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Citygate Network Seeks Greater Diversity in National Rescue Mission Leadership

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America is becoming more diverse. By 2050, racial minorities will be the new majority. But for evangelical ministries, white male leadership remains the norm, as I found in a 2016 investigation for Religion News Service that tracked 33 national ministries, more than half of which declined to respond to my inquiries. Last year, MinistryWatch also took a look at 50 of the largest ministries in the U.S. and found that most were led by white males.

Today, levels of leadership diversity in evangelical parachurch organizations remains about half that of the broader charitable world, but there are a few indications that will change—among them, the National Association of Evangelicals’ decision in 2019 to appoint an Asian-American president, an African-American board chair, and a female vice chair.

As writer Edward Gilbreath put it, “Racial reconciliation among evangelicals is one of those slippery topics that come and go based on which national leader is currently jazzed about it.”

But Citygate Network, formerly the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions, is making efforts to promote greater racial, gender, and even denominational diversity among the executives and board members of its 300-plus member organizations, which serve cities’ hungry, homeless, abused, and addicted residents.

“Here is the bottom line,” wrote Citygate’s president and vice president in the March/April issue of the ministry’s magazine, Instigate. “The number of black CEOs at missions and similar ministries is quite small—too small.

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“As an association, we need to work on this if we want our leadership to parallel the general population and, moreover, be a mosaic of the people missions and candid ministries we serve,” wrote John Ashmen and Justin Boles.

The diversity effort arose from a 2020 survey of Citygate members that showed 67% of CEOs said their boards need more racial diversity. Currently, 90% of mission leaders are white, and 5% are Black. In addition, 43% of CEOs saw a need for more gender diversity.

“Women now make up 19% of our CEOs,” Ashmen and Boles wrote. “While this is good news and shows great progress over recent years, our concern is that we have almost the exact same percentage (18%) of member organizations with zero women or very few on their boards.”

Lack of denomination diversity wasn’t as big an issue in the 2020 survey, but Ashmen and Boles explained that it, too, was a concern, writing:

In the early 1900s, the mainline denominations were prevalent in the control and guidance of our Association. Later on, other denominations like Assemblies of God and Brethren in Christ had their time…But these days we appear to be very highly independent/nondenominational and Baptist.

Is this a problem? Maybe not. But it certainly removes from our ranks the richness of some precious church traditions…and it probably keeps our member organizations from “speaking other languages” of Protestantism that are found in our cities.

If we want to have a broader base to communicate more comfortably with those we serve, perhaps we should seek to hire those whose church backgrounds aren’t exactly like that of those already in the organization. In other words, mixing things up might be a good idea.

I interviewed three Black mission leaders for Instigate magazine to hear their stories. Anthony McMinn has been President/CEO of Hendersonville Rescue Mission in North Carolina for more than a quarter century. Jerrel Gilliam was named Executive Director of Pittsburgh’s Light Of Life Rescue Mission two years ago. And Troy Vaughn was named CEO of the Los Angeles Mission last fall.

All three say their lives are marked by racism, which they say remains pervasive and powerful in the land of the free. All three have been stopped repeatedly by police officers for no other reason than “driving while Black.” All three are 100% convinced that Black lives matter—even if they don’t support everything the BLM organization says or does. And all three men hope their white brethren will see their point of view.

McMinn grew up attending school with kids who were part of the family that owned his family members as slaves. When he became a high school football star, he gained some acceptance in the predominantly white community.

The rescue mission’s board was hesitant to appoint him, fearing that a Black man would not be able to effectively fulfill the responsibility essential to the mission’s survival: fundraising. But he prevailed, and no longer receives that many hate letters.

“If you’re going to be an effective leader as an African-American, you’ve got to trust God and expect that people will not like you,” McMinn said.

Troy Vaughn was proudly serving as a U.S. Marine when his father died suddenly under horrific circumstances, which led to a “psychic break,” inability to complete his military service, and seven years of homelessness. He was helped back toward wholeness through the ministry of LA’s Union Rescue Mission. Last fall the mission named him its first non-white CEO in the mission’s 84-year history.

“There are so many great Black Christian leaders that can serve rescue missions well, if only we would let them,” said Vaughn. “When you’re the first of anything, you hold a unique responsibility. And you definitely don’t want to be the last!”

Jerrel Gilliam’s pastor father raised his kids to volunteer in rescue missions, and he had worked with Light Of Life Rescue Mission for years. But when the executive director position opened up a few years ago, the mission conducted two national searches.

One mission leader told him, “The longer this search process goes on, and the longer you serve as the interim director the more you are proving that you are the best person for the job.” And while Gilliam was eventually named executive director, he found the process confusing and painful.

“You see a lot of African Americans working entry-level jobs: the kitchen, security, counselors,” he says. “But you don’t see them in management.”

Some Christian organizations worry about efforts to combat racism and white supremacy. On Monday, health and wealth preacher Andrew Wommack’s political arm, the Truth & Liberty Coalition, condemned military efforts to combat white supremacy, saying the effort politicized the military and discriminated against conservatives.

“Under this program, the Pentagon is now teaching our troops that they are fighting to defend a systemically racist country,” said Truth & Liberty’s Richard Harris, who said “the ‘soul’ of the military is being attacked.”

But Citygate will continue to explore diversity, discussing the issue at its conventions and gatherings of leaders, and continuing to promote it behind the scenes.

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Steve Rabey

Steve Rabey is a veteran author and journalist who has published more than 50 books and 2,000 articles about religion, spirituality, and culture. He was an instructor at Fuller and Denver seminaries and the U.S. Air Force Academy. He and his wife Lois live in Colorado.