Dear Fellow Ministers and Other Church Folk,
Here are a few things that I wish you knew about being a Black woman in ministry. While I do not speak for all Black women, I am writing from my perspective as a young Black woman in ministry in addressing the unique experiences of Black women within the church. I hope you will hear and listen to me. Black women often face patriarchy and sexism in Black churches, which are predominantly and/or historically Black. We often face racism in addition to patriarchy and sexism in white and multicultural church spaces. Whatever your context, I hope this letter will give you a better understanding of how you can support Black women in ministry.
Black women are valuable and important partners in ministry.
Black women in ministry are more powerful than you realize. We have been fighting and working hard for centuries to do the preaching, ministering, and leading God has called us to do. We have done this within our own churches, and we have created other spaces that allow us to utilize our gifts and talents when our churches do not. We too are called by God.
Furthermore, as marginalized voices within the church, we bring a different perspective. We understand how race, gender, and religion intersect in important ways, and some of us are aware of the ways other identities can intersect with those and their impact. We see the Hagars and the Jaels and the Rahabs—the women that are often overlooked. For those of us who have done the work of unpacking the negative perceptions about our gender that we may have internalized, we know how to talk about women in a healthy way that doesn’t further patriarchy, sexism, and abuse.
All in ministry need a good Black woman on their team. I’m not talking about a Black woman to do your work for you behind the scenes, but a Black woman whom you can respect and value and whom you are willing to let exercise her gifts without fearing she’s going to try and take your job or your pulpit. For those of us who consider ourselves womanists, all people benefit from our leadership and our work in ministry because we are “committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female,” to quote Alice Walker. Thus, womanists, specifically, in ministry are good for the entire body of Christ, and Black women in ministry more broadly can have a powerful impact on church communities.
Black women don’t get to enter a room with an assumed position of respect, authority, and importance.
When I enter a room full of strangers, a new church, or any sort of new environment, I enter as a Black woman first. Additionally, there are other factors at play that can further shape people’s perceptions when a Black woman enters a room. As a twenty-two-year-old standing at almost five feet, I have additional physical qualities that would lead one to perceive me as less important. Some have wondered what this “teenage” Black girl could bring and have been pleasantly surprised by the great words that have been spoken from this small package. Thus, Black women in ministry can at times be overlooked, perceived as insignificant, and undervalued. This occurs because we are women in Black church spaces and because we are both Black and women in predominantly white spaces. This can occur regardless of how many titles or degrees we may have, and it happens regardless of whether you recognize and acknowledge it.
As it relates to titles and respect, it is important to address Black women by the titles they have earned. While it should be okay to simply state that we are called by God and seminary trained and educated (or in the process), that is often not enough. Black women in ministry often need titles and credentials to help build our credibility and give us access. Moreover, it is also important that you pay us well. Pay us not what you think we’re worth but what you would pay the most privileged person present, often a white man or a Black man in Black church spaces. Don’t shortchange us because we’re Black women.
Black women are always watching you and listening to you.
I am watching the decisions you make. I am listening closely to your sermons and what you teach. I am listening to Black women who have had previous experiences and encounters with you. I’ve had some women warn me of the presence of sexism in some churches, and how that sexism can impact my experience serving there. I want you to know that we are always questioning, “Are they treating me this way because I’m a Black woman? Would they treat a Black man or a white woman or a white man or someone older, taller, etc., differently?” I ask that you be aware of this. Don’t do things that would make us question whether or not you support us. No matter how much affirmation a Black woman in ministry receives, there will always be voices telling her that she is not capable, that preaching as a woman is unbiblical, or that she does not belong in a position of authority. Amid negative voices, let your voice be a light.
Learn to examine your own privilege.
Most people have at least one privileged identity. When considering your own privilege, examine the following social identities: race or ethnicity, sex or gender, ability, religion or faith tradition, nationality, and socioeconomic status. While privilege in many of these areas can manifest in the church, in my experience, I am most concerned with privilege derived from one’s race or ethnicity and sex or gender.
Privilege affords you many opportunities and engagements that can be difficult to notice. There are overly qualified Black women who will not get as many opportunities and engagements simply because they are women in Black church spaces. They may be invited to speak on women’s day, but only on women’s day. Or maybe they will be invited to speak, but they will have to stand on the floor to give a message while Black men get to give a sermon in the pulpit. These are all stories shared by those who have been in ministry much longer than me.
Limited opportunities and engagements for Black women are not unique to Black church spaces. In a white-led multicultural church, I presented a ministry idea and was ignored, yet a white woman was listened to when presenting the same idea. I suggested she present it as I knew there was a better chance of it being received from her. Black women may be told that they cannot speak on topics of racism because it can be perceived as too radical, or they will be given the responsibility of always teaching about racism, even if that is not a part of their ministry calling. Like Black church spaces, they may not be permitted to sing, speak, or utilize their gifts in other ways on the altar. In preparation for a service I was participating in once, I was addressed as though I did not belong in the space as a Black woman. The presence of Black women is welcome only if they assimilate into the dominant culture and resist the urge to challenge or change anything.
Accept that you probably have some patriarchal and/or racist practices, whether intentional or unintentional.
It is important at times to reassess one’s church and one’s ministry. This is especially true if the only leadership positions women serve in are positions with children, women, or Christian education, or the only positions Black people serve in are positions related to “urban” settings, reconciliation, or justice. This is also true if you have had a panel or speaker series that consisted only of men in ministry or only white people in ministry. I often see flyers for church events where the speaker lists are homogenous and wonder where the people who look like me are.
Those of you with privilege wield the keys to the doors that are often locked to Black women in ministry. You keep us out of your boys’ clubs and your white spaces. You keep Black women out when you think that Black women just don’t have the ability to speak to men or to lead white people, such as in the case of a Black woman serving as a senior pastor. I had a conversation with a peer in which he stated that he would not want to sit under a Black woman senior pastor for a reason similar to that mentioned. As a Black woman Baptist minister, I can count the number of Black women senior pastors in such churches on one hand.
Whether or not you are willing to admit it, many of you participate in and benefit from patriarchal practices in Black churches and participate in and benefit from racist practices in white or multiethnic churches. If you notice it but are silent, you are complicit.
You can be an ally for Black women in ministry.
Yes, you—whoever you are, wherever you may be. You can be an ally by recognizing the gifted Black woman minister. Speak to her and acknowledge her. Call her by her title, especially when speaking to others about her. Communicate with her in a timely manner and meet her deadlines. Affirm her and support her in her calling. Begin to evaluate your own actions in relation to patriarchy, sexism, and racism and correct yourself. Pay her well. Recognize your privilege and use it to help her. Refuse to speak on all male and all white panels or in speaking series that are all men or all white people. Refuse to serve in churches where women and/or people of color are not serving in leadership positions. Be willing to work with her as an equal, knowing that God called her, too. See her the way Jesus sees her now and saw the women of his day: worthy of love and respect, an asset to the ministry, and capable and responsible in proclaiming the good news of the gospel to everyone.
A Black Woman Minister and Seminarian
This article appears in “Womanist Theology: Unraveling the Double Bind of Racism and Sexism,” the Fall 2020 issue of Mutuality magazine. Read the full issue here.
Deirdre "Jonese" Austin is a guest on the New Voices thread of CBE's Mutuality Matters podcast. Listen here.