Where do women fit in the black church?
It is said that women have been the sleeping giants of the black church from the very beginning.
And while that may be true, women leaders in the church still face some setbacks; even in denominations where ordination is obtainable.
Lemora Dobbs, senior pastor of St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal church in Canton, GA has a few memories of situations she has faced in her years as an elder and pastor.
“There are some churches who do not want a female pastor. And it is 2011,” she said. “I am the first female to be appointed to St. Paul.”
When some think of a pastor, they think of a male, said Dobbs. She recalls an experience where she had to officiate a funeral. When she arrived organizers were looking for the minister not realizing the “he” they were looking for was actually “she.”
“They were looking for a male minister,” she said. “The same thing happened once at a wedding. They tried to seat me with the guests.”
According to the 2006 US Federal Labor Statistics, one in every eight clergy members is female.
“There have been some major strides,” said Dobbs. “Yet, there is still much work to be done.”
One of the major strides for the AME Church occurred in 2000, when Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie was elected the first ever female bishop of the denomination. She serves in the 13th district. And Women in Ministry (WIM) in the AME Church, an organization of women leaders and ministers in the AME Church, reports there are more than 3,000 women in ministry within the AME Church worldwide. Today there are a total of three female AME bishops.
The same cannot easily be said about other denominations like Church of God in Christ and Baptist. Both denominations have a reputation for being more patriarchal and hierarchical, said Larry Mamiya, professor of Religion and Africana Studies at Vassar College.
These denominations, as a whole, believe the role of pastor is limited to only men. However, women are licensed to preach as evangelists or missionaries.
Kantrina Barker, 38, is one of them. The daughter of a COGIC preacher, Barker said she has known all her life that she was called to ministry. However, seeing what her father experienced as a pastor, she ran from the call.
That was until earlier this year when she gave her first sermon in February. All she has known, all of her life, is that while women have a place in ministry, the pastorate is reserved to the men.
“It is taught to us the man is the head even though we are ministers, we are evangelists, we are missionaries,” she said. “COGIC has taught us that women need a covering. We are the weaker. When God did major things in the Bible, he used men.”
Barker has never had a problem with COGIC doctrine. At the same time, she does not find fault with other denominations ordaining women.
“I cannot say God did not call these women to their places in the ministry,” she said. “If I did that, I would be passing judgment on them. However, I chose the COGIC and I stand by their bylaws. It would be another story if I were a member of another denomination.”
Women make up the majority of black congregations, said Mamiya. Women also provide the financial purse strings.
“Ultimately, women control things in the black church. Black churches would collapse without them,” he said. “It seems as though many black women in the pews have not decided to push for black women pastors. If and when they do, then things would change tremendously.”
But why haven’t they? Mamiya said there are a few reasons as to why not.
The main reason, he said, is because women see the options young black men have as role models in their communities. He said women realize there is a need for strong male figures in the black community, so they have opted for black male pastors to be a role model for the younger one.
Some women don’t want female pastors, added Dobbs, regardless of the denomination. Brenda Jones, a former AMEZ senior Pastor, agrees. She said while women are the majority in most churches and are less represented in leadership, many of them are the toughest critics and biggest hindrances to women clergy leadership.
Dobbs, who grew up Baptist, split from the Baptist church when she answered her call because of the dynamics of the Baptist church, she said. It is a decision she does not regret.
Some Baptist churches are breaking from the tradition, however. Oberlin Baptist church, in Raleigh, NC, called a female to be their pastor for the first time in the church’s long history. Rev. Sherri Arnold Graham has been there since December 2010.
Mamiya suggests education has played a role in some denominations, like the AME church and maybe even AME Zion, in allowing more and more women as pastors.
“The more educated the clergy, the more open they are to being more inclusive,” he said. “Clergy education is most important in terms of the kind of progressive politics the church/denomination tends to pursue.”
Jones said women have been functioning as pastors and leaders within the AMEZ church for a long period of time but very few of the larger churches have female pastors.
“I would venture to say that less than 10 percent of the appointments to the large churches are given to women,” she said.
In addition, there has only been one female bishop. Dr. Mildred “Bonnie” Hines made history as the first in 2008. However, Jones believes Hines’ election was more about not wanting to be left behind by the other Methodist bodies.
With all of this in mind, one would wonder if there is any hope for the future.
Mamiya does not see women in the pews changing.
“When they begin to see greater equality, then they will push to support black female pastors. Until that time, I do not see the situation of black women as pastors in black churches improving much. You have to awake the sleeping giants.”
What he does see happening is a greater exodus of black women switching to white denominations.
Mamiya references a major study done by Dr. Delores Carpenter has served as a professor of Religious Education at the Howard University School of Divinity. Carpenter, Mamiya said, points out about close to half of black women who have divinity degrees have essentially left black churches and went to white denominations.
“They found it easier,” he said. “Now we do not know what kind of problems they have had or are running into like subtle racism or a glass ceiling. All of that has not been examined yet. But there have been definitely been a movement.”
And it has been occurring for at least the past 20 years.
There has also been another trend, said Mamiya. There have been some women who have started their own churches, especially among Pentecostal women.
“When the COGIC decided to keep the ministry all male, many of the women left the denomination and began starting their own churches,” he said. “You started to see many storefronts. Many of them have put together enough small churches, becoming bishops and doing their own thing.”
Jones believes there is a change in the air. She said many of the current bishops are appointing women clergy to major appointments.
“We still have a long way to go to get to the place where women are considered as major contenders for leadership positions other than those traditionally deemed women’s roles, such as Missionary and Christian Education,” she said. “The future is bright. The faces of the churches today are slowly but surely changing. Women are finding their voices and are becoming more determined in their pursuit of answering their calls to leadership positions. In order to truly effect a change the mindset of the people (male, female, young and old) must change.”
Barker believes women are very much capable of leading in the church, beside the men.
“If you think about it, whenever you look behind the man, the woman is always there pushing him along,” she said.
She references a saying one of the women in her family used to tell her growing up, “If the man is the head, then you are the neck. He can’t move unless you move.”
She adds, “Would I follow a female pastor? If I were not in the COGIC I probably would. If she showed the capable characteristics, then I would.”