Senior African-American Clergy Find Form Letter from Rick Warren ‘Insulting’

Warren greeted by protests at MLK appearance in Atlanta

In advance of his appearance yesterday at the Martin Luther King Center in Atlanta as part of ceremonies honoring Dr. King’s birthday, Rick Warren sent a form letter to senior African American clergy asking for advice, including this bit in which he devalues his controversial selection by Barack Obama to give the prayer at the inauguration:

“I consider this opportunity as one of the greatest privileges in my ministry. It is even more important to me personally, than praying the invocation for my friend President Obama’s Inauguration the next day.”
– Warren

Dear Pastor _______,

Recently I was reading an older issue of African American Pulpit (I’m a long-term subscriber) and I came upon your article, “How Will Our Preaching Be Remembered”. I thought it was so good I wanted to write and tell you what a great job you did. Well done!

After reading your work, I decided to ask you for your help. On Martin Luther King Day, Jan. 19, I have the humble privilege of being invited to be the first white pastor to preach the annual memorial message in Dr. King’s home church in Atlanta, Ebenezer Baptist. I consider this opportunity as one of the greatest privileges in my ministry. It is even more important to me personally, than praying the invocation for my friend President Obama’s Inauguration the next day.

I’d like to know your thoughts. If you were preaching the annual Martin Luther King sermon at his church on his day — what would YOU say? I just felt led to write you. Please help me, your brother in Christ. I’m open to any ideas, texts, or suggestions you might have for me, and I’d deeply appreciate it.

For so many of us, Dr. King was a role model, not just for justice, but also a role model for local church pastoring and preaching. I have a personally typed and signed letter by Dr. King framed on my office wall.

I am committed to the ministry of reconciliation, so I’m always trying to build bridges to my African-American brothers and sisters in ministry. We’re a part of the same Body, saved by the same Grace, filled with the same Spirit, preaching the same Word, serving the same Lord, and called to fulfill the same Purposes on earth.

Thanks again for how your words touched me. I look forward to hearing from you.

Rick Warren

Dr. Renita Weems, an ordained elder in the AME Church for over 20 years who had been critical of Warren in the past, reacted to the form letter in a pair of columns. The first was titled, “Dear Rick, A Lesson on Race.” The second column, “Dear Rick: Form Letters Undermine Reconciliation,” could have been titled, “Dear Rick: A Lesson on Tacky.”

In the first column, Weems says she only had time to glance at the email from Warren it first arrived, so it wasn’t until she came back to it that she realized it was an email blast from Warren or his staff:

It seems that Warren (or his emissaries) decided to go through some old issues of The African American Pulpit and write letters to folks with sermons there claiming to want to reach out to us and solicit our advice…Change the recipient’s name, the sermon title and hit “send” is all it took.

Is this Warren’s way of getting to know African American preachers? Is this his way of making friends with us? Is this how he bones up on Black History?

But what was even more offensive to Weems the clumsy and impersonal approach was the idea of a 54 year old white guy asking for advice on race:

Admittedly, nothing annoys me like white Americans — especially those my age — wanting me to teach them about race and racism. Where have you been?

Warren, if you (or your people) read this, you’re asking yourself, “What did I do wrong? What harm is there in sending an email out to respected black leaders around the country and soliciting their advice on a King speech you’re slated to give on Monday?”

If you have to ask, then you don’t get it. You don’t get the whole point of King’s ministry and that of others who suffered and sacrificed working for racial equality in this country. You don’t get that a mass email to black leaders can not substitute for real flesh-and-blood relationships with peers in the African American community. Can not substitute for doing your own reading and research on the history of the American slave trade and race relations in America. Can not substitute for asking God to open your eyes so you can see, really see, the race dynamics in your church and in your city. Can not substitute for asking how a man like yourself born in 1954 doesn’t know better. And doesn’t know more about race in America. Where have you been?

In her second column, Dr. Weems says many of her colleagues who received Warren’s email blast were similarly offended, but that everyone who wrote back to Warren received — you guessed it — an autoresponse:

Thank you _____ – I am humbled by your words. This is really great and thank you for sending to me! This is so helpful as I am getting ready to speak on Monday. I look forward to working with you in the future! We’re praying for you –

Rick

Stay classy, Rick.

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