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Reader Feedback: Should We Make a Priority of Diversity in Church Leadership?

Letters to the Editor

About a week ago I wrote an article titled “Should We Make a Priority of Diversity in Church Leadership?.” In it I asked for feedback from readers before I set out to write the second part of the series. I received some interesting and thoughtful letters to the editor and wanted to share some of them with you today.

Hi Tim, I enjoyed your article, “Should We Make a Priority of Diversity in Church Leadership?”, and generally agree with your assessment. Local churches ought to reflect the communities they are embedded in. Your first and second principles are solid.

However, your article is about diversity in leadership in particular. Your third principle is, “The ideal for a church’s leadership is that it reflect the congregation.” I would shape this to say, “A church’s leadership should reflect the kind of congregation it wants to have.” This inverts the responsibility.

It is my experience that diversity must be intentional, and that intentionality must begin with the leadership. I have been involved in many discussions with pastors around this, who serve established churches or will be pastoring church plants. Invariably, most pastors say they want a diverse congregation. But very few are concerned about seeking diversity in leadership for the purpose of diversifying the congregation.

Why? Because people are people. It is nice to say, “We won’t turn anyone away. If they [which generally means ‘people who don’t look like us already’] come, they come, and that would be welcomed.” But, in practice, this is merely satisfaction with the status quo. Most people want to be comfortable on Sunday. Yes, it would be great if everyone would put their own comfort aside and place a high priority on simply fellowshipping with Christians because we serve the same Lord. But that simply isn’t reality–when someone walks into a new church on Sunday, first impressions are made. Homogeneous churches cannot expect a visitor to come in and get over their innate desire to see themselves (in ethnicity or age) reflected in the congregation. This unfairly shifts the “blame” to the visitor for not wanting to stay and be the lone “diverse” member. That is a lot to bear and it must be recognized by the church and leadership.

What is helpful–not a cure-all, but helpful–is to have that diversity in the leadership. If the desire is there for a diverse church–as I believe it should be–it goes a long way for members and visitors to see this prioritized in the leadership. For an established church, I believe this is very difficult, though not impossible; you are fighting human nature, the desire to be around “people like you” on Sunday, to have the freedom to be yourself. For church plants, this is easier. You can start with a diverse leadership and, prayerfully, visitors will be that much more comfortable on their first impression.

—Tom M, Winston-Salem, North Carolina

I have been thinking about this question a fair amount, not least as I wrestle with the social changes that are going on around us here in London, and which are increasingly being forced upon us. Diversity is in many circles something that is being “engineered”. I have friends in the corporate world who have been overlooked for certain positions, and then told privately that they were the stronger candidate but the post had gone to someone of an ethnic minority (in one case, to secure a related tax-break for achieving a level of diversity on the board of directors).

Trying to reflect on it biblically, it seems obvious that diversity is a good thing, as you point out, as the gospel breaks down all manner of barriers. But in the gospel diversity is always a fruit or result of a larger truth. What the gospel teaches us about human nature, about how God sees each of us and saves each of us renders our human distinctions meaningless. The gospel is a great leveller. The mistake in society, and in some parts of the church, is that diversity has become the “gospel”—the ultimate truth/objective, rather than something that flows from something bigger.

In England, the “LGBTI Christian” movement has quite clearly made one particular form of diversity their “gospel”—it is all they write about, all they celebrate, all they are striving for.

The result seems to be a rather unhinged form of diversity. Diversity at the expense of anything and everything else. And it doesn’t take long for the true gospel to be despised, once people hear that the gospel is not entirely about diversity, but makes bold calls for distinctive (and uniform!) behaviour among God’s people.

In summary—diversity must be regarded as a fruit, a result that flows from the far bigger gospel (alongside other glorious fruit); if it is elevated as a unique priority, we risk losing sight both of truths that are more important, and of fruit that is equally desirable and necessary.

—Rob, London, England

While I love your basic theses, I wonder if you are missing one foundational principle. My church (and surrounding location) is diverse not only in race or in ethnicity, but in culture and language. The associated challenges of reaching across these divides requires special gifts in leadership. Therefore, I would suggest that diversity in leadership is not merely an issue of proportion, but of unique ability to extend the work of pastoral care and outreach to those of a different cultural or linguistic background.

I think Paul’s words in 1 Cor. 9:20 and his sensitivity to Greek/Jewish issues provides some biblical precedent here as well. Thank you for your wise thoughts—looking forward to part 2 of your article!

—BJ W, Chantilly, Virginia

Tim, I have attended a pioneering multicultural church for over 18 years and have served on the staff of that church for the past 7 years. Our founding pastor consults with churches, schools, and corporations on diversity and multicultural ministry and has written a few books on the subject. So your article was one I found interesting and one that I knew would draw divisive comments on Facebook.

In my experience, when it comes to racial diversity pastors tend to make one of two mistakes (or both). First, they take a “Field of Dreams” approach to diversity: if we preach it (the gospel), they (diverse people) will come. This doesn’t really work for the most part. Diversity and multicultural ministry MUST be intentional.

Second, they confuse a multicolored congregation with a diverse congregation. Here, they forgo diversity of age, class, etc., for racial diversity. But in reality, a multicolored congregation is not necessarily multicultural. Cultures must be reflected, acknowledged, even celebrated. That includes the music you sing in worship, the faces seen on stage, even the ushers & greeters.

Diversity in a congregation is hard enough. Diversity in leadership is an entirely different animal. A predominately white congregation, regardless of how progressive and forward-thinking it thinks it is, will have members that simply refuse to submit to a person of color in a position of authority. Believe me, it’s a BIG DEAL to have a white person refer to a person of color as “their pastor”.

I would agree that a church should reflect its community. If you don’t think your community is particularly diverse, visit your local Walmart. If Walmart is diverse, your church can be diverse. If people will drive miles and miles to shop, they’ll do the same for worship if they feel welcomed and comfortable in their surroundings.

I would also agree that leadership should reflect the community. But, as is emphasized in Bryan Loritts’ excellent book, Right Color, Wrong Culture, churches must do their due diligence in finding not just a diverse hire, but THE RIGHT diverse hire. One that can be comfortably navigating all the cultures within the community.

Thank you for having this conversation. Too many churches find diversity to be a distraction, a dividing point, or simply a non-essential. Nothing could be further from the truth.

—Tony P, Columbia, MD

Tim, Thanks for your article. When you laid out your three principles, I hesitated on the word “ideal”, especially in Principle #3, that the “ideal for a church’s leadership is that it reflects the congregation.” You did admit there is no chapter and verse for this, which is an important point. However, I am on board when you write that we would expect the leadership to reflect the diversity because God equips all kinds of people. The biblical qualifications for leadership are matters of equipping, not matters of reflecting diversity. But at the same time, we might consider if a church is made of equally of five ‘groups’ and only one group is represented in leadership, that perhaps (but not necessarily) there is active discrimination against the other groups. That is possible.

But the implication you suggested gave me pause. You implied that if our communities are diverse, “we could say it’s important to pursue diversity in church leadership.” I believe this is a logical misstep. If we expect to see a diversity in leadership because God equips people equally, it does not follow that we should pursue diversity in church leadership. The first statement has to do with qualifications. As we know, the Bible is quite clear on the biblical qualifications for church leadership. They have to do with character and gifting, and we would anticipate that character and gifting isn’t limited to a certain demographic group within the church. And so the logical outcome of this is that if we are calling leaders based on biblical qualification alone, we would expect to see the diversity of the church reflected in the diversity of the leadership, more or less. However, to saw that we should pursue diversity in church leadership means that we have now made a factor other than biblical leadership qualifications a factor in calling our leaders. It is now character plus diversity.

As you know, Justin Trudeau decided to make his cabinet comprised of equal numbers of men and women, as a celebration of diversity. If we grant that men and women generally have equal skills that would qualify them for a cabinet position, we would generally assume that only 25% of the cabinet would be women, since only 25% of the Liberal seats are held by women. But that cabinet number would fall in place naturally because of competency, not artificially by stating the numbers in the cabinet must exactly reflect the numbers in the house of commons.

It is the same in the church. If we consider ethnic or any other factor in selecting our leadership, we will have to add another criteria to the biblical criteria for church leadership. And someone who rates higher in the biblical criteria may not be called because he doesn’t contribute to diversity. The biblical picture is that in Christ, there is no Jew or Gentile. We must not seek to have leaders only from one group to the exclusion of the others, because we are one in Christ. But this means we also don’t look to those labels as positive criteria either. Whenever we add a diversity factor in evaluating leadership (race, age, economic status, etc.) we are adding to the biblical qualifications.

In short, the diversity of the leadership should be there not because we have sought diversity, but because we have sought the best, believing that God gifts and calls people from all walks of life to lead the church. The glory of diversity in the church is not that we go around trying to make ourselves look more diverse, but as we recognize that the kingdom is for every nation and tribe, God himself creates that diversity as we stick closely to the instructions of his Word.

—Mark R, Beausejour, MB

Tim, I agree that in our outreach to the lost we need to be as diverse as our community. Speaking to the Galatian church the apostle Paul made this clear in 3:28. When it comes to leadership i.e. pastors/elders the scriptures can not be ignored due to diversity. There are qualifications that do limit diversity e.g. pastor/elders are to be male which automatically excludes females (1 Tim.3:2). They are not to be recent converts which marks a certain level of maturity in the faith. The qualifications should not be dismissed for diversity. Which I did not hear you saying but neither did I hear you voice the authority of scripture. Have a blessed day.

—Keith P, Berkley, Michigan

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