"God was saying this was where he wanted me to come," Ellison says.

"It was very hard for me, really, to come back here, because I knew I

wasn't going to be accepted."

Her struggle at Emmanuel is being played out throughout the black church, say experts like Bettye Collier-Thomas, author of the upcoming book "Jesus, Jobs and Justice: The History of African American Women and Religion."

"What we're concerned about is full equality, and at this point we just don't see that," she said.

With women making up approximately two-thirds of the people in pews at many black churches, some leaders worry about "the feminization" of the church, and say they need male role models to reach young black men.

Many black male clergy keep ban women from the pulpit based on Bible passages that emphasize female submission or the predominance of men in authority.

At nearby Good Hope Missionary Baptist Church in Cleveland, the Rev. Milton Bradford said the Bible teaches "a woman is never called to be in authority" in the church.

"It's not what I say," Bradford said. "It's what the Bible says."

The opposition of male pastors is a powerful barrier, Ellison says.

"It's how the women have been taught. It's how the men have been taught," Ellison said.

This has led many black women to turn to predominantly white mainline churches such as the United Church of Christ and the Presbyterian Church (USA).

The Rev. Angela Lewis, pastor of St. Paul United Methodist Church in Cleveland, remembers as a young woman repeatedly telling her Baptist pastor in Oklahoma that God was leading her into the ministry.

In making her case that God can use anyone, she pointed to the biblical story of a talking donkey that instructed the prophet Balaam.

"Yes, you're right," the pastor told her, "but the donkey was a

male." The path Lewis took -- first to Princeton Theological

Seminary and then ordination in the United Methodist Church -- is a familiar one.

Vassar College religion professor Lawrence Mamiya said studies by Delores Carpenter of Howard Divinity School showed substantial numbers of black women seminary graduates have switched to white denominations.

More than half of the 380 ordained black women in one study turned to white denominations.

Mamiya says the number is declining slightly with the opening of opportunities in historically black denominations such as the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

"However, denominational switching still remains a significant factor for black women in ministry, and black church denominations are losing," he reports.

Back at Emmanuel, Ellison isn't ready to give up hope of one day leading her own church from her own pulpit.

"You definitely have to know who you are in Christ. You have to know that God has spoken to you. That's where you get your power, your stamina," Ellison says, adding, "Emmanuel, that door has to open."

David Briggs writes for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland.
c. 2008 Religion News Service