That was Leroy Barber’s first thought when he walked into the boardroom. But he wasn’t really surprised. The board was comprised of a single, privileged people group. All white. In more than 25 years working with evangelical mission organizations, he had seen it time and time again. No, he wasn’t surprised. But he was disappointed.
Do we really think this is better?
It’s one of the challenging questions Reverend Leroy Barber poses in his groundbreaking book, “Red, Brown, Yellow, Black and White; Who’s More Precious In His Sight?”
For the white community, it’s not an easy read.
It’s straightforward and brutally honest about the lack of diversity in ministry leadership and its negative repercussions. But it’s a critically important read for Christians.
Leroy presents some disturbing statistics in his book. According to a Tech Mission research study, there are 1.4 million non-profits in the United States, with approximately 1.1 million led by whites. Only 138,000 have African-American leadership, and other groups lead the rest.
Many Christians don’t view that as a problem. For years, Leroy served in largely white-led mission organizations, thinking something must be wrong with him because most board members either didn’t think the lack of leadership diversity was an issue, or they simply ignored it.
We have a natural resistance to change what we perceive to be working. In his blog at The Voices Project, Leroy points out, “If the world has worked for you, why do anything different? … If it has gone well for many years with no persons of color, why do we need to change?”
Leroy says these questions are not just hypothetical. He faces them on a regular basis.
The Problem with Privilege
There may be an even more troubling issue at work: bias and even prejudice. It may be unintentional, but it is there. Although we’d never say it, we can subtly come to believe that our way is the right way. We don’t leave room in the conversation for different perspectives. And we don’t learn in the process.
“One of the frustrations I have had over time—as a black leader in white evangelical circles—is the difficulty in having your voice heard by privileged people,” Leroy explains. “The more privileged, the harder it is to be heard as a leader of color whose experiences don’t fit in culturally.”
Leroy speaks from experience when he says it’s hard to change the system.
Defined, privilege is a series of advantageous circumstances experienced in the majority people group.
“To be privileged does not mean you are racist, or that you are biased against another people group. Leroy says. “It does mean that you have a very different life experience than a person of a minority group. And to that degree, it is limited.”
In truth, we’re often not aware of our own biases, even our own privilege, unless someone different points them out.
The Way Forward
Ironically, Leroy points out, the National Football League saw the lack of diversity in leadership as an issue and took serious steps to address the problem. The NFL recognized that 67 percent of their players were African American, but only six percent of their head coaches were. It was a discrepancy they didn’t ignore. In 2003, the NFL established what is known as The Rooney Rule, which requires teams to interview minority candidates for head coaching and other senior level positions. By 2006, 22 percent of head coaches in the NFL were African American.
Perhaps the Church could benefit from a Rooney Rule.
To see a significant shift toward diversifying mission and ministry leadership, the Church must allocate a significant amount of time, energy and resources to hiring, supporting and developing leaders of color. Leroy describes it as a “deliberate transfer of power.”
Ministry leaders must be intentional about creating leadership diversity in their planning and implementation.
For new ministries, a multi-cultural table must be in place from the beginning.
“A diverse community provides accountability. A homogenous leadership team doesn’t,” Leroy explains.
We must learn to listen—really listen—to leaders from other ethnic backgrounds and cultures and allow their unique perspective to inform and shape our ministries.
Asking Different Questions
In addition to a shift in power, Leroy suggests a shift in the definition of success.
For starters, we ask different questions. Instead of asking who is being served, let’s ask whom are we serving with? Instead of asking whom are we reaching, let’s ask whom do we want to reach? What if we looked internally and asked questions about our leadership team? Does it reflect the beauty and diversity of God’s Kingdom, or does it look pretty much like one people group?
What if we understood a huge part of our ministry success is directly related to whom we are doing ministry with?
What if a primary outcome we measure for success is diversity of leadership?
Even if you’re not in in ministry leadership, you can still be part of the overall solution. It begins by building friendships with people outside of your normal, homogenous people group. You’ll never appreciate the joy and beauty of multi-ethnic relationships unless you take the initiative, get out of your comfort zone and go across the room, across the street or across the city to build a relationship with a person different from you.
You’ll soon realize what you’ve been missing and what God’s Church has been missing: the wisdom that springs from different viewpoints. And, often, completely different perspectives on life and ministry.
It’s a beautiful and sometimes scary thing.
Here’s the scary part: We don’t know yet what the end result will look like.
“We don’t know this [ministry] future because leaders of color have not spoken into its strategies deeply,” Leroy says.
Not yet anyway. But if we are intentional about diversity—with God’s help—we’ll come to finally understand that in the Kingdom of Heaven, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28-29).
Leroy is currently the Executive Director of The Voices Project and Holla, organizations committed to supporting and developing leaders of color. He has a new book coming out in the Fall of 2016 called, Embrace: God’s Radical Shalom for a Divided World.