Evangelicals Have Talked a Great Deal About the Need for Diversity, But Research Shows White Male Leadership Persists at Most Evangelical Ministries

Development Associates International President/CEO Jane Overstreet, right, participates in a workshop in Rumbek, South Sudan, on March 19, 2013. Photo courtesy of Development Associates International
Development Associates International President/CEO Jane Overstreet, right, participates in a workshop in Rumbek, South Sudan, on March 19, 2013. Photo courtesy of Development Associates International

While America’s population is becoming less white and while gender diversity is transforming workplaces, white male leadership persists at most evangelical parachurch organizations — the thousands of nonprofit businesses that carry out various kinds of Christian ministry.

Only one of 33 major national organizations contacted for this article is led by a woman — Jane Overstreet at Development Associates International. And only three are led by nonwhite males.

“Some groups are talking about greater gender diversity, while others talk about racial diversity,” says Amy Reynolds, an associate professor of sociology at Wheaton College in Illinois, a leading evangelical institution that recently appointed its first female provost in its 156-year history. “The question is, what are they willing to do to get there?”

Some ministries responded to inquiries for this story, which was supported by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

But more than half declined to answer repeated attempts to find out how many women and minorities they had on their executive teams and boards of directors. In such cases, other sources were used — including federal 990 forms and ministry materials and websites — to estimate female and minority leadership numbers.

A significant number of parachurch organizations are striving for greater leadership diversity. In 2013 Compassion International appointed El Salvador-born Santiago “Jimmy” Mellado its president and CEO.

“As a global organization, you will see leaders who represent many of the 26 countries in which we work to release children from poverty,” said Tim Glenn, spokesman for the $766 million organization.

Some evangelicals dismiss talk about diversity as “political correctness,” but others say it’s a theological imperative.

“We are committed to diversity not because it is a hot topic, but because God has created his children in diversity,” said Gregory Monaco, director of corporate affairs for Denver-based Youth for Christ.

Monaco said YFC’s leadership has become more diverse as the ministry placed greater emphasis on urban work. YFC’s current Cities Initiative seeks to reach young people in America’s 35 largest population centers.

“Our world is becoming smaller, and cultures and races are occupying the same spaces more and more,” said Monaco. “The church must find ways to unify and reconcile to honor God and reach the lost.”

Where are the women?

First-century Christians preached a radical gospel of ethnic and gender diversity. “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” wrote the Apostle Paul in Galatians 3:28.

But Jesus chose 12 men as his disciples, and today many churches and parachurch organizations largely follow this male leadership model, causing the evangelical magazine Christianity Today to ask, “Where are the women leading evangelical organizations?” in a 2014 cover story.

The question remains, especially since women make up the majority of parachurch workers nationwide.

Overstreet has served as CEO of Development Associates International, a $5 million ministry that trains Christian leaders overseas, for 20 years.

“I believe God gave leadership gifts to all his people, no matter the gender, color or ethnicity,” Overstreet says. “I think he wants those gifts used freely and effectively within and outside the body of Christ. When we limit that, we are bad stewards.”

Focus on the Family is one of the few ministries to clearly articulate a position on gender in the workplace, preferring that mothers stay at home.

“We’ve taken the position that it’s best for a mother — especially of young children — to remain at home if she can,” says spokesman Andrew Montgomery. But, he added, “we’ve always maintained that’s a decision that a couple needs to make themselves,” depending on their circumstances.

Focus has been more intentional about opening up more board and executive leadership positions to women since its board urged the ministry to create Employee Resource Inclusion Council.

Hundreds of evangelical organizations were surveyed for the 2014 Women in Leadership National Study. It found that nearly a quarter have no women on their boards and more than half have no women in top positions. These leadership figures are significantly lower than those in the corporate world and the broader charitable world.

“Many evangelical ministries are led by one dominant demographic, so women may seek careers in the broader nonprofit world where they can grow,” says Wheaton’s Reynolds, who worked on the Women in Leadership study.

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SOURCE: Religion News Service

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