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Her.meneuticsHer.meneutics

December 18, 2014
Her.meneutics, February, 2014

The Poor Shall Inherit the Boards

Calling for more economic diversity in church leadership.
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Several years ago, Carl Ruby, then vice-president of student life at the university where we both used to work told me, "You know, Marlena, you'd make an excellent trustee of the university." I inquired, "What does it take to become a trustee here?" Carl paused. Then he said, "Money and influence." I jovially shot back with "Well, I have very little money and not much influence—I guess there's no chance for me to become a trustee no matter how well qualified you think I am." Carl was sorry, too. He didn't even try to contradict my assertion. He couldn't.

I left his office sad that whatever leadership skills he saw in me were insufficient for me to become a trustee, though the reality was that I simply didn't have the clout to make it onto the board.

Our conversation left me wondering: How often are board members selected because of their deep pockets or their influence alone? How often do we bow to Mammon, the almighty dollar, instead of God? Far too often. Dale Hanson Bourke bears witness:

While I heard Christian concern expressed about poverty, the stronger message was that I was rewarded for accumulating wealth. The farther I moved away from poverty, the more I was asked to join church committees and nonprofit boards. The poor may be "blessed," but the wealthy are popular, especially in Christian circles.

The boards that Dale Hanson Bourke references set the priorities, or course, these churches and nonprofits take. They appoint leaders, make hiring decisions, and set budgets. Their opinions and votes are of utmost importance. That's why it is imperative that our boards reflect the faces of the kingdom, not just the rich.

It would be naïve to deny that even some of our best churches and Christian nonprofits select people of affluence for their ruling boards because they crave access to these people's financial incentives, renown, and business savvy. Having the wealthy and influential involved can be greatly beneficial, but it's wrong for us to limit board membership to these individuals.

As far as I know, being wealthy and influential isn't a requirement for church leadership, though. When we select nominal Christians as board members because of their clout over faithful disciples of Jesus we boldly declare our love of money and power. This habit also betrays our prejudice against the poor. We assume, being poor, they do not have wisdom or anything worthwhile to offer us.

Barbara Ehrenreich discusses these kinds of prejudices in a recent article aptly titled "It Is Expensive to be Poor":

By the Reagan era, it had become a cornerstone of conservative ideology that poverty is caused not by low wages or a lack of jobs and education, but by the bad attitudes and faulty lifestyles of the poor.

Picking up on this theory, pundits and politicians have bemoaned the character failings and bad habits of the poor for at least the past 50 years. In their view, the poor are shiftless, irresponsible, and prone to addiction. They have too many children and fail to get married. So if they suffer from grievous material deprivation, if they run out of money between paychecks, if they do not always have food on their tables—then they have no one to blame but themselves.

Ehrenreich goes on to say the recent recession should have ended our victim-blaming theory of poverty, causing us to finally see, "Poverty is not a character failing or a lack of motivation. Poverty is a shortage of money."

Could our prejudices against the poor keep us from seeing the gifts they have to offer our leadership boards? Thankfully, not all bow to Mammon or are prejudiced against the poor.

An evangelical pastor once told me about how a member of the congregation, also the well-to-do owner of a car dealership, complained about his sermons from Isaiah on justice. He didn't like the pastor's interpretation. The pastor patiently explained that he had been preaching straight from Scripture, drawing implications that clearly followed. Nevertheless, the business owner threatened the pastor with, "If you don't change, my money and I will leave the congregation." I sat on the edge of my seat waiting to hear how he handled the challenge. He said, "Well then go ahead and leave." The man did. Although the church took a steep financial hit, at least the pastor and congregation maintained their moral integrity.

There are Christian ministries who strive for diversity on their boards. Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, the director for the School for Conversion, an umbrella of community-based ministries in Durham, North Carolina, aims for economic diversity on their board and staff. It makes sense that an organization so focused on hospitality, community, and inclusivity would benefit from involving leaders from a range of backgrounds… but shouldn't that go for all of us?

Recently Pope Francis opted to pass over some of the more influential archbishops in the U.S. and other countries in his choice of new cardinals. Instead, he selected archbishops from poorer countries like Haiti and Burkina Faso. These new cardinals will help select the next pope. Concerning the Pope's choices, the Rev. James Martin writes:

The Pope's picks show that he wants the voice of the poor represented in the next conclave. Archbishop Chibly Langlois, 55, for example, will be the first-ever cardinal from Haiti. The Rev. Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman, echoed this: "The choice of Cardinals of Burkina Faso and Haiti shows concern for people struck by poverty."

Let's take a cue from the pastor friend of mine, the School of Conversion, and the Pope: God forbid our boards become good 'ole boys and girls clubs. Our churches, Christian ministries, and organizations are not to be plutocracies. We are to fight against this form of exclusivity. We should aim for economic as well as ethnic, racial, age, and gender diversity on our ruling boards.

Such diversity better reflects Christ's body and will improve our ability to lead our people. Jesus's brother, James, warns us:

Believers...must not show favoritism. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, "Here's a good seat for you," but say to the poor man, "You stand there" or "Sit on the floor by my feet," have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? (James 2:1-4).