Women break through in black churches | Lifestyles

When an episcopal position opened at the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in 2010, Teresa Jefferson-Snorton looked around to see if women were candidates.

None were.

She knew that the denomination had never elected a female bishop since it was founded 140 years earlier by Black Methodists who came out of slavery.

“I thought, oh my gosh, it can’t be,” she recalled. “If nobody comes forward, the church gives a pass.”

Jefferson-Snorton, who had served as a pastor, chaplain, and theological educator for decades, spent several months of intense prayer before realizing that she had “a call” from God. Then she introduced her name.

“In a way, it was a political statement,” Jefferson-Snorton said.

Despite opposition from some who said the denomination was not ready for a woman bishop, she was elected the CME’s 59th bishop and oversees 217 churches in Alabama and Florida.

Jefferson-Snorton said the people there accepted her in the role – albeit uncomfortably at times.

“I can’t tell you how many times people have said ‘yes sir’ to me,” she said. “I’m just reminding them that ‘yes ma’am’ is fine.”

Eleven years later, she remains the sole bishop’s wife of the CME, a status that is evident in an official photo of the Church’s Episcopal College, where she sits among 16 men, all dressed in purple and white robes.

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 ordained in historically black churches since at least the 19th century.

Still, the denominational leadership remained purely male into the 21st century, and women are still the exception in the upper echelons.

Earlier this year, Rev. Gina Stewart became the first female president of a major Black Baptist organization, the Lott Carey Baptist Foreign Mission Society, a disaster response organization that combats poverty, hunger and human trafficking.

“Whenever a woman is put into a traditionally masculine role, there is always something negative around her,” Stewart said, but in her first 90 days as president she received congratulatory calls from some male denominational leaders and support from her husband’s predecessor without opening To encounter “great resistance”.

“Change is taking place,” Stewart said, noting that more women have been promoted to lead important departments in the Church.

“We know it’s long overdue,” added Stewart, senior pastor at Christ Missionary Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee. “But we pay tribute to the organizations, take the initiative and give women this opportunity.”

Religious organizations still need to do more to provide women with leadership development opportunities, said Rev. Maisha Handy, associate professor of religion and education at the Interdenominational Theological Center, a consortium of historically African-American seminaries in Atlanta.

“We’ve certainly gotten around that in the past few years and decades, but we still have a long way to go,” said Handy, who is also the executive director of the Center for Black Women’s Justice at ITC.

Women pastors are often assigned to smaller churches with fewer resources or opportunities to gain experience and prepare for denominational leadership, Handy said.

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

When black denominations began in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, according to Handy, their biblical interpretations were influenced by the cultural attitudes around them. “When you think of the kind of patriarchy and misogyny that is inherent in American history and culture, it makes sense that it is also reflected in these denominations,” she said.

To be sure, women have long exercised authority in non-ordained roles, outnumber men, and also run their own denominational organizations.

But from the start, women had limited access to the pulpit, though some questioned these barriers.

“If the man is allowed to preach because the Savior died for him, why not the woman?” Jarena Lee, the first female lay minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, asked in the early 19th century.

A sister denomination, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, ordained Mary Small, their first female pastor, in 1898. In the middle of the 20th century, the CME and AME churches also ordained women. Records are less accurate with the more decentralized Baptists, but women’s ordination has long been the exception.

In 2000, Vashti Murphy McKenzie was elected the first female bishop of the AME Church. McKenzie, now retired, was later joined by other female bishops, though men still make up the bulk of the AME bishop. The AME Zion Church followed and elected Mildred “Bonnie” Hines as bishop in 2008, as did the CME with Jefferson-Snorton in 2010.

Jefferson-Snorton, who was elected chairman of the National Council of Churches’ governing body in October, said she is still sometimes asked about passages of the Bible cited to justify giving men sole power to preach or lead. She quotes other passages, such as one that explains that there is no man or woman in Christ.

“I often start with the story of the morning of the resurrection,” she added, when Jesus’ female followers were told to “go and proclaim” that He was raised from the dead.

“If Jesus hadn’t intended women to bring good news, it would never have happened,” Jefferson-Snorton said.

But to those who question women’s service in a more “hostile” way: “I often tell them: ‘God has called me to this service, so if you have a problem with it, you have to speak to God because I did not call myself’ “, she said.

In the Church of God in Christ, a historically black Pentecostal denomination, women have exerted their influence in other ways. Traditionally, only men were recognized as ordained ministers or bishops, while women headed the women’s department, which oversees the auxiliaries. COGIC officials did not respond to questions about the role of women in the denomination.

But after her husband’s death, the first elected presiding bishop of COGIC, Mother Mary P. Patterson, a retired real estate agent who ran her own travel agency, founded the Pentecostal Heritage Connection, dedicated to the task of creating historical marks in honor of the COGIC To put executives across the south. In November, regional religious leaders, a governor’s representative, and scholars who had traveled to the state for the occasion attended a ceremony to unveil the final marker, a four-foot aluminum sign on a corner in Little Rock, Arkansas .

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

“She’s a calm, praying lady who ‘stays on track’ but actively works to do fanfare-free jobs, one of the skills of COGIC women,” said DuPree.

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

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