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Leading the Black Church: Can it be a Woman's Place?

  • David Briggs Religion News Service
  • Updated Nov 19, 2008
Leading the Black Church: Can it be a Woman's Place?

Imelda Ellison sits quietly in her pew as, one by one, dressed all in white, the members of the Emmanuel Women of Worship come down the center aisle.

Their heads held high, some 15 women step and sway, clapping and singing. For a few mesmerizing moments, the women's choir is the center of Sunday worship.

It's times like this when Ellison, a religious educator with a "burning" call to the ministry, envisions herself up front leading the flock in prayer.

But when the women take their seats near the pulpit, the male ministers seated on either side of Emmanuel Baptist Church's pastor take over the service.

The pastor, the Rev. David Cobb Jr., started the women's choir six months ago to increase the visibility of women in the service, but his congregation is not ready for women ministers, he says.

Black women activists say change is long overdue in their struggle for equal opportunities in their church. They can be trustees and teachers and can even be ordained as deacons and ministers in some black churches.

But like many evangelical churches, many individual black congregations still ban female clergy. And even among churches that accept women ministers, it is rare for a woman to be a senior pastor.

Rather than continue to fight, many women with seminary degrees have switched to predominantly white mainline Protestant churches to find a place in the pulpit.

To be sure, there are success stories -- there are three women bishops in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, for example. Yet they are mostly the exceptions. Many black churches such as Emmanuel still have all-male deacon boards to oversee the congregation's spiritual life.

Tradition and a literal interpretation of biblical texts urging women to be silent are part of the reason women have been kept from the front of the black church, observers say.

There are concerns that women clergy could undermine the historic role of pastors as important leadership models for black men. The issue is also about power and sexism, women say.

"How can we say we love the Lord and we oppress women?" Ellison says.

In the late 1950s, an Emmanuel leader informed Doris Jamieson he would nominate her to be the only woman on the board of trustees, which oversees church finances and administration.

"But you got to learn to keep your mouth shut," Jamieson recalls being told.

Today, a third of the 12 trustees at Emmanuel are women. And women there, unlike at many other black churches, offer Communion. Visiting women ministers preach on Women's Day.

Cobb would like to find a more prominent role for women at his church. In the coming months, he plans to feature women at least monthly in the service in roles ranging from reading Scripture to leading congregational prayer.

"I want everybody in the church to know they can play an important part," Cobb says. "I don't want it to appear the only thing women can do is cook and hand out clothes."

Ellison teaches a new member class and is part of the youth ministry team at Emmanuel. More than a month ago, she asked Cobb if she could be a minister at Emmanuel.

Cobb says he has not made up his mind on women as senior pastors, but he sees biblical support for women as associate clergy. "Women have just as much right to preach and serve in leadership positions in church as do men," he says.

But Cobb doubts his congregation -- or more importantly, the deacons in their 60s, 70s and 80s who would vote on such a question -- are ready to accept a female minister. So Cobb will treat Ellison as he would anyone making the request, by putting her under his supervision for two years to see if she is ready to be licensed as a minister.

Ellison, who is close to earning a bachelor's degree in religious studies from Ursuline College, explored other churches before returning to Emmanuel in 2005.

"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