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Women Rise to Leading Roles in Black Churches

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When an opening for bishop presented itself in the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in 2010, Teresa Jefferson-Snorton looked around to see if any women were applying to be candidates.

None were.

She knew that since its founding 140 years earlier by black Methodists emerging from slavery, the denomination had never elected a woman bishop.

“I was like, oh my God, this can’t be,” she recalled. “If no one steps forward, that gives the church a pass.”

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 offered her name.

“To some degree, it was a political statement,” 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 across Alabama and Florida.

Jefferson-Snorton said people there have come to accept her 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 just remind them, ‘Yes ma’am’ is OK.”

Eleven years later, she remains the only female bishop in the CME, a status brought alive in a official photo of the college of bishops of the churchwhere she is seated among 16 men, all dressed in purple and white clothing.

Most major black Christian denominations in the United States have no doctrinal barrier to ordained women leaders as Catholicism and some other denominations do, and women have preached and been ordained in historically black churches for at least the 19th century.

Yet denominational leadership has remained all-male into the 21st century, and women are still the exception in the upper echelons.

Earlier in 2021, the Reverend Gina Stewart became the first female president of a major Black Baptist organization, the Lott Carey Baptist Foreign Mission Society, an organization that responds to disasters and combats poverty, hunger and human trafficking.

“Any time a woman is put in a traditionally male role, there is always some negativity surrounding it,” Stewart said, but during 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”.

“There’s a shift going on,” Stewart said, noting that more women have been promoted to lead important departments in the church.

“We know this is long overdue,” 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 opportunities for leadership development, said Reverend Maisha Handy, associate professor of religion and education at the Interfaith Theological Center, a consortium of historically African-American seminaries in Atlanta.

“We’ve certainly made progress on this over the past few years, over the past few 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 denominational leadership, Handy said.

“It’s not just about ordination. It’s all about placement,” Handy said.

When black denominations made their debut in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, according to Handy, their biblical interpretations were affected by the cultural attitudes around them. “When you think about the kind of patriarchy and misogyny that’s intrinsic to American history and culture, it makes sense that that’s reflected in those denominations as well,” she said.

To be sure, women have long exercised authority in unordained roles, outnumbering men in local church membership and also leading their own organizations within denominations.

But from the beginning, women had limited access to the pulpit, although some defied these barriers.

“If the man can preach, because the savior died for him, why not the woman? Jarena Lee, the first female lay preacher in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, asked in the early 19th century.

A sister denomination, the Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church, ordained Mary Small, its first female minister, in 1898. By the mid-20th century, the CME and AME churches were also ordaining women. Records are less accurate 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 the AME Church. McKenzie, now retired, was later joined by more female bishops, although males still make up the bulk of the AME episcopate. The AME Zion Church followed, electing Bishop Mildred “Bonnie” Hines in 2008, as did the CME with Jefferson-Snorton in 2010.

Jefferson-Snorton, who was elected in October Chairman of the Board of the National Council of Churches, said she is still sometimes asked about biblical passages that are cited to justify giving men sole authority to preach or lead. She cites other passages, such as the one declaring that in Christ there is neither male nor female.

“I often start with the morning story of the resurrection,” when the female disciples of Jesus were told to “go and proclaim” that he had risen from the dead, she added.

“If Jesus hadn’t intended women to be bearers of good news, this never would have happened,” Jefferson-Snorton said.

But to those who are “more hostile” to questioning women’s ministry, “I often tell them, ‘God called me to this ministry, so if you have a problem with it, you have to talk to God, because that I didn’t call myself,” she 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 headed its Women’s Department, which oversees auxiliaries. COGIC officials did not respond to questions about the role of women in the naming.

But after her husband’s death, COGIC’s first elected presiding bishop, Mother Mary P. Patterson, a retired realtor who ran her own travel agency, founded the Pentecostal Heritage Connection, dedicated to planting historic markers. honoring COGIC leaders across the South. In November, a ceremony to unveil the final marker, an 8-foot aluminum sign on a corner of Little Rock, Arkansas, brought together regional church leaders, a governor’s representative and scholars who traveled to the state to the occasion.

Sherry Sherrod DuPree, a Florida historian and former president of the Society for Pentecostal Studies, said Patterson’s efforts are an example of how women lead a denomination known for its patriarchal hierarchy.

“She is a woman of silent prayer who ‘stays in her lane’ but actively strives to get the job done without fanfare, one of the COGIC women’s skills,” DuPree said.

Patterson said, “It shows other young women that you don’t have to be behind the pulpit to do a work for the Lord.