In looking at the state of women’s equality in the church, we need to recognize the diversity of what we call the church with its various beliefs, cultures, and practices. While we can speak of a universal church, when it comes to women’s equality—as evidenced by licensing and ordination, senior pastor and senior leadership positions, the roles women are allowed to serve in, and other factors—we must recognize the ways in which these factors as well as the source of inequality varies by individual church.
I begin with this discussion because some of the most prominent images of the church in the mainstream media tend to be nondenominational, evangelical Southern Baptist, and Catholic churches. This is not my context. Thus, as I reflect on the state of women’s equality in the church, I must also reflect on my ministry in a Black Baptist church context, a church context whose very existence, in some ways, is a response to oppressive, racist religious institutions.
Black Women Are Still Becoming the “First”
In my lifetime and experience, I have never heard a sermon that actively speaks against women preaching. As a Black woman, I have learned to read the Bible with a liberationist hermeneutic. If the Bible is not to be used to justify slavery, then it also is not to be used to justify sexism in the church. I have grown up seeing Black women Baptist ministers be licensed and ordained. I have seen these women preach from the pulpit, and I have also had the opportunity to preach from a pulpit a few times. While I recognize that not all Black Baptist churches are affirming of women in ministry, I share this because on its face, the Black Baptist church is a church in which everyone has equal chance and equal opportunity to serve and lead.
Nevertheless, we see a different story when we look closely at the positions in which women serve. Many women pastors in Black Baptist church contexts serve with women, youth, and children. While it is important to uplift the Black women who are called to this work, we must recognize the ways in which women have at times been restricted to these roles. There are very few Black women who are serving as senior pastors and in senior leadership positions within the Black Baptist church context, and I believe this is a better measure for equality in the church. Black women are still making history in this regard. They are still becoming the first women senior pastors of churches that have been around for over one hundred years.
On August 7, 2021, for example, Rev. Dr. Danielle L. Brown was elected as the first woman senior pastor (the tenth senior pastor) of Shiloh Baptist Church in Plainfield, New Jersey.1 On August 12, 2021, Rev. Dr. Gina Stewart became the first woman chosen to serve in the highest role of a Black Baptist denomination when she was elected as the president of the Lott Carey Baptist Foreign Mission Society.2 Both of these examples demonstrate the ways in which progress has been made, but they also offer us an opportunity to further reflect on the ways in which Black women in ministry do not always have an equal chance and equal opportunity to serve and lead.
Black Women Belong in Every Area of Ministry
While Black women often make up the majority of church membership in Black churches,3 we have historically been excluded from the decision-making tables. It is the men who have served in leadership roles and have chosen other men to be their successors and to serve alongside them. It has also historically been the men who have set the parameters around who can serve in certain roles and positions, often doing so in a way that excludes women from those who are qualified, whether intentionally or unintentionally.
Church culture needs to learn to affirm women as not only capable of leading certain groups but as capable of leading and governing entire church institutions. We need to create practices that support women, and we must eradicate the barriers to women leading. Women have to be given a chance to lead—regardless of marital status, age, and other social identities. Just as I would offer that White people play a significant role in addressing racism in the church, I would also propose that men play a significant role in addressing sexism in the church. It is the men who must help advocate for women in ministry, whether that means calling out practices that may exclude women or uplifting the names of women who can serve alongside them in seats of power. Additionally, women in ministry can work to ensure that we aren’t the only ones in the room and that we create opportunities for those who will come after us.
Black Women Will Find—Or Create—Welcoming Spaces
As a Black woman minister in the Baptist church who understands her calling as one within the Black Baptist church, I have reflected on all of this throughout my time at Candler School of Theology and especially now as I prepare to graduate in May of 2022. As I think about my own ministry prospects, I wonder, “Is there a place for me to utilize my gifts within the Black Baptist church?” While I understand my gifts as they relate to women in ministry, there is also a part of me that would like the opportunity to serve as a senior pastor someday; however, I rarely entertain that idea because I know that the odds are not in my favor. I also recognize that as a Black woman in ministry, I will likely have to be bi-vocational and may also need additional certifications to help affirm that I am indeed called and qualified by God to do this work.
Still, while there are times when my options seem limited, there are also times when the opportunities for me as a Black woman in ministry are limitless and expansive. I find inspiration in the women who have created spaces for themselves. There are women like Dr. Melva Sampson, who started Pink Robe Chronicles, which she describes as “a digital hush harbor.”4 There are Black women in ministry like Rev. Kamilah Hall Sharp, Rev. Dr. Irie Lynne Session, and Rev. Yvette Blair-Lavallais, who set out to create a space for womanist preaching, a space that would become The Gathering, A Womanist Church in Dallas, Texas.5 It is in the stories of these and other women that I know that even if I can’t envision a space for myself within a church, I can reimagine what church is, what church looks like, and what church can be.
So as we look at the state of women’s equality in the Black church, there is room for growth, but no one can stop those whom God has called. If the church as an institution does not provide space for Black women in ministry to serve, then we will create our own spaces. If one church cannot give us the respect and financial support that we know we are worthy of, we will take our gifts and talents to places where we are affirmed as our whole selves. Black women in ministry are learning to love ourselves and make decisions that reflect that, whether it’s within the church as an institution or outside of it.
This article is from “The State of Women’s Equality,” the Winter 2021 issue of Mutuality magazine. Read the full issue here. Deirdre “Jonese” Austin was a guest on the New Voices thread of CBE’s Mutuality Matters podcast. Listen here.
1. “The Reverend Dr. Danielle L. Brown,” Shiloh Baptist Church, accessed 14 October 2021.
2. Adelle Banks, “Gina Stewart Elected to Lead Lott Carey Society,” Baptist Standard, last modified 17 August 2021.
3. Lyman Stone, “Sex Ratios in the Pews: Is There Really a Deficit of Men in American Churches?” Institute for Family Studies, 12 August 2019.
4. Melva Sampson, “Pink Robe Chronicles,” Dr. Melva Sampsom, accessed 26 October 2021.
5. To learn more, see Irie Lynne Session, Kamilah Hall Sharp, and Jann Aldredge-Clanton, The Gathering, A Womanist Church: Origins, Stories, Sermons, and Litanies (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2020).