the shape of leadership

Stop Playing Favorites

How to uproot biases in your ministry

Kayla Pierce on September 7, 2022

It is alarmingly easy to play favorites in ministry. Every time we interact with people, there is an opportunity for bias to creep in.

A bias is an inclination to favor or disfavor one person or group over another. Biases can reside in attitudes (resulting in prejudice) or in behaviors (resulting in discrimination).

Not playing favorites is tricky because biases often arise subconsciously.

Humans are bent toward bias. Our brains acquire and apply knowledge rapidly, performing up to 1,000 basic operations per second. In a complex world, we frequently use mental shortcuts.

We pick up incorrect and overgeneralized assumptions about different social groups — often from hearsay — and apply them to unique individuals. Such shortcuts become stereotypes.

This is a moral and ethical problem. After all, the Bible teaches that showing favoritism displeases God. James 2:9 says, “If you show favoritism, you sin.”

So, what can we do about biases in our lives and ministries?


Confront Personal Biases

This is an uncomfortable topic. People often become defensive or dismissive at the first suggestion they have biases. However, we cannot address what we are unwilling to acknowledge.

Christians aren’t immune from wrong attitudes. The apostle Peter walked with Jesus, received the baptism in the Holy Spirit, and helped launch the Early Church. Yet even this hero of the faith struggled with biases.

Paul wrote in Galatians 2:11, “When Cephas [Peter] came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned.”

Peter stopped eating with Gentiles when certain Jews were around. These discriminatory actions negatively influenced others, including Barnabas (verse 13).

Prejudice against Gentiles was likely rooted in Peter’s early socialization as a Jewish boy. Those attitudes led to discrimination, which Paul confronted.

If Peter was susceptible to prejudice and discrimination, we shouldn’t claim to be above these problems either.

Confronting your own bias can be embarrassing, especially when someone else brings it to your attention. But when it happens, the best response is humility and repentance. Make things right with those you hurt, and ask God to change your heart.


Grow in Awareness

Bias can take a variety of forms, such as racism, sexism and ageism.

Classism is another pervasive issue we cannot ignore. James 2:1–4 calls out those who favor the wealthy over the poor:

My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. 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?

This kind of bias can happen in more subtle ways as well. For example, are wealthier church members the first ones you call when you need someone to lead a team? Are you more likely to recruit working class congregants for less appealing volunteer duties, like cleaning up after an event?

In large and small decisions, take time to pray and reflect on how biases might be affecting your thinking. Be sure the Holy Spirit — not an unfair assumption — is leading the way.

If Peter was susceptible to
prejudice and
we shouldn’t
claim to be
above these
problems either.


Let Go of Stereotypes

God sees people as individuals, not stereotypes. We must strive to do the same.

Stereotypes are antithetical to the gospel message. In fact, Paul said, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

That doesn’t mean biases are easy to overcome, however. Dismantling stereotypes can be a lifelong endeavor requiring continual reflection and prayer.

One of the best ways to remedy stereotypes is to tackle them head-on. For example, consider some common stereotypes about people of different generations (teens, young adults, senior adults, etc.). Then think of individuals who do not fit these stereotypes, whether friends or influential figures.

It might be helpful to make a list of stereotype-defying people or even clip articles from newspapers and magazines.

To counter the stereotype of self-absorbed youth, for instance, watch for young people performing acts of kindness or heroism.

This exercise will help you adjust your own attitudes and give you positive examples to point to when challenging someone else’s assumptions.


Embrace Diversity

When everyone in your social circle is just like you, your biases will likely go unchecked. Increase your exposure to people with diverse backgrounds and perspectives.

Be intentional about getting to know all kinds of people. Listen to their experiences, and imagine what life is like for them.

In psychology, this strategy is called perspective-taking, and it has been shown to reduce biases.

Embracing diversity is essential to fulfilling the Great Commission. We have a calling to venture beyond the comfortably familiar and make disciples from among all peoples.

John 4 relates how Jesus went out of His way to minister to a Samaritan. Not only was she a woman, but she also belonged to a highly stigmatized group. That exchange led to many converts among the Samaritans (verse 39).


Act Justly

Evaluate your hiring and compensation practices.

Proverbs 20:10 says, “False weights and unequal measures — the Lord detests double standards of every kind” (NLT).

When it comes to issues like salaries and benefits, however, the scales often tip more favorably for some than others. Do the women on your ministry team receive less pay than their male colleagues? If so, the insidious effects of gender bias may have crept into your hiring practices or performance evaluations.

Family situations can also lead to unfair treatment. Research by Shelley Correll and colleagues published in the American Journal of Sociology revealed that mothers often earn less than women without children. By contrast, fathers receive more pay than other men.

In other words, there is a double standard when it comes to parenthood and compensation, even when the work is exactly the same. Do these patterns hold for your church? Put them to the test and see.

Hiring is another area in which biases can abound. When you need to expand your team, resist the urge to filter by marital status.

If you find yourself applying filters, consider what biases you need to confront. Do you assume a single person will be less expensive to employ than a married person? Do you expect a single person to be lacking in some regard?

The apostle Paul was single. Yet church leaders sometimes make unfair assumptions about single ministers. Don’t let bias rob you of the opportunity to hire an amazing world changer.

Romans 12:2 says, “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” With discipline and reliance on the Holy Spirit, we can uproot bias, stop playing favorites, and lead more effective and inclusive ministries.


This article appears in the Summer 2022 edition of Influence magazine.

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