Most leaders of Christian nonprofit ministries are men over the age of 50, according to a recent MinistryWatch survey of the country’s largest 1,000 ministries.
Nearly 82% of respondents are men, while about 18% of the leaders are women.
This mirrors a survey conducted in 2014 by the Imago Dei Fund. In it, women made up about 16% of the chief executive officers of evangelical nonprofit organizations.
While ministries have only 16-18% female leaders, women tend to make up about 75% of the nonprofit workforce generally.
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Ann Graber Hershberger, who leads the humanitarian Mennonite Central Committee, said the makeup of its regional and national offices generally reflects this statistic. Of the 190 employees, 65% are women and 35% are men.
However, the MCC has five executive directors for its regional and national offices, four of whom are women.
“Women think differently and bring a unique perspective,” Andrea Ramirez, executive director of the Faith and Education Coalition of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference told Christianity Today. “We represent a part of the body of Christ. When we’re not present, all that is absent.”
Hershberger has been leading the MCC for two years as executive director but was involved as a board member for over 20 years before joining the ministry staff.
Having been involved in leadership for most of her life — from the time she was elected to lead her high school church youth group — Hershberger has also benefited from the informal mentoring of a former university president. And she has informally mentored younger women into leadership roles.
“There have only been a handful of times in my life when I felt I was held back from serving in ways I was called because of being a female,” Hershberger told MinistryWatch.
While serving in Nicaragua and presenting during a church conference. Hershberger was approached by a male church member who said he was conflicted because he’d been taught women shouldn’t teach men — but he’d been learning a lot from her presentation.
“It was not my place to solve his inner conflict, but I did gently suggest that he simply be open to the Holy Spirit’s leading in his life,” Hershberger said, adding that her own church congregation affirms and supports her leadership.
When asked what advice and encouragement she might offer younger women who want to be involved in Christian ministry leadership, Hershberger suggested women “learn to listen to others, then to accept and develop their own gifts.”
“If there is a clear leadership gift and a call to Christian nonprofits, then find ways to enter and learn about that agency from whatever position,” she said. “Don’t wait to be tapped, but volunteer for extra projects that help people get to know you and then apply for suitable positions as you are led.
“Do not seek leadership positions for the sake of being a female leader. Seek the Spirit’s leading into where you are called and then serve well,” she added.
Another facet of Christian ministry leadership is that 88% of all survey respondents, men and women, are between the ages of 50 and 70. A small group of 2.5% reported still leading a Christian ministry in their 70s.
Not only are many of the leaders reaching what is traditionally considered retirement age, but 63% have been serving in their role for six years or more, the lengthiest stint of service category listed in the survey choices.
The age and length of service of many of the ministry chiefs are likely tied to another hurdle ministries are looking to overcome: succession planning. In response to another survey question about significant challenges facing them, ministry leaders mentioned succession planning and management succession.
Finding new executive leaders is not just a challenge for Christian ministries, according to nonprofit consultant Jan Cohen in The Chronicle of Philanthropy.
“There are way fewer experienced executive director and CEO candidates than there have ever been before,” Cohen said, also noting the importance of organizations planning for leadership transitions.
This article originally appeared at MinistryWatch.
Kim Roberts is a freelance writer who holds a Juris Doctor from Baylor University. She has homeschooled her three children and is happily married to her husband of 25 years.