Diversity Leadership in the Church


As church leaders attempt to address the challenges presented by the expanding diversity of local congregations and American culture at large, a new energizing vision is necessary. Churches need new strategies and tactics to speak wisdom to an increasingly foolish and fractured world in which it is impossible to pull out the weeds without uprooting the wheat also. Partiality, partisanship, and polemics masquerading as prophetic witness will no longer do. The energizing vision for our time must be to build a house for all God’s children, not just for some, an enterprise that will require a new breed of “diversity leadership” in the church. To live into a new vision, local congregations and their leaders must develop new expertise — new ways of seeing, thinking, believing, and behaving — to respond wisely and well to the variety of diversities they are encountering.

Diversity leadership in the church necessarily entails an appropriate theological framework along with an adequate definition of diversity.

A new definition of diversity. The first step in the direction of this expertise is a new, more comprehensive definition of diversity. In Building a House for Diversity, Roosevelt Thomas points to the inadequacy of the conventional understanding of diversity which emphasizes incorporating a discrete set of “others” into a pre-existing “main” group. “In this traditional view,” writes Thomas, “it is the ‘others’ who constitute the diversity.” In contrast to the conventional view, Thomas defines diversity as “any significant collective mixture that contains similarities as well as differences.”

Thomas’s definition is clearly more “eloquent” than the traditional understanding of diversity in that it insists on speaking to “the whole of the subject” — the total collective mixture. His definition sheds sunlight on diversity rather than lamplight because it includes similarities as well as differences and because no particular differences are spotlighted while others remain in darkness.

Once the focus shifts from “us-versus-them dyads” such as race, gender, denomination, sexual orientation, and so on, to the total collective mixture in a congregation, leaders are able to proceed by asking questions instead of by making arguments. In speaking of the whole instead of the parts, the question is, “What is the complex and ever-changing blend of attributes, behaviors, and talents in this congregation?” Equipped with a new definition of diversity and beginning with questions of diversity instead with an argument for or against it, leaders in the church can begin to understand diversity differently and respond to it more wisely.

A more eloquent theological framework. Dealing with diversity in the church must be grounded in an understanding of “ultimate concern” as well as political, social, and economic concerns. In other words, diversity leadership in the church necessarily entails an appropriate theological framework along with an adequate definition of diversity.

Simply stated, though by no means simple, the doctrine of the Trinity asserts, “the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God, and yet there are not three Gods but one God.” Given the internal and external controversies and the philosophical categories of the second through the sixth centuries that shaped the development of the doctrine of the Trinity, it is no wonder that the prevailing emphasis of Trinitarian reflection has been on the oneness of the three, the unity of the Godhead. Unfortunately, largely lost in the church’s quest for unity, consistency, and stability is the recognition that the Trinity is every bit as much a doctrine of the diversity of God as it is a doctrine of the unity of God.

A dynamic, social understanding of the Trinity models for the church in every time and place both unity in diversity and diversity in unity. The doctrine of the Trinity is a both/and assertion of the diversity in unity and the unity in diversity of the very Being of God in God’s own self as well as in God’s self-revelation in the world. And to the degree that the Christian community is what Paul calls “one body in Christ,” we are both many and at the same time one, in terms that sound suspiciously similar to those that Christian theologians will use in their formulations of the Trinity: “We, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members of one another” (Romans 12:5). We are both individuals and at the same time members of one another.

As a social doctrine, the Trinity is not just about who God is. The Trinity is also every bit as much about who we are. Embracing the diversity of God — as well as the unity of God — is an indispensable step in the direction of theological expertise in a church whose vibrant variety reflects the God whom it worships and serves.

Embracing the diversity of Scripture. The Old and New Testaments derive from a richly diverse context. The Bible was written in and for a culturally and religiously diverse world. If the biblical witness and the testimony of the early history of the Christian church are any indication, diversity is neither new nor a threat to Christian faith and belief. To the contrary, diversity characterizes the historical, cultural, and religious matrix in which Christian faith and belief were born, were nurtured, and first flourished.

Diversity, then, is both a new issue in the church and an old one, both a new context for the church and an old one. For local congregations to respond effectively to the internal and external diversity they face, leadership with both vision and expertise is a necessity.

This material is adapted from Jeffrey’s book Building a House for All God’s Children, copyright (c) 2008 by Abingdon Press. Used by permission.The book can be purchased through Amazon or Cokesbury.


About Author

Jeffrey S. Rogers Associate Provost for Extended Campus Programs and Dean of the Gayle Bolt Price School of Graduate Studies at Gardner-Webb University in North Carolina. Jeff is the author of six books.

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Discovering God’s Future for Your Church

Discovering God’s Future for Your Church is a turn-key tool kit to help your congregation discern and implement God’s vision for its future. The resource guides your church in discovering clues to your vision in your history and culture, your current congregational strengths and weaknesses, and the needs of your surrounding community. The tool kit features videos, leader’s guides, discussion exercises, planning tools, handouts, diagrams, worksheets, and more. Learn more and watch an introductory video now.