Unduly Unsupported: Black Clergywomen and the Baptist Church
Rev. Charmaine Webster
December 13, 2019
I grew up in a Black Baptist Church that taught me I could be anything that I wanted to be. I was taught that I was fearfully and wonderfully made. Every Sunday I was reminded that I was a child of the King and that with God, nothing was impossible. I loved church. I never wanted to miss a Sunday. The praying, the praising, the preaching, and the freedom of the Spirit—there was just nothing like it. In high school I became a youth leader in many of our worship ministries. Almost every youth Sunday, I was singing a solo, directing the choir or participating in a dance. My church had a strong children’s and youth ministry. It was not perfect. It was a family church and that family played favorites. Though I was not in the family, they still loved me enough for me to know that I could do all things through Christ who strengthened me.
When I received my call to ministry over 10 years ago, I did not hesitate in believing that God could call me. I grew up in a Black Baptist Church with just as many women ministers as men. I never once heard anyone speak against women ministers. I never once witnessed these women preaching from the floor. These women preached just as often as the men, and as you can imagine, a couple of them preached better. My church sent me out into the world empowered to be all that God created me to be. There was “one problem.” It failed to teach me that there might be one exception – being called to lead in the church I loved.
In mid-October, John MacArthur, a well-known Evangelical pastor and author, slammed prominent women teachers and preachers, sharing an all too common view that women should not be preaching or pastoring. In response to his hateful speech, many have jumped on social media to share their support of women clergy. Though it’s nice to see so many voice their support for women clergy, my journey and the journeys of many of my sisters as clergywomen lets me know that much of that support is shallow.
We’ve been sexually harassed too much. We’ve been overlooked too often. We’ve been encouraged to be first ladies too many times. We’ve had to start too many ministries from scratch to believe there is enough support. We have received too few invitations to one-on-one mentoring sessions and to preach. We’ve witnessed our brothers in the ministry be silent when they should have stood up too regularly. We’ve received too few notices about pastoral openings to believe there is enough support.
Women make up an estimated 60%-90% of Black churches,[i] yet we do not make up half of its senior leadership. In the Black Baptist Church tradition that I grew up in, I would venture to say we do not make up 1%.[ii] And let me be clear, when I say senior leadership, I mean senior pastor. Over the past 30-40 years, a significant number of women have become licensed and ordained. This increase in Black Baptist women clergy, however, has not led to a substantial increase in us being senior pastors. This lack of increase is not an accident. The structure, practices, theology, and psychology of the Black Church and its members will have to change if women are going to be given opportunities to lead as senior pastors.
If the Black Baptist Church is serious about supporting women clergy, then we must work to dismantle the boys club of pastoring and preaching. Practices such as only inviting pastors or personal friends to preach at revivals and large days hold women clergy back. In a denomination that does not have many women pastors, women will never receive an invite to preach if churches wait for them to become pastors. Pastors must be committed to mentoring their female clergy just as much as they are to mentoring their male clergy. Pastors will need to do coed mentoring to ensure women clergy receive the same intensity of mentoring as men. When pastoral positions or preaching opportunities open up, pastors must proactively recommend women clergy for the roles.
Even more important than changing practices is a true renewal of the mind. The Black Church must let go of the fear that an increase in Black women’s leadership will lead to the demise and erasure of Black men’s leadership in the church. God’s Church needs all the Spirit-filled leaders that it can get working to fulfill the purpose that God has called them to. Holding Black women back from fulfilling their God-given purpose is an act of faithlessness and a denial of God’s power. Because God has called us – men and women – to serve, there is more than enough serving to do.
The Black Church must let go of the fear that an increase in Black women’s leadership will lead to the demise and erasure of Black men’s leadership in the church. God’s Church needs all the Spirit-filled leaders that it can get working to fulfill the purpose that God has called them to. Holding Black women back from fulfilling their God-given purpose is an act of faithlessness and a denial of God’s power. Because God has called us – men and women – to serve, there is more than enough serving to do.
But the work of supporting women clergy does not rest entirely in the hand of male pastors. This particular sin of the Black Church could not be upheld without the continued support of Black women. In 1900, Nannie Helen Burroughs gave a speech entitled “How the sisters are hindered from helping” to the National Baptist Convention to galvanize the creation of the Women’s Convention. She knew then that they needed an autonomous organization to protect the work of Black Baptist women. Over a century later, “the sisters are still being hindered from helping” and the history of this prophetic movement of Black Baptist women in the early 20th century has been lost on us. But I believe that the time is upon us to pick up this mantle and destroy this hypocrisy of the church. This means that we have to confront the contradictions of Black Church women – lay and clergy.
If we believe in Black Girl Magic, then we ought to believe in Black women pastors.
If we believe that we are queens, then we ought to believe that God has called us to lead.
If we believe that women are called to ministry, then we ought not attend nor support churches that do not believe in women pastors.
Elder Virginia Brewster. Minister Sharon Whitaker. Minister Brenda Tribble. Minister Elsie Waters.
These are the four women who I was blessed to watch growing up proclaim the gospel and minister at my childhood church. I did not know then what they had to endure in order to answer their call. But I’m grateful for their example. Without knowing it, these women and others like them paved the way for young women clergy to answer God’s call. May we honor them by following the Spirit’s lead to transform the Black Church and really support clergywomen. Come hell or high water – that’s what I plan to do.
The Rev. Charmaine Webster has served in congregations in North Carolina, Georgia, and Ohio as a youth or young adult pastor. She graduated from Candler School of Theology and is an alum of the Academy of Young Preachers.
[i] See Barnes, S. L. “Whosoever Will Let Her Come: Social Activism and Gender Inclusivity in the Black Church.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 45 (2006): 371–87, cited in “Women’s Leadership in the African American Church,” Fuller Studio, https://fullerstudio.fuller.edu/womens-leadership-in-the-african-american-church/ and “Members of the Historically Black Protestant Tradition,” Pew Research Center Religious Landscape Study, https://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/religious-tradition/historically-black-protestant/
[ii]See Courtney Lyons, “Breaking Through the Extra-Thick Stained-Glass Ceiling: African American Baptist Women in Ministry,” Review & Expositor 110, no. 1 (Winter 2013), 77-92. Lyons reports that just 1% of Baptist churches in the United States have an African American woman pastor.