written after 1900, and you have people for whom anything written before the year 2000 is irrelevant.

You also have the question of service projects. What kinds of service projects interest the younger people versus the way we’ve always done it?

And the stakeholders: are all the stakeholders the older people, or can you develop some new stakeholders who will say, “Well, this is my church, too, and these are some of the things I’m interested in, and these are some of the issues that we need to be dealing with.”

It’s a challenge of how to have something for everyone so that everyone feels included, even if everybody doesn’t see eye to eye on what we’re doing.

Q: What’s the relationship between your roles as a pastor and a scholar?

In terms of scheduling, my usual routine is I go to school in the morning and I go to church in the afternoon. At night, I’m either back to school for a class or sometimes back to church for a meeting. Sometimes I actually get to go home and prepare for the next day.

I also supervise field education, so I have a lot of opportunity to see how the things that I’m teaching and experiencing and even researching apply to my practical work as a pastor. I get to hear and respond to and wrestle with critical questions and concerns of real people. That I think adds grit to my scholarship.

I don’t just sit in the library and say, “Oh, I wonder what I’m going to write about.” But I know what some of the pressing issues are that need to have a response or warrant the search for some logical and ethical solutions.

Now, I’m speaking as a mathematician, because I think every problem has its solution. It’s just that the complexity of the solution has to match the complexity of the problem. And people problems and social problems tend to be very complex, and we underestimate that. So we study and we apply, and we study and we apply, but it’s an interesting dance to do on a day-to-day basis.