Women Hold Leading Positions in Black American Churches
When a bishop’s post arose in the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in 2010, Teresa Jefferson-Snorton looked around to see if any women were volunteering to run for office.
She knew that since its founding 140 years earlier by black Methodists coming out of slavery, the denomination had never elected a female bishop.
âI was like, oh my God, this can’t be,â she recalls. “If no one comes forward, that gives a pass to the church.”
Jefferson-Snorton, who had spent decades as a pastor, chaplain, and theological educator, undertook several months of intensive prayer before discerning that she “felt a call to it” from God. Then she came up with her name.
âTo a certain extent, it was a political statement,â Jefferson-Snorton said.
Despite opposition from some who said the denomination was not ready for a female bishop, she was elected the 59th bishop of CME, overseeing 217 churches in Alabama and Florida.
Jefferson-Snorton said people there have come to accept him in the role – albeit awkwardly at times.
“I can’t tell you how many times people have said ‘Yes sir’ to me,” she said. “I’m just reminding them, ‘Yes ma’am’ it’s okay.”
Eleven years later, she remains the only female bishop of the CME, a status brought to life in an official photo of the church’s college of bishops, where she is seated among 16 men, all dressed in purple and white clothing.
Most of the major black Christian denominations in the United States have no doctrinal barriers to the ordination of female leaders as do Catholicism and some other denominations, and women have preached and been ordained in historically black churches since the 1940’s. less the 19th century.
Yet faith-based leadership remained entirely male until the 21st century, and women are still the exception in the upper echelons.
Earlier this year, Reverend Gina Stewart became the first woman president of a large Black Baptist organization, the Lott Carey Baptist Foreign Mission Society, an organization that responds to disasters and fights poverty, hunger and human trafficking. humans.
âWhenever a woman is placed in a traditionally male role, there is always a certain negativity surrounding her,â said Stewart, but in her first 90 days as president she received calls. congratulations from some male faith leaders and support from her man. predecessors, without encountering “any major resistance”.
âThere is a change happening,â said Stewart, noting that more women have been promoted to lead important departments in the church.
âWe know this is long overdue,â added Stewart, who is senior pastor at Christ Missionary Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee. “But we give credit to organizations that put in the effort, take the initiative and give women that opportunity.”
Religious organizations still need to do more to provide women with leadership development opportunities, said Reverend Maisha Handy, associate professor of religion and education at the Interfaith Theological Center, a historically African-American consortium of seminaries in Atlanta.
“We have certainly made progress in this area in recent years, in the last decades, but we still have a long way to go,” said Handy, who is also executive director of the Center for Black Women’s Justice at ITC. .
Women pastors often receive assignments in smaller congregations with fewer resources or opportunities to gain experience and prepare for faith-based leadership, Handy said.
âIt’s not just about ordination. It’s about placement,â Handy said.
When black denominations first appeared in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, according to Handy, their biblical interpretations were affected by the cultural attitudes around them. âWhen you think of the kind of patriarchy and misogyny that are intrinsic to American history and culture, it makes sense that this is reflected in these denominations as well,â she said.
To be sure, women have long exercised authority in unordered roles, outnumbering men among local church members and also leading their own organizations within denominations.
But from the start, women had limited access to the pulpit, although some challenged these barriers.
âIf the man can preach, because the Savior died for him, why can’t the woman? Jarena Lee, the first female lay preacher of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, asked in the early 19th century.
A sister denomination, the African Methodist Episcopal Church of Zion, ordained Mary Small, its first female minister, in 1898. By the mid-20th century, the CME and AME churches were also ordaining women. The records are less precise among the more decentralized Baptists, but the ordination of women has long been the exception among them.
In 2000, Vashti Murphy McKenzie was elected the first female bishop of AME Church. McKenzie, now retired, was later joined by more female bishops, although men still make up the bulk of the AME bishopric. The AME Zion Church followed, electing Mildred “Bonnie” Hines bishop in 2008, as did the CME with Jefferson-Snorton in 2010.
Jefferson-Snorton, who in October was elected chair of the board of trustees of the National Council of Churches, said she was still sometimes asked about Bible passages cited to justify giving men exclusive power to preach or lead . She cites other passages, such as the one that states that in Christ there is neither male nor female.
“I often start with the story of the morning of the Resurrection,” when Jesus’ disciples were told to “go and proclaim” that he had risen from the dead, she added.
âIf Jesus hadn’t wanted women to be the bearers of good news, it never would have happened,â said Jefferson-Snorton.
But to those who are âmore hostileâ to questioning women’s ministry, âI often tell them, ‘God called me to this ministry, so if you have a problem with that, you have to talk to God, because that I didn’t call myself, âshe said.
In the Church of God in Christ, a historically black Pentecostal denomination, women have made their influence felt in other ways. Traditionally, only men have been recognized as ordained ministers or bishops, while women have headed its Women’s Department, which oversees the auxiliaries. COGIC officials did not respond to questions about the role of women in the denomination.
But after her husband’s death, COGIC’s first president-elect, Mother Mary P. Patterson, a retired real estate agent who ran her own travel agency, founded the Pentecostal Heritage Connection, dedicated to planting historical markers. honoring COGIC leaders across the South. In November, a ceremony to unveil the final marker, an 8-foot aluminum sign located in a corner of Little Rock, Arkansas, brought together regional religious leaders, a governor’s representative and academics who visited the state. for the occasion.
Sherry Sherrod DuPree, Florida historian and former president of the Society for Pentecostal Studies, said Patterson’s effort is an example of how women run a denomination known for its patriarchal hierarchy.
“She’s a woman who prays and ‘stays in her way’ but is dedicated to doing chores without fanfare, one of the skills of COGIC women,” said DuPree.
Patterson said, âIt shows other young women that it is not necessary to be behind the pulpit to do a work for the Lord.