“Transformational Leadership for Urban Ministries” featuring Tony Hunt

Leading Ideas Talks
Leading Ideas Talks
"Transformational Leadership for Urban Ministries" featuring Tony Hunt

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Podcast Episode 141

How can church leaders address the challenges of urban ministry in a transformative way? We speak with pastor and scholar Tony Hunt about reading a community well, identifying assets, and the importance of understanding your ministry context. He shares with us how to develop the transformative qualities of effective leadership.

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How can church leaders address the challenges of urban ministry in a transformative way? In this episode we speak with pastor and scholar Tony Hunt about reading a community well, identifying assets, and the importance of understanding your ministry context. He shares with us how to develop the transformative qualities of effective leadership.

Doug Powe: Welcome to Leading Ideas Talks, a podcast featuring thought leaders and innovative practitioners. I’m Douglas Powe, the director of the Lewis Center, and your host for this talk. Joining me is the Reverend Doctor Anthony Hunt, Tony, who is a pastor and scholar. We’re focusing on his book Hope for the City: Transformational Leadership Development for Urban Ministries. Our focus for this podcast is on urban ministry leadership. Tony, I’m excited to have you with us today to talk about this really important book and work that you’ve done.

Tony Hunt: Thank you for having me, Doug, I look forward to the conversation.

Doug Powe: Tony, I want to begin with actually having you sort of explain how you would define the term urban. We often hear people use this language, but I have learned that people mean different things when they use the word urban. So, if you could define for us, at least in your opinion, how do you think about the term urban?

Tony Hunt: You’re right. There are just multiple ways to think about urban, what it is to be urban, and urban in the process of urbanization. I think scholars like David Claerbaut and Ronald Peters give us an indication of what it looks like. I would say more characterizations than definition and the definitions are embedded in the characterizations. One thing that urban is not, I’ll start there, most of those who study urban studies and urban ministry would say that urban is not confined to a municipality or simply space or physical boundaries. That’s a part of it, but urban itself is characterized by the type of density in community. There are people, the type of movement of people in community, the diversity of a particular area, traffic flow, business, and economics. Just really going back to early civilization and how those communities functioned as economic and political entities in themselves. It can be a very large area, or it can be an area that’s defined as a city. But a city is not the sole defining characteristic of entity that defines urban itself. So urban again [includes]space and how people relate with each other across these various forms of density. These really express what urban is more than a physical and a political boundary or municipal boundary.

Doug Powe: All right, thank you. I think if I’m hearing you correctly, part of the challenge with the term urban is to try to make it easy, we often define it simply as “city,” but it’s really more complex and complicated in terms of what actually should count as urban. Depending on where you may be located, what may be urban in one place in another place may not be urban.

Tony Hunt: Right. I think sometimes my experience in church and leadership and working in cities like Baltimore and Washington and other cities across the country is that many persons who are urban, or in urban kind of contexts, don’t want to be defined as urban because it takes on a connotation of something that’s negative or less than more suburban communities. Where, by these types of definitions and characteristics, there are urban types. There’s traffic, there’s diversity in community, there’s density of population, and so some inner suburban areas are more urban than they are suburban. So that gets to really defining urban as this place of hope, this sense of hope, this sense of — as my book kind of points to — this sense of possibility as well as some of the real challenges that we face when any large group of people get together who are diverse.

Doug Powe: Yes. And the book, again, is Hope for the City: Transformational Leadership, Development for Urban Ministries, and I’m talking with Tony Hunt. So Tony, many urban areas, and you’ve said this a couple of times, are becoming more diverse today. How is this both a wonderful thing and a challenge for congregations in those communities?

Tony Hunt: Yes, challenges for congregations and nonprofits, anyone who is working in urban communities. Another part of my work is building community through what we call in theological circles the beloved community. One of the challenges is really defining in an urban space community that has by definition (not that it’s not diverse in other places) the complexity, the dynamics of diversity. You have age diversity, you have racial ethnic diversity, you have economic diversity. In any given zip code, like the zip code which I pastor, you have national diversity, you have gender diversity, you have identity diversity.

You have all these types of diversities converging and really making sense of it around, say, what the mission of a community is, what the purpose of a community is once it’s defined. The community is defined by the people who are in it, and then bringing definition to it by bringing a meaning and hope and blessing out of that. So, the challenges are in the diversity itself because it’s not a monolithic type of diversity, if you will. It’s multiple diversities even within those categories. So, for instance, all black people or African American people do not think the same, do not have the same experiences, do not believe the same. How do we work with that and see that as a gift and not only a challenge, but a gift itself?

Doug Powe: So, just to follow up, you’re talking about transformational leadership in the book.A leader in an urban community — but I would argue this would fit other contexts as well — when you have diversity typically in a congregation, what we like to do is think about “how do we connect with a certain group of people?” Be it economically, be it racially, ethnicity, we want to connect with middle class individuals so we can program in that particular way. But in an urban area where you have so much diversity, you’ve got to think more creatively, is what I’m hearing you say. You can’t just simply say, “I’m going to just do this type of program.” I’ve got to maybe think more creatively about how I’m going to do the program.

Tony Hunt: Exactly. There’s no cookie cutter to leading, I’ve learned, in any context. But as it relates to urban contexts, there’s certainly not a cookie cutter. I talk about in the book the leadership practices of reading a community well, of understanding who’s in the community, listening well. With what our good friend and colleague Joe Daniels calls walking like Nehemiah, walking a community, or what I call exegeting the culture, exegeting the community. That’s not a term that’s original to me, but one of the lessons, one of the things I practice with the leadership team at the church I pastor, Epworth Chapel, and I have the students that we work with at Wesley Seminary and other places do is just walk your catchment area. Just walk and see what you see. Do you see grass? Do you see broken windows? Who are the mayors in your community? Who has influence? Asset-based community analysis and getting to know the community informs leadership. It’s contextual leadership. And again, there’s no cookie cutter because in a city like Baltimore you have 26 different defined communities, and then you have communities within those, for instance.

So, the principles could apply of walking, but when we walk, we see something different, or we may walk differently. But really contextually, the work of Hope for the City: Transformational Leadership in Urban Ministries, is the work around evidence based, talking to lots of pastors around the country, interviewing pastors, and doing some evidence-based work that’s tied to standard leadership practices and what leadership theorists are doing but contextualizing leadership to apply to specific contexts. So, what is in the catchment zone of a zip code? One zip code. Who’s there? What people are there? What process is there? What does the place look like? What’s not there? Is there a grocery store in the community? I like to ask the question, “Is there a Starbucks in the community?” because that says a lot about what people are thinking about that community and what might be coming. What are indicators of hope for a particular community?

Doug Powe: You have moved in this direction a little bit. I know that you often lead sort of a pilgrimage or immersions in the communities, and you’ve talked about working with students doing that sort of work in Baltimore and you have laid out some of the ways you help them to exegete the community as you’re walking through. But what I’m curious about is: what have you overheard them say out loud of some of the assumptions they’re making before that you help them to see with new eyes? What are some of the assumptions people make who don’t live in urban communities that when they actually do exegete the community, they’re surprised maybe in some ways by what they discover?

Tony Hunt: Yeah. So, maybe some of the ways that we were educated and informed about cities, particularly those of us who might not have ever lived in a city. Often when we do the immersions in Baltimore, or even in cities in Alabama, [we do]a lot of work in Alabama, so we go through cities like Birmingham, Montgomery, and Selma — those are cities, Atlanta, places that we go. I see the same thing in places like Minneapolis, parts of Chicago, Milwaukee, places I’ve been lately.

Doug Powe: Yeah, and I want to continue in this theme of exegeting. You talk about King in the book and you’re a King scholar,but I want to come at it a bit differently. I don’t want to be unfair, but I think — and I’ll test this out on you — King fared better in southern urban areas than he did when he went to northern Chicago. But I also think King in many ways was a quick exegete; he understood the importance of context and everything. But what are the lessons for us then in terms of our own sort of leadership development that we can take away from someone like King, who was so successful in Southern urban areas but really struggled when he went up North.

Leading Ideas Talks is also brought to you by Leading Like Nehemiah: Rebuilding Together. This six-session video-based study curriculum lifts up key themes in Nehemiah’s witness that can inspire and guide faith leaders today. Learn more, watch an introductory video, and view sample Study and Discussion Guide pages now at churchleadership.com/nehemiah.

Tony Hunt: I really think that the lesson for all leaders today is that all leadership is contextual. Montgomery — whatever the success is there in the Civil Rights movement — the tactics, the contexts of people were different than Chicago. Obviously, Chicago, Los Angeles, Detroit, other places where King certainly went, they were much more complex in many ways because they were larger.

If King were here today, let’s say, in fact I agree with your observation. We talked a lot about that, in some of my work, King studies and civil rights studies, is that the work of civil rights was largely urban in many ways, urban work. It was in cities like Atlanta, cities like Albany, Georgia, small, sometimes smaller cities, and maybe somewhat differently complex. What I would want to learn from Dr. King’s lesson in like Chicago — that did not go well — is that you have to lead in different forms of nuance in a place like Chicago. Just like whenBaltimore and D.C. are cojoined by a parkway but they are very different cities. I’m a son of an inner-city, Washington, D.C., urban area, but it is not inner-city Baltimore, and vice versa. Even in Washington, if I were leading in Southeast Washington and Anacostia and then I was to go to where Wesley Seminary is, those are two different contexts even in one city. And so, leadership is always contextual. That’s the point of a lot of my own work — to really test our presumptions and then enter into leadership, the task of leadership, always keeping our context in mind. Therefore, we have to be adaptive as leaders as we seek to transform community.

Doug Powe: And let me stick with this leadership for a second. How do you help individuals to develop that adaptive leadership that is needed to do well if they’re going to lead ministries or, I would say, pastor anywhere, but particularly pastor in an urban area. You adapted from D.C.to Baltimore. How do you help individuals to really develop that adaptive leadership? I know you’ve talked about exegeting, but what other things do you think are really characteristics that we need to work on? It’s not that any of us have these things perfectly, but these are things we need to think about and work on as we think about our leadership.

Tony Hunt: Yeah. Leadership is a practice. There are theories that underlie practice, and I believe that those practices are pretty transcendent. I’ve worked in all types of settings — governmental settings, nonprofit settings, consulting settings, military, church, academic settings — and observed leadership and been in leadership in those settings as well. I think for church leadership, in terms of understanding, again, the context and understanding that a church is a culture — Dr. Lovett Weems talks about the church itself being a culture. Every church is a micro culture. It’s a culture within a metaculture, community, jurisdiction, and so on with politics and everything.

Transformative qualities really begin from within. We want to test who we are as leaders, our identity as leaders. Are we being transformed within? Paul talked about being transformed by the renewing of our minds first and therefore we go forward in terms of transformative process. Practicing good qualities of observing, listening, team building, understanding where assets are and how to galvanize and organize those assets are transformative processes that I believe any leader, could benefit from in a community.

I believe it takes a lot of time, a lot of coaching, a lot of coming alongside leaders. One of the things I’ve discovered with newer leaders is that we can presume those of us — I went to business school before I went to seminary. My daughter, for instance, has gone to business school, but we talked a lot about this. We can learn the theory, but the practice is really a matter of trial and error, of learning on the ground, testing presumptions about our own leadership, about who we are, and then developing the skills to build teams, to organize people, to organize resources, and then to articulate vision. It’s multifarious.and So, in urban areas, it’s a bit more complex many times because many urban communities are a challenge, or at least sense a challenge of a lack of resources.

So, I believe the transformational shift is one from being scarcity focused to being really focused on: What is abundance? What does flourishing and thriving look like? And what does adeptness, as you say, look like for our communities?”

Doug Powe: And you sort of foreshadowed what I was thinking. My next question is around resources because I do think that many people try to avoid urban ministry because of the fear of the lack of resources. But I appreciate you talking about how transformative leaders think about it differently. I think that’s critical. So, what are some ways to think about resources? I think when we think resources we automatically think money, but resources are more than money. So how do we help people again to think outside of the box in terms of what it means in terms of resources?

Tony Hunt: It’s really pretty simple in a way because every community has assets. So, the first thing I would tell myself if I were going into a community today and what we help others practice who are coming in our work with urban ministry students, community engagement students, for instance, is to really look at a community.

Let me, first of all, say that you’re right. I’ve spoken to numerous persons who had a sense when they were appointed to an urban area that it was a less desirable kind of appointment. And that’s the perception: what did I do wrong to be appointed to, say, Baltimore and not to Baltimore County, but Baltimore City?

So, asset-based analysis. I work from the presumption that every community has assets. Every community I’ve ever served in has assets, their assets, people. The first thing is to really qualify the assets. So, who’s in our communities in terms of people. In terms of institutions, is there a school, college, university, because that’s an asset. Shopping venues: assets. Vacant buildings: possible assets. Highways: assets. So, we have categories of assets that we want. By default, I look at a community and say: “these are assets and therefore they are opportunities to really galvanize and organize around ministry or around work.” And banks are assets. And so, everything, I believe that nothing’s wasted. So, everything in a catchment zone, zip code, or impact zone is a potential opportunity. A boarded-up building is a potential opportunity.

Doug Powe: That’s right. That’s right. That’s helpful. Tony, I really have enjoyed the conversation. As we get ready to close, you have used in our time the word hope often. So, I want to end with what is your hope for transformational leadership?

Tony Hunt: Okay. I’m just a strong believer. What I’ve learned is that the difference, the differentiating factor, in thriving organizations is thriving leadership. And so, my hope is through my work and having been trained first as an economist, then getting an MBA, then figuring out that management and leadership are not always the same, is that working and helping to resource in ways that we can, that the processes of transformative leadership are based on the evidence, are the factors why some urban churches and pastors thrive when others may struggle. The differentiating factors are the qualities of transformative leadership somewhere. And so how do we equip, how do we tool pastors to serve in these contexts. A lot of my work is involved with that. That’s my hope — that we don’t really give up on the opportunity in urban contexts, but that we work with leaders to help.That’s one aspect. Obviously, there are other assets and things that need to happen, but leadership really does matter. Transformative, transformational leadership, transforming leaders matters in our community.

Doug Powe: Tony, thank you. This has been a great conversation. I appreciate your being with us and sharing from your book Hope for the City.

Tony Hunt: Well, thank you for the opportunity, take care.

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Hope for the City book coverHope for the City: Transformational Leadership Development for Urban Ministries (Wyndham Hall Press, 2022) by C. Anthony Hunt is available at Amazon.

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About Author

Tony Hunt

Dr. C. Anthony Hunt is pastor of Epworth United Methodist Chapel in Baltimore, Maryland. He is the Supervising Pastor of the Beloved Community Cooperative Parish and the founder and project director for Hope for the City: Transforming Urban Leaders, both in Baltimore. He is also Professor of Systematic, Moral and Practical Theology, and Dunning Permanent Distinguished Lecturer at St. Mary’s Seminary and University, Baltimore. Dr. Hunt also teaches on the adjunct faculties at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC, and United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio.

Rev. Dr. F. Douglas Powe, Jr.

F. Douglas Powe, Jr., is director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership and holds the James C. Logan Chair in Evangelism (an E. Stanley Jones Professorship) at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. He is also co-editor with Jessica Anschutz of Healing Fractured Communities (Palmetto, 2024) and coauthor with Lovett H. Weems Jr. of Sustaining While Disrupting: The Challenge of Congregational Innovation (Fortress, 2022). His previous books include The Adept Church: Navigating Between a Rock and a Hard Place (Abingdon Press, 2020); Not Safe for Church: Ten Commandments for Reaching New Generations; New Wine, New Wineskins: How African American Congregations Can Reach New Generations; Transforming Evangelism: The Wesleyan Way of Sharing Faith; and Transforming Community: The Wesleyan Way to Missional Congregations.