Black Women Clergy: Reclaiming Our Time, Reclaiming Ourselves

Black woman on the microphone
(Photo: Richie Lugo/Unsplash)

This essay considers a theology of God from the social and gendered position of an African-American, ordained clergywoman. Written from a womanist lens, it seeks to grapple with the dearth of pastoral opportunities for Black women clergy in the ecclesial body. Although intended to be as wide in denominational scope as possible, this essay comes out of the lived experience of the author within the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

According to Miles’ Law, “where you stand depends on where you sit.” Miles’ Law is a philosophical adage that states where one stands on a political issue is dependent upon where one sits. In other words, the role one plays in politics – e.g., the position that you hold – determines one’s philosophical or ideological stance. Womanist theology might apply this same theorem to religious, biblical, or ecclesial interpretation.

Kelly Brown Douglas, womanist theologian and dean of the Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary, maintains that how we shape our theology or engage in biblical discourse is largely determined by our social or cultural position in the world. “The texts we go to, the way we read those texts, and the authority we give the Bible itself are inevitably informed by who we are as embodied beings, how we experience life socially and culturally, as well as what we perceive as the meaning and value of life,” says Douglas. She goes on to say, “We must recognize that just as there are various angles of vision from which to perceive God’s revelation, there are various ways in which to view the biblical witness to that revelation.”

Yolanda Pierce, professor and dean at the Howard University School of Divinity, explains that womanist theology:

“… is an audacious, courageous, and willful act. It is a system that reveals that much of Christian theology has been written and centered around the experiences of white men. Womanist theology also critiques a feminist theology, largely produced in academia, that has excluded the voices of women of color. Womanist theology explicitly concerns itself with how issues of race, gender, and class intersect within religious systems; it also provides space for a historical reconstruction of the roles of women of color in faith communities.”

Where I stand in theology and biblical interpretation has evolved and shifted as I learn to engage in womanist thinking, and thereby, learn to understand myself as a clergywoman. Where I stand in my theology of God, in my calling as a preacher of God’s Word, and in ministry practice have all been shaped by where I sit in the local and global church. This essay, therefore, is inspired and necessitated out of my lived experience as an African-American clergywoman.

Authenticating the Call

The call of women clergy to pastoral leadership varies across denominations, ranging from progressive to conservatively non-existent. Overall, it is Black clergy women, in particular, for whom the pastoral or priestly call is most wanting.

The Pentecostal Holiness Church – arguably one of the most progressive among denominations – has been known to accept and ordain women pastors since its beginnings. In a 2015 position paper on the subject, the Council of Bishops explores the position of women in ministry in both ancient culture and in contemporary society. They write, “Women have always been especially drawn to Jesus. Spiritually and physically Jesus was strong and wise – strong enough to disregard the culture and accept women; wise enough to redeem them, bless them with eternal life, and give them opportunity to serve.”

The Council goes on to make several pertinent claims: Jesus treated women with respect; the gift of the Holy Spirit was given to men and women and empowers each for ministry equally; the first person to partake of the living water – found in John 4 – was a woman; women traveled and ministered to Jesus and his disciples; and it was the women who first discovered the empty tomb and gave witness to the resurrection of our Lord and Savior.

According to latest statistics within the United Methodist Church (UMC) made available to me, women comprise 58 percent of the general lay membership, but only 29 percent of all clergy. African Americans comprise 6 percent of UMC membership, and 7 percent of all clergy – compared to White clergy, which makes up 81 percent of all clergy. All other ethnicities each make up less than 5 percent of all clergy. No data was obtained on how many clergy – particularly senior pastors – are Black females.

Rev Dr Cynthia L. Hale
The Rev. Dr. Cynthia L. Hale. (Photo: screengrab)

In 1968, the Roman Catholic Church saw its first gathering of the National Black Sisters’ Conference. Founded by Mercy Sister Martin de Porres Grey, the Conference was established to address issues of racism and white supremacy. Still in existence today, members of the organization have expressed concern over declining opportunities for the priesthood of Black religious women.

Within the conservative Presbyterian Church in America, women are called to neither teaching nor ruling authority within the church. They are, however, strongly encouraged to participate in women’s ministry as an auxiliary function of the church.

And finally, within the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), few African-American clergy women are called as senior pastors. Within the United States and Canada, African Americans comprise about 10 percent of the total denominational membership. Among all senior pastors, 14 percent are African American. Only 4 percent of senior pastors are African-American women.

Although this statistic varies across geographical regions, within my own region of Georgia, only one senior pastor is an African-American female. The Rev. Dr. Cynthia L. Hale is founding pastor of the Ray of Hope Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), a large African-American congregation. To my knowledge, no other Black clergywoman has been called as senior pastor to an established congregation within this region in recent years, if ever.

Statistics confirm that this denomination is predominantly White and maintains a predominantly European ethos and worship style. In an era where Black women (and women of color in general) have made tremendous strides in American society and various forms of leadership (e.g., consider the 2018 midterm congressional elections), why is no one talking about disparities in church leadership affecting Black women?

Black female clergy within the Georgia region occupy various roles and positions. A handful of ordained Black clergy women are paid staff within the church founded by Dr. Cynthia Hale. The remainder of these talented Black women of the cloth sit in voluntary (i.e., non-paid) leadership positions within the local congregation and throughout the region, or sit in dual-career vocations – earning their livelihood in positions outside of the church. Dual-career vocations may be pastoral in nature – e.g., serving as chaplains or pastoral counselors in hospitals, nursing homes, or prisons.

For the dual-career clergy sister, how does she authenticate her call from God when that call is ultimately suppressed by a male-dominated ecclesial order? The lack of senior pastor roles for the African-American clergywoman often serves to limit her display of gifts in teaching, preaching, and in church leadership. More ethnographic research is necessary to understand the collective experiences of Black clergy women utilizing a womanist lens.

Dr. Yolanda Pierce
Rev. Dr. Yolanda Pierce. (Photo: screengrab)

On authenticating the call, Pierce acknowledges the lived experience of Mother Ida B. Robinson. As with Dr. Hale, Mother Robinson forged her own identity as church founder and called preacher.

The life of Mother Ida B. Robinson (August 3,1891-April 20,1946) exemplifies these bold womanist ways as she sought to fulfill her vocational calling. She was the founder and first Senior Bishop and President of the Mount Sinai Holy Church of America, a Holiness Pentecostal denomination. It remains the only Pentecostal denomination founded by an African-American woman. Mother Robinson created her own denomination in response to her divine calling to preach, but also as a critique of those churches which failed to welcome and encourage women preachers.

Pierce maintains that conservative attitudes toward women in ministry have been largely shaped by the sentiment that “a female ministry is naturally a weak ministry.” Yet, the powerful ministries of Dr. Hale and her contemporary cohorts in other denominations speak otherwise.

The propensity to normalize White male pastoral leadership in the local congregation invariably lends itself to the “othering” of Black women clergy. But in the era of “Black Lives Matter,” the “MeToo” movement, and petitions to “Say Her Name,” should Black women clergy continue to accept our “other” identity as status quo?

Within the Disciples of Christ (DOC), there have been slow changes over the past few years to call Black women clergy into leadership positions. For example, several DOC regions have called and elected African-American female clergy as Regional Minister. In 2017, the General Church of the DOC called its first African-American female General Minister and President.

While this is good news, DOC churches are still slow to call an African-American woman as senior pastor in established congregations. In a denomination where most of the congregations are predominantly White, where exactly do Black women clergy fit in?

Othering

The propensity to normalize White male pastoral leadership in the local congregation invariably lends itself to the “othering” of Black women clergy. But in the era of “Black Lives Matter,” the “MeToo” movement, and petitions to “Say Her Name,” should Black women clergy continue to accept our “other” identity as status quo? How long will our “otherness” be accepted as normal? And how long will the Church maintain its silence on the matter?

In a White male-dominated ecclesial system, the African-American female carries a certain mystique. Once the nannies and the mammies in American society, Black women today are more than mere nurturers and caretakers. We are nurturers and caretakers of family, yes, but we are so much more! We are corporate executives and political groundbreakers! We are the backbone of the Black church, and no longer just the preacher’s wife.

Melanie L. Harris et al. maintain that the normalization of White male domination is achieved through what she calls “silent scripts.”

“Silent scripts,” says Harris, influence the dominant group’s communications with minority groups. If the dominant population is prone to advance the narrative about minority groups, then they are also likely to operate out of their unconscious biases when confronted or conversing with members of the minority group. If White males are viewed as the status quo, then they get to decide who gets “othered” and who or what is considered “normal” in a patriarchal system that privileges them.

Although she writes more specifically about Black women in the academy, Harris’ phenomenon aptly applies to African-American women clergy. To borrow from her script, the formula for the suppression of Black women clergy in a White male-dominated ecclesial order might look something like this: Senior pastors are White men. You are not a White man. Therefore, you are not a senior pastor.

In a White male-dominated ecclesial system, the African-American female carries a certain mystique. Once the nannies and the mammies in American society, Black women today are more than mere nurturers and caretakers. We are nurturers and caretakers of family, yes, but we are so much more! We are corporate executives and political groundbreakers! We are the backbone of the Black church, and no longer just the preacher’s wife. Black women are pastors and preachers in our own right! We are theologians and seminary educators! We are womanist scholars and authors! We are advocates and trailblazers! We are critical thinkers! We are learned! We are erudite!

The Rev. Canon Kelly Brown Douglas
The Rev. Canon Kelly Brown Douglas. (Photo: screengrab)

Douglas writes, “To be [B]lack and female is to have virtually no claim to the privileges accorded in a [W]hite patriarchal society and/or church. The [B]lack female reality is a marginalized reality. Yet, to be marginalized is not to be powerless. . .  Rather, it signals a certain liberating agency that has several implications for biblical interpretation in our complicated world.”

Theologian, Susan Frank Parsons, furthermore adds, “To give attention to women’s experience is to ask that women speak up for themselves and enter with full integrity into theological debates, and it is thereby to throw open to question the unchallenged assumption that men’s experiences speak for everyone and are thus, by default, normative for all.”

When Black women speak up about issues of injustice affecting our well-being, we are often labeled as “angry” and that labeling can potentially become a means of silencing. “Silent scripts,” therefore, must be called out and challenged in courageous and loving ways by the very people who are hurt, silenced, and rendered invisible by those scripts.

Joanne Marie Terrell hits the nail on the head when she discusses a question of “why I’m not good enough.” Whether consciously or subconsciously, this question has been the source for internalization and psychological paralysis for much of my life.

The first time I became aware of my “less than good enough” status was in the first grade. My classmates and I were coloring an assignment in which I attempted to color the skin complexions of my characters. The teacher had a box of crayons on her desk from which we could borrow and share. If we needed a particular color, we simply went to her desk to ask for the crayon. While I do not recall how I broached the subject of a “skin-colored” crayon, I remember my teacher’s response quite vividly. “You mean, flesh?” she asked. She proceeded to fish out the “flesh-colored” crayon from the gigantic box.

If you are old enough to remember, you will recall that a popular crayon manufacturer inaptly labeled a pale, tannish-colored crayon as “flesh.” It was meant to represent the complexion of Caucasians and other similar skin tones. It certainly did not represent darker complexions! It was at that moment that I realized that “flesh” as symbolized in the crayon did not represent my flesh! My flesh was not a pale tannish-pinkish color. Why was my flesh not represented in an aptly-labeled crayon for darker complexions? Why was my flesh not normal?

As a six-year-old member of the darker race, this incident was the beginning of my internalization that “I am not good enough.” Why had my teacher not encouraged me to select a color that was more representative of my own flesh? Why had my teacher unwittingly invalidated me as a child created in God’s image? My internalization of gendered “otherness” would come later in life.

How does one reconcile the internalization of being “not good enough” with one’s biblical interpretation of being created in God’s image? This internal wrestling lies at the heart of womanist theology and necessitates its sacred work and discourse. As African-American women, how do we accept the status quo that normalizes White male pastoral leadership in the church, yet reclaim our identity in the image of God? How do arbiters of the status quo negotiate institutional practices so as to maintain their social placement? Indeed, how does the dominant group subconsciously convey to marginalized groups that they should participate in their own oppression?

Adrienne Rich discusses patriarchal systems that she describes as “the power of the fathers: a familiar-social, ideological, political system in which men – by force, direct pressure, or through ritual, tradition, law and language, customs, etiquette, education, and division of labor, determine what part women shall or shall not play, and in which the female is everywhere subsumed under the male.

Renita Weems continues this conversation on the exclusion of women from church leadership. She maintains that many African-American women thinkers in the church could not find a place within the church institution, and therefore, went on to pursue academic degrees as an alternative choice. Indeed, this author went on to pursue academic degrees after seminary – not due to lack of a church call, but in order to support the call. But, says Weems, as African-American scholars, we are both rejected by the church and by the academy. “We came to the academy,” says Weems, “when we discovered as seminarians that despite our training there was no place for us thinking women of faith in the church. The church birthed us and then rejected us. . .  And now we stand ambivalently before two audiences, belonging to neither but trying to carve out a space in the discourses of both. And why do we not walk away from the church (emphasis mine)?”

Why, indeed?

How much, then, is White male domination within the church attributable to the silent (or silenced) voices of my sisters? Although some strides have been made among African-American female clergy, pastoral representation among Black clergy sisters remains paltry. To what extent do Black women clergy participate in our own oppression? The quiet acquiescence of Black female clergy is a form of silent participation in the patriarchal ethos of a denominational church. Indeed, “we can be passive participants in our own exploitation,” says Mitzi J. Smith.

Where I Sit

In 2019, female pastors comprised 28 percent of all Disciples of Christ pastors. African Americans made up 18 percent of those pastors. Eighty percent of all clergy within the DOC denomination are ordained.

Although women and African Americans are gaining ground as ordained ministers, there is still much work to be done in terms of diversity and inclusion in the pulpit. Figure 1 below outlines a 12-year comparison of ordained ministers in the Christian Church (DOC) by gender, credential, and ethnicity.

figure one valerie alexander
(Figure 1)

I sit within the 80 percent of ordained ministers. Since I am not in the role of senior pastor, I am not among the 18 percent of African American pastors. Rather, I belong to the remaining ordained clergy, more than likely dual-career clergy without an ecclesial call.

But microaggressions do not occur in an academic vacuum. They occur also in the church. As a Black clergywoman and former part-time adjunct, I have the double experience of being “not good enough” in both the church and in the academy.

Where I Stand

Katie G. Cannon writes about the misogynistic microaggressions that are faced by faculty women of color. Speaking of religious women faculty, she writes that “African-American religious scholars offered up scathing indictments about microaggressions, sanctioned by the economic stronghold of power brokers in academia, wherein the intelligence of [B]lack women is misperceived, belittled, and devalued.” Quoting one of her graduate students, Cannon continues: “Some of the assaults are disguised as being too small to create a claim or cause a fuss, but the accumulation of these unresolved, unsupported, unnoticed transgressions produces irreversible damage to the spirit and body. Women of color professors suffer real injuries, many tiny tears, to their psyche and confidence.”

But microaggressions do not occur in an academic vacuum. They occur also in the church. As a Black clergywoman and former part-time adjunct, I have the double experience of being “not good enough” in both the church and in the academy. This is where I stand and where I sit. I sit at the crossroads of intellectual scholar and clergy – one who happens to be Black and female. When people look at me, they see my Black. They see my gender. If they fail to look beyond skin deep, then they will fail to see me. They will fail to see my intellect, my God-given spirit, and my God-ordained calling. If they fail to see me, then ultimately, they will fail to see that I am indeed – by God’s grace – good enough.

I stand as an emerging womanist theologian. I stand against ecclesial systems that refuse to see me as valuable and worthy of the same opportunities as my ministerial colleagues. I stand against racial, ethnic, and gender oppression; and I stand for racial reconciliation and racial equity. I stand, not as an angry Black woman, but as a Black woman no longer willing to remain silent or to be silenced.

I am grateful for colleagues who have sat at the table of discourse with me, who have studied and learned alongside me, who have served in ministry with me, and who have opened their pulpits to me. Those who have been courageous enough, enlightened enough, and intentional enough to sit at the table with my clergy sisters of color have done work to bridge the chasm that exists between those who are traditionally “good enough,” and those who are not. Though these intentions are unimpeachable, they are not enough. As long as Black women clergy hold space in being “not good enough” within an ecclesial system that limits pastoral calls to certain marginalized groups, then the silence and complicity of clergy everywhere remain problematic. There is no transformation in silence. There is no reconciliation in quiet complicity.

The time is long overdue for reclamation. In 2020, it is time we reclaim our identity as created in the image of God and reclaim our time as Black women called by God. On what basis will Black female clergy continue to be ordained if the doors of senior pastoral leadership remain closed to us? Unless we ignite a conversation around the mystique of Black women clergy in a White male dominated ecclesial order, we will remain on the margins as volunteer clergy on the fringes of church leadership. I only hope and pray that I will one day be called and respected based on the intellect and expertise I bring to the table, and less on my gender and skin color.

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    Participant

    Written by Valerie J. Alexander

    The Rev. Dr. Valerie J. Alexander is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and former professor of social science. She is an advocate for peace, reconciliation, and social justice and has recently served the denomination's Georgia region as Chair of the Commission on Reconciliation.

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