Beyond the Biblical Mandate: Why Your Church NEEDS more Diversity

Most pastors and church leaders can easily quote (and just as easily ignore) the Bible passages that mandate that we diversify our individual churches and form intentional collaborations with different others in the body of Christ. But there are social psychological reasons for doing this challenging work that suggest that the biblical mandate for diversity was put in place because only diversity can save us from the widening blind spots that plague our homogeneous churches. Research shows that diverse groups arrive at more creative solutions and more effective idea generation than do their more homogeneous counterparts. For example, psychologists Bantel and Jackson assessed the diversity of top management teams at 199 banks and found that the more diverse the team, with respect to age, education and length of time on the team, the more the team was able to create innovative solutions to administrative challenges. The fact that diversity is often associated with increased creativity is likely due to the fact that diverse teams can take advantage of a wide range of opinions, ideas and resources that diversity offers, perhaps by increasing the length of the discussion on an issue. Further, organizational theorists contend that homogenous groups find it harder to keep learning because each member is bringing less and less unique information to the table. However, in order to fully utilize the wider range of resources and increased learning that diversity offers, each member of the diverse group must be of equal status because group members with lower status may lack confidence and be less likely to express their opinions. In other words, diverse groups that fully embody the biblical mandate to unite under one household of God will reap the benefits of increased learning, increased creativity, and more effective problem-solving.

Further, diverse groups are less likely to fall prey to group polarization (adopting oversimplified and extreme stances that fail to consider important conflicting information) and groupthink. Groupthink occurs when group members’ striving for unanimity (e.g., striving for agreement) overrides their desire to realistically appraise a situation . This process leads to poor decision-making that can have devastating consequences. For example, Groupthink has been used to retroactively explain numerous historical cases of poor decision-making such as the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 and the pre-World War II decision to ignore a potential Japanese threat to Pearl Harbor. Researchers who study groupthink believe that group structural faults such as insulation of the group from outsiders and high group member homogeneity are important contributors to groupthink.

Former Presbyterian minister Gerald Tritle applied research on groupthink to situations involving church leadership teams and found that homogenous and highly cohesive elder boards are especially susceptible to groupthink. Based on his integrative research, he suggests that elder boards are likely inflicted with groupthink if they are suffering from any of the following symptoms: 1) They overestimate their invulnerability or high moral stance. 2) They collectively rationalize the decisions they make. 3) They demonize or stereotype out-groups and their leaders 4) They have a culture of uniformity wherein individuals censor themselves and others so that the facade of group unanimity is maintained. 5) They contain members who take it upon themselves to protect the group leader (usually the pastor) by keeping information—theirs or that of other group members—from that leader.

He ultimately concludes that groupthink works hand-in-hand with group polarization to produce an inability to “work out theological or ministerial unity” within the larger body of Christ and to a “narcissism of small [doctrinal] differences.” According to Tritle, church leadership teams who make decisions in a cultural vacuum are more likely to make less-informed decisions while perceiving that their decision is superior to those of other groups. The perception that their decision is morally superior to those of other groups gives them license to adopt a narcissistic, defensive and inflexible stance that further impedes their ability to achieve unity with other cultural groups in the body of Christ. Taken together this research suggests that more diverse groups that are also meaningfully connected to different groups are less likely to make decisions that are influenced by groupthink and group polarization. However the churches within our broken body of Christ tend to look inward, rather than outward, thus increasing the likelihood that we make ill-informed decisions and adopt extreme stances that ultimately decrease our ability to work well with other Christians. Diversity can save us.