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Leadership diversity a challenge for Colorado Springs evangelical organizations

By: steve rabey Religion correspondent
September 4, 2016 Updated: September 5, 2016 at 3:16 pm
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America is becoming more racially diverse. By 2050, minorities will be the new majority.

And gender diversity is transforming the American workplace, from corporate offices to the U.S. Northern Command and the U.S. Air Force Academy, and possibly the White House.

But white male leadership remains the norm for dozens of Colorado Springs-based national and international evangelical parachurch organizations.

With a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism, I contacted 23 major Colorado Springs-based parachurch organizations - 501(c)(3) nonprofit ministries that work nationally and/or internationally and have annual budgets over $5 million.

Research shows that women and nonwhite males lead only three of these 23 ministries, and they make up a quarter of leadership positions in ministries executive ranks and on their boards.

These levels of leadership diversity in evangelical parachurch organizations are about half that of the broader charitable world.

A significant number of parachurch organizations are striving for greater leadership diversity. In 2013 Compassion International, the largest Springs-based organization, appointed El Salvador-born Santiago "Jimmy" Mellado 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.

But more than half of the major ministries contacted for this article declined to answer repeated inquiries about how many women and minorities they had on their executive teams and boards of directors. I used other sources - including federal 990 forms and ministry materials and websites - to estimate female and minority numbers for the nonresponding ministries.

Jane Overstreet, the only woman to head a major local ministry, considers leadership diversity an issue of stewardship.

"I believe God gave leadership gifts to all his people, no matter the gender, color or ethnicity," said, Overstreet, CEO of Development Associates International for 20 years.

"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."

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 masculine model, causing the evangelical magazine Christianity Today to ask, "Where Are the Women Leading Evangelical Organizations?" in a 2014 cover story.

It's a question that's relevant in Colorado Springs, where only one of the Springs' 23 major ministries is female-led. And while more women are serving on ministry boards, many ministries have only one or no female board members.

Although women make up the majority of parachurch workers nationwide, evangelical attitudes about women's roles limit their leadership potential. For example, best-selling Springs authors John and Stasi Eldredge warned against "domineering women" who "receive corporate promotions" in their book "Captivating: Unveiling the Mystery of a Woman's Soul."

Focus on the Family is one of the few ministries to clearly articulate a position on gender in the workplace, preferring that women 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. "And we've always maintained that's a decision that a couple needs to make themselves."

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

Amy Reynolds is 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.

Reynolds also works with the Women in Leadership National Study at Gordon College. The study surveyed hundreds of evangelical organizations, finding that nearly a quarter have no women on their boards and more than half have no women in top positions.

"Many evangelical ministries are led by one dominant demographic, so women may seek careers in the broader nonprofit world where they can grow," says Reynolds.

Overstreet has similar worries.

"Talented, intelligent, motivated women leave the 'Christian' world at some point because they don't want to 'fight a battle' or even appear to be doing so, in order to use their gifts," says Overstreet.

"I always think that the fact I don't sound 'too feminist' and am a happily married woman, a mother and a grandmother and a CEO somehow helps those who struggle with this issue get past it with me personally, but that also makes me sad that a woman has to be all of those things to somehow be credible for some folks."

Revisiting racial sins

If women face barriers to leadership, people of color can find it even more difficult to navigate evangelicalism's complex racial history.

While the photos in ministry websites and publications reflect the world's growing racial diversity, their leadership ranks remain largely white.

Compassion's Salvadorian president, now a U.S. citizen, and the Navigators' African-born International president, Mutua Mahaini of Kenya, are the only nonwhite leaders of local major ministries. Many ministries have no nonwhite executives or board members.

Historic racial attitudes may be a factor. Just this summer, two evangelical denominations formally repented of racial sins dating back to the Civil War era.

In June, the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution calling for Christians to quit using the Confederate flag - the latest act of reconciliation from the nation's largest Protestant denomination, which was founded in 1845 by pro-slavery southern Christians.

The Presbyterian Church in America confessed a litany of past sins: segregating and excluding worshippers by race; teaching that the Bible permits racial segregation and discourages interracial marriage; and participating in white supremacist organizations.

Kim Robinson is an African-American man who serves as vice president of the Southern Baptist Convention's North American Mission Board. He has also been a Focus on the Family board member since 2007.

"I'm pleased with the spirit of racial unity in the Southern Baptist Convention today," says Robinson. "Only the spirit of God could take us from less than admirable beginnings to where we are today. I see more cultures, ethnicities and races being drawn to evangelical churches."

But Vernard Gant, director of Urban School Services the Association of Christian Schools International, is less upbeat. At a previous ministry, one supervisor defended paying whites more than blacks, saying it would be wrong to pay Gant "above your community." Another white leader organized ministry leadership retreats featuring studies of various heroes of the pro-slavery Confederacy.

Gant has experienced anger and frustration, but mostly he's "perplexed."

"The sin of racism is America's original sin," says Gant, "but racism is not just an individual problem, it's a systemic problem. And those who are the keepers of the system, like the Pharisees of Jesus' day, see absolutely nothing wrong with their adherence to this system."

Gant says minority employees typically get more "jittery" around election time. This year, GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump enjoys widespread evangelical support despite his racial rhetoric.

"Campaigns have a tendency to really bring out some of our worst attitudes," says Gant.

One ministry that has aggressively embraced leadership diversity is Young Life, which interacts with nearly 2 million young people worldwide. Nonwhites and women hold more than a third of Young Life board positions and nearly a quarter of its executive positions.

"We want to look like the kids we are reaching," says Terry Swenson, vice president of communications. In 2016, 25 percent of 60,226 youth attending Young Life camps have been "campers of color."

"We feel called and are committed to becoming a mission community that reflects the diversity of the worldwide body of Christ," says Swenson. "We see racial and gender diversity among our staff as both a spiritual value as well as a ministry imperative as we seek to effectively reach out to all kinds of kids in all kinds of places."

Diversity imperfect

Some local ministries say their lack of diversity mirrors that of El Paso County, where more than 80 percent of residents are white.

As numerous leaders said in interviews, "We don't necessarily get a lot of diverse candidates here."

Mark Plummer, CEO of One Child Matters, an international child sponsorship organization, says that as more older white male board members retire, they will be replaced by members who "reflect the diversity of our donors and the people we're reaching as we operate across multiple cultural lines. The nature of who we are cries for diversity."

Plummer says many ministries focus on board members who can bring influence and fundraising, which often "narrows the field" to white males.

Lloyd Parker is chief operating officer of WAYMedia, a nonprofit that owns Christian music radio stations throughout the U.S.

Parker, who serves on the board of the Gospel Music Association, says racial differences have been a fact of life throughout his 40 years in Christian music radio. Whites favor one style of music while African-Americans listen to soul gospel stations.

"In heaven, a lot of those barriers will be gone," said Parker, "but life down here is so imperfect."

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