By Aaron Wilson
Most pastors expect their church to grow in leadership diversity in the near future. But if the recent past is any indication, that optimism might come more from wishful thinking than strategy.
In Facts & Trends‘ Future of the Church study, Lifeway Research found 62 percent of Protestant pastors believe ethnic diversity among their church leaders will increase over the next five years.
But when asked how their church has been trending for the past five years, the majority of pastors (77 percent) reported that ethnic diversity among their leaders has remained unchanged.
Likewise, more than half of pastors (52 percent) say the percentage of women in leadership roles at their church hasn’t increased in the last five years.
“This study says pastors are hopeful for growth in leadership diversity,” says Todd Adkins, director of Lifeway Leadership. “Hope is great, but it isn’t a strategy.”
To achieve the kind of growth pastors expect, churches must be intentional about creating leadership structures that involve multiple voices. This helps equip the church to shepherd members who represent different ethnicities, ages, socioeconomic statuses, and people of both genders.
“The Church is diverse,” says Missie Branch, assistant dean of students at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.
“When we segregate ourselves to the people who are just like us, we tend to miss out on all the whole body of believers has to offer. Having a collection of voices and perspectives in leadership allows us to have a more complete picture of what the Lord’s vision is for the Church.”
Here are five practical ways churches can help achieve diversity by inviting more voices to the leadership table.
1. Avoid tokenism
“One of the most dangerous things churches can do when seeking to bring diversity to leadership is to practice tokenism,” Adkins says. “Tokenism does a disservice to both the person you’ve brought on and to the organization.”
Tokenism can involve bringing someone into a leadership role, not because of his or her qualifications, but simply to provide a tip of the hat to perceived values and to give the appearance of a change in culture.
“We have to be careful of the language we use,” Branch says. “Don’t say things like, ‘We brought John on because we’re trying to be more diverse.’ No, you brought John on because he can rightly handle the Word of God or because he’s an incredible leader or a great thinker. The fact that John is also not exactly like you is what makes him even more valuable.”
2. Elevate the priesthood of the believer
While the role of a pastor is noble and praiseworthy, it can also be elevated to an unhealthy level that places too much responsibility and authority on the senior pastor or on a few select individuals.
This starves the body of Christ of opportunities to use certain gifts and removes seats from a church’s leadership table that could otherwise be filled with qualified believers with diverse perspectives.
“We need to remember that the priesthood of the believer is a big deal according to Scripture,” Adkins says. “It’s one thing to say the priesthood of the believer is important and another thing to have it actualized in how the church functions.”
Does your church’s leadership structure represent the priesthood of all believers or does a single person or a very limited group of people call all the shots?
If your church resembles the latter, consider ways you can democratize leadership from the standpoints of ethnicity, age, gender, and socioeconomic status to provide a better environment for diversity to flourish.
3. Define biblical womanhood
Often times, it can be difficult for women to understand and embrace leadership opportunities available to them in the local church.
“Pastors need to offer a view of biblical womanhood,” Branch says. “Because many churches aren’t providing that, it’s hard to discern what women are allowed to do or are capable of doing in the church. It’s up to the leadership of the church to define that by showing what Scripture says on the subject.”
Churches need leaders who can speak to women’s issues. To bring women to the leadership table, pastors need to provide real examples of how women can use their leadership gifts at church.
“One of the ways a pastor can make it clear they value women in leadership in the church is to not give the title of pastor to every position that’s important,” Branch says. “Does the accountant or the person who’s in charge of new members really need to be called a pastor? Probably not.”
By simply changing the position titles of certain roles that aren’t pastoral by nature, churches can help prep their leadership tables for needed diversity that includes women.
4. Steward the stage
In a world where digital influence is always expanding, the physical platform of a stage still plays an important role in setting a precedent for what’s important to a church. As such, a church’s attitude toward leadership diversity is usually driven by what’s said and celebrated from the front of the room.
Is every author who’s quoted from your pulpit a white male? If so, you might unintentionally be communicating that your church doesn’t see leadership potential in women and people of color.
Likewise, is almost everyone who’s celebrated on your church stage middle class and married with kids? You may inadvertently be saying these characteristics are traits your church requires for leadership consideration.
“The things we announce and the things we talk about are the things we care about,” Branch says. “If the pastor quotes a male theologian, we know that person is someone the pastor thinks we should pay attention to. But, if there’s no woman the pastor feels is worthy of quoting, then women are forced to decide on their own who will be leaders in their world.”
If your church seeks to affirm and equip women, use your public platform to present women as indispensible to ministry. And if you want your church to reach the nations for Christ, make sure you’re reflecting the value of ethic diversity in what you say and celebrate from your stage.
5. Show respect for the sacrifice
Christians often show great respect and empathy to missionaries who leave what’s familiar to minister in foreign cultures. But rarely is the same degree of compassion extended to people who intentionally choose to serve at a local church that skews toward a demographic different from their own.
Imagine what it would be like for you to uproot from your current church to serve in one primarily made up of people who have a different skin color from you or who speak English as a second language.
While you’d be powerfully linked to these believers through a union in Christ, it would be naïve to think such a move wouldn’t require a sacrifice to abandon your cultural preferences and familiarity.
“You can’t assume you understand all it takes for a person to work outside of their own context,” Branch says. “In order for me to be in your space, there’s a sacrifice I must be willing to make—something I’m willing to die to.
“Be willing to work through those things with the people you bring onto your leadership teams,” she says. “And avoid pretending like you understand since there’s really no way for you to know exactly what they’re experiencing.”
Setting the table for growth
If churches are to cultivate leadership diversity over the next five years the way most pastors expect, they must develop strategies to achieve that growth. But in what timetable can churches expect to see fruit from their efforts?
Churches often err in opposite extremes on this point—assuming that diversity growth will either be achieved rapidly or that it will take decades of effort.
But the answer falls between those poles, says Adkins.
“There’s no silver bullet that causes leadership diversity to develop in a church overnight,” Adkins says. “It takes place over the course of time. But it’s not 20 years we’re talking about; it’s two or three years.”
In other words, there’s plenty of time for churches to chase after their five-year expectations when it comes to achieving leadership diversity.
It just requires a willingness to set the leadership table for new members—ones that may not look exactly like you.
Aaron is associate editor of LifewayResearch.com.