Wednesday, January 28, 2015

"Breaking Through the Extra-Thick Stained Glass Ceiling: African American Baptist Women in Ministry" - Review & Expositor 110:2 (Winter 2013): 77-92.

"Breaking Through the Extra-Thick Stained-Glass Ceiling:
African American Baptist Women in Ministry"

Rev. Dr. Courtney Pace Lyons

Every spring there is a great revival in [Philadelphia]. . . . The church is at least half full of preachers. For a few years, I attended that revival desiring to find medicine for my own needy soul. . . . The revivalist came out and thanked God for . . . the presence of all the brother preachers; and, then invited all the brother preachers to stand. Sitting in the pew, I was immediately confronted with a crisis of identity. Which do I own, my call or my gender? Do I sit and deny this call, this claim of God on my life decreed by God before I was formed in the womb? Do I sit and now again, another time add to my own history of shame, for the years I tried to do everything else but answer this call? Or do I stand and deny my gender? A preacher I am, a brother I am not. I finally resolved the violent conflict by standing. Because, when I stood I stood as I am. I stood in the total authenticity of my being—black, preacher, Baptist, woman. For the same God who made me a preacher is the same God who made me a woman. And I am convinced that God was not confused on either count. —Rev. Dr. Prathia Hall

Even in the twenty-first century, African American women encounter racial, gender, and economic discrimination. Once respected as spiritual leaders of African tribes, American slavery made them into “work-oxen” and “brood-sows.”[1] The suffering of African American women was compounded beyond segregation, discrimination, and disenfranchisement because they were expected to protect African American families and values from the effects of those injustices, without resources and within the constraints of proprietary womanhood.[2] African American women became mothers of the church and “builder[s] and nurturer[s] of a race, a nation.”[3]

There are nine historically African American denominations in the United States: African Methodist Episcopal (AME), African Methodist Episcopal Zion (AMEZ), Christian Methodist Episcopal (CME), National Baptist Convention, USA, Incorporated (NBC USA, Inc.), National Baptist Convention of America, Incorporated (NBCA), Progressive National Baptist Convention (PNBC), Church of God in Christ (COGIC), National Missionary Baptist Convention (NMBC), and Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship (FGBCF). All of these denominations decry racism as sin, yet most affirm patriarchy as biblical. The AMEZ was the first to ordain a woman—Julia Foote  in 1894. The AME and CME did not ordain women until the 1940s. Frustrated by gender discrimination, many African American Pentecostal and Spiritualist women formed new denominations, known as The Sanctified Church. Though the multi-racial American Baptist Churches, USA (ABC-USA) issued a statement on gender equality in 1965, most African American Baptists continue to uphold patriarchal ecclesiology.

In American society, African American women typically rank lower and earn less than African American men and white women, have fewer opportunities for educational or professional advancement, and expend significant personal resources serving their families and churches. Ministry is no different. African American Baptist women in ministry face tremendous obstacles to formal ministry placement and recognition; African American church membership is at least 75% female, yet women make less than 10% of church leadership and about 1% of African American Baptist pastors.

This article examines the state of African American Baptist women in ministry, historically and currently. Three “herstories”—histories of women—introduce a discussion of obstacles African American Baptist women in ministry face. The article ends with suggestions for better-supporting African American Baptist women in ministry. While there are more opportunities for African American Baptist women than ever before, there is still much farther to go.

African American Baptist women have creatively ministered in spite of tremendous prejudice against them. They organized Women’s Auxiliaries, raised funds for church and mission work, taught Sunday School, and educated their communities toward racial uplift. Many African American heroines have been called “abolitionist,” “educator,” or “speaker,” instead of “pastor” or “preacher.”[4] For example, Harriet Tubman freed over 300 slaves through the Underground Railroad, providing pastoral care and spiritual guidance. Sojourner Truth addressed large audiences with scripture-based appeals for racial and gender equality. Nannie Helen Burroughs co-organized and co-led the Women’s Auxiliary to the NBCUSA, Inc., founded a school for African American women and girls, mobilized Baptists for missions support, began a quarterly newsletter, and founded Women’s Day as an annual worship service led by women and thus offered the first (and often only) preaching opportunities for African American women.

As African American women have pressed for formal recognition for their ministry, a liberation theology of African American women has emerged. Womanism is a theological response to racial, gender, and economic oppression and includes a commitment to the survival, quality of life, and wholeness of all people, of all races, male and female.[5] Womanists emphasize positive hermeneutics concerning women of color rather than the stereotypical: “‘sin-bringing Eve, ‘wilderness-whimpering Hagar,’ ‘henpecking Jezebel,’ ‘whoring Gomer,’ ‘prostituting Mary-Magdalene,’ and ‘conspiring Sapphira.’”[6]

Mapping the current state of African American Baptist clergywomen has been difficult. Most African American denominations do not keep personnel statistics, and Baptist denominations in general fall short in tracking church leadership by race and gender. The data in tables below is drawn from a poll of Baptist seminaries, secondary literature, and data tables from the Association of Theological Schools (for students identifying as Baptist) and the ABC-USA.

Percent of Baptist Pastors That Are African American Women
Percent of African American Baptist Women Pastors
No data
No data
No data

African American Baptist Female Seminarians (2012)[7]
Baptist Affiliation
% of Students who are African American
% of African American Students who are Females
(% of African American students /
% of total students)
% of African American Students who are Baptist
% of Students who are African American Baptist Females
(% of African American Females,
% of African American Baptists,
% of Students)
Gardner Webb
48% / 21%
73% / 47% / 16%
60% / 29%
6% / 12%
57% / 67% / 7%
Wake Forest
62% / 13%
Central Baptist
45% / 12%
52% / 39% / 6%
42% / 5%
72% / - / 4%

Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond
54% / 9%
44% / 44% / 4%
36% / 29%
60% / 14% / 3%

Other affiliation
Leland Baptist Center
33% / 9%
85% / 30% / 8%
27% / 4%
63% / 33% / 3%

New Orleans
6% of students
3% of students
Baptist Studies
Lutheran Southern
17% / <1% / 14%

African American Female Seminarians (All Christianity) 1973-2012[8]
% of All Seminarians
% of African American

Consider a few observations about this data. First, the number of African American women receiving seminary education is increasing. Since the 1970s, African American women have jumped from 5% to nearly 8% of all seminarians and from 5% to 49% of all African American seminarians. Since the 1970s, African American women have increased their seminary enrollment by 1000%.

Second, there is a strong disparity, however, between the percentage of African American Baptist women seminarians and those actually serving in Baptist churches. Averaging the enrollment of African American Baptist seminarians from the author’s poll, 6.4% of Baptist seminary students are African American women, yet African American women comprise barely 1% of Baptist ministers. Thus, even though African American women represent one-tenth of all seminarians and more than one-third of all African-American Baptist seminarians, African American women pastor only 1% of Baptist churches.

A third observation to consider is that while SBC seminaries average 4.5% in African American female enrollment, non-SBC seminaries average 14%, nearly three times as many. A fourth observation is that many African American women enrolled at Baptist seminaries belong to other denominations.

Overall, the lack of data on Baptist leadership by gender and race is astounding. The ABC-USA is the only Baptist denomination that tracks information by race, gender, and region. The SBC tracks over thirty ministry positions, but none by gender or race. The Alliance of Baptists (AB) tracks gender, but not paralleled with race. Other denominations tracked only the number of member churches, and some do not even keep records at all.

Without information, false assumptions of a level playing field and equal opportunity prevail. The playing field is certainly not level! Even among Baptist groups that openly affirm women in ministry, the majority of Baptist pastors are male. Women make a strong majority of Baptist membership, both in white and African American churches, yet they comprise only a single digit percentage of pastors. The AB leads the way with 31% female pastors in 2012, but they do not track information by race. The CBF has 5% female pastors in 2012, but also does not keep statistics by race. ABC-USA has 9.8% female pastors as of 2011; 1.7% of ABC-USA pastors are African American females.[9]

The nearly universal failure of Baptist denominations to maintain accurate records about their pastors allows false assumptions of a level playing field to prevail and marginalizes minorities like African American women. Baptist Women in Ministry (BWIM) and American Baptist Women in Ministry (ABWIM) have done considerable work to report the state of Baptist women ministers. Perhaps the work of BWIM, ABWIM, and similar groups can influence denominations to better document and celebrate their rich legacies of women’s pastoral leadership.

The statistics that are available paint a grim picture, but African American women make a way out of no way, as they always have. The following “herstories” present the spiritual journeys of three African American Baptist women in ministry who have overcome significant obstacles to obey God’s call to formal pastoral leadership.


Prathia Hall
Prathia Hall learned social justice ministry from her father, her primary spiritual and intellectual mentor. After graduating from Temple University, she worked with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Southwest Georgia and Selma, Alabama. Hall was often asked to speak at mass meetings because of her oratorical prowess. Martin Luther King, Jr. described Hall as “the one platform speaker I would prefer not to follow.”[10]

Hall tried to escape her call to ministry for many years. She was ordained in 1977 and earned seminary and doctoral degrees from Princeton. She was a top-ranked professor at United Theological Seminary, where she directed a center for women in ministry and African American studies. She became the Martin Luther King, Jr. Chair of Ethics at Boston University’s School of Theology. For twenty-five years, she pastored Mt. Sharon Baptist Church in Philadelphia, her father’s church. She received numerous awards, including being named among the leading African American preachers by Ebony in 1997. She mentored over two hundred African American clergywomen.

A highly-sought preacher, professor, and leader, Hall nevertheless experienced grievous sexism. Many churches asked her to speak from the floor instead of the pulpit or would only invite her to speak on “Women’s Day.” In spite of her exceptional preaching, she never received offers for a more prestigious pulpit. As a pioneering voice for the full equality of women in ministry, she bravely spoke against gender injustice among African American Baptists.[11]

Sheila Sholes-Ross
Raised in New Orleans, Sheila Sholes-Ross had always assumed God’s call was for her husband. After years of his encouragement to consider God’s call for her, Sholes-Ross discerned her call to preach in her forties. She was ordained by the ABC-USA four months after graduation from Hood Theological Seminary. Many male seminary professors encouraged her through her ordination process, and her husband has been her biggest supporter. Yet, she yearned for a female ministry mentor. As a teenager, she knew of only one woman seminarian and did not hear a woman preach until her thirties. She identified African American Baptist women’s biggest obstacle as the lack of female ministry role models and wished that seminaries provided better opportunities for networking between seminarians and female ministry mentors.

Sholes-Ross has been rejected as pastor by eighteen churches, she believes, due to African American ecclesial patriarchy and the assumption of white churches that African American pastors cannot lead liturgical worship. She plans to “continue seeking, along with mentoring other clergy women who are struggling . . . supporting women in ministry across cultures and denominations.” She co-founded Equity for Women in the Church through the AB in 2011 as a multi-cultural, ecumenical advocacy organization for clergywomen: equipping women in ministry, connecting African American clergywomen with mentees, and empowering laywomen to advocate for women in senior pastoral leadership. She also encourages female preachers to find their own preaching voices instead of imitating male preachers.[12]

Billie Boyd-Cox
Billie Boyd-Cox, from rural Alabama, grew up hearing that God did not call women “in or near pulpits.” Boyd-Cox’s parents forbade her to visit a church where women preached. As an adult, she moved to North Carolina and witnessed women in various ministry capacities. Through her non-denominational church’s education program, she recognized God’s call for both women and men and was ordained as a deacon. She sensed God’s call in 1995, when she was in her thirties, but ignored this calling until 1998. When she shared her calling with her father, who was a preacher, he offered her books from his library and advised against church-planting. He never invited her into his pulpit, but he did often hear her preach.

In her twelfth year of ministry, currently pastors Macedonia Baptist Church in Conyers, Georgia, Boyd-Cox is completing her theological education at McAfee School of Theology in Atlanta. She self-identifies as a passionate preacher, often drawing from the Old Testament concerning the healing and restoration of women: “I believe sermons should be transformational and should be applied to life like lotion to dry skin.” [13] She deeply grieves never having a mentor’s guidance and support, male or female. She also grieves the tragedy of chauvinism in the African American church and its oppression of women. Boyd-Cox encourages established ministers to share their pulpits with aspiring preachers and has mentored numerous clergy herself: “We do not have to preach every conference or revival when we know others are capable and could use the experience. We are our sister’s keeper, even in the pulpit.”[14]

While there are many obstacles women in ministry face, three have been identified as the most significant and particular to African American Baptist female ministers. First, Baptists historically affirm local church autonomy. This freedom is a wonderful aspect of Baptist life, but also prevents Baptist denominations from promoting the ordination of women because local churches decide for themselves whom they will ordain. When the AMEZ, AME, and CME churches began ordaining women in the 1890s and 1940s, these denominations issued top-down statements enforcing women’s ordination. Local churches may have resisted, but the denomination had the final authority. Baptist life is not ordered this way. Even if a Baptist denomination broke protocol to issue such a statement, support for women in ministry must come from local churches

Second, without accurate information about gender and race, false assumptions of a level playing field silence the prophetic margins. Baptists do not keep sufficient personnel data. With the wealth of technology designed for personnel management, this kind of information could be easily acquired and maintained. BWIM has established a website where clergywomen can “report” their ministry placement. Baptist groups would do well to emulate, for example, the ABC-USA in its impressive database of ministry personnel and BWIM in its prioritization of gathering information.

Third, African American women live with triple consciousness: race, gender, and class. Bettye Collier-Thomas notes that this oppression-in-triplicate gives African American women a powerful base for theology and proclamation.[15] At the same time, this triple oppression often keeps them silent. Because of slavery and racial prejudice, the African American church has been the center of African American autonomy in American history, and consequently, the main venue for African American male authority. Historically, African American women have tolerated sexism for the sake of defeating racism. Racism “was the first line of battle” and “neither they nor their families would be free until every vestige of racism was removed.”[16]

Though few have braved the social stigma of speaking against sexism in the African American church, many African American clergywomen have subverted ecclesial patriarchy creatively, preaching “by any means necessary,” doing ministry by other titles, and imitating “masculine” preaching instead of celebrating their own unique voices.[17] By the mid-twentieth century, pressure for formal ministerial recognition increased. As African American Methodist denominations (AMEZ, AME, and CME) publicly supported women’s ordination, African American Baptists remained exclusively male-led. Even the PNBC, established in 1961 for social justice, remains male-dominated in leadership.

Socio-economic factors make preparation for ministry very difficult for African American women. For most, ministry is a second or third career. Many African American clergywomen pastor low-paid or unpaid churches, bivocationally.[18] Additionally, African American clergywomen often pay steep personal costs. The divorce rate for African American clergywomen is 23%, three times the male rate. The singleness rate for African American clergywomen is 55%, more than double the male rate.[19] Teresa Fry Brown explains: “Yes, when women answer the call they typically experience some disruption . . . our pruning process. God mercifully removes that person or those persons from our lives who would otherwise eventually impede our ministry.”[20] Delores Carpenter echoes: “Most male-female relationships have cemented around the female’s reinforcing the male in his career achievements. The fact that the woman’s career development needs the same support is often missed. Females can become emotionally depleted from the demands of both family and those who depend upon her for ministry. Rarely are members of the congregation sensitive to her role as a dual and triple caregiver.”[21]

As African American Baptist women press for formal ministry recognition, they face heavy resistance from many fronts. For this reason, many have changed denominations. According to Carpenter, half of African American Baptist clergywomen switch denominations, most commonly to Methodist and independent Pentecostal churches.[22] As minorities-in-triplicate, they must excel just to be considered for ministry placement.[23] Those placed have an experience akin to front-line combat soldiers, weathering a spectrum of opposition, often with little or no hope for career mobility.

Many of the expressed needs of African American Baptist women in ministry could be easily met by their supporters being intentional to demonstrate support in word and deed.

Share your pulpit! Show support publicly by inviting African American women as guest preachers or planning special events which may help the congregation be more receptive to women preaching. Each February, BWIM celebrates Martha Stearns Marshall Month of Women Preaching, similar to the annual African American Baptist tradition of Women’s Day. Since most laity have no experience with women ministers, exposure to female preachers builds bridges, overcomes barriers, and emphasizes shared commitments to the gospel. This also provides an invaluable opportunity to aspiring ministers to develop their preaching.

Correct misguided patriarchal hermeneutics. Marvin McMickle’s Deacons in Today’s Black Church (2010) unashamedly defends women in ministry as biblical. He powerfully critiques patriarchy in the African American church: “The primary reason for excluding women is gender discrimination—something that can no more be supported or defended through the use of scripture than the racial discrimination so long directed against black people in the United States.”[24] He relays his church’s transition to affirming women’s ordination via “the Jackie Robinson Model,” finding a woman “whose public life and Christian service in the church was so exemplary that the only grounds upon which anyone could oppose her selection and ordination was that she was a woman.[25] The very need for this tactic exposed the church’s sexism and the double standards placed upon women. He opened the door for the full inclusion of women in his church’s leadership. McMickle’s eschewing of deceitful power plays is the kind of courageous, prophetic rhetoric needed to overcome oppression, double standards, and closed doors. Those who believe African American women should be included in church leadership must speak out against discrimination.

Equip seminarians for real-world challenges. Seminaries today need to have course offerings that equip African American Baptist women in ministry for real-world challenges and that raise awareness of racial and gender discrimination in the church. Courses addressing African American church history and theology contextualize the historical background of gender prejudice and oppressive hermeneutics and provide models of how other denominations have moved toward inclusivity. Homiletics coursework could encourage cultivation of students’ unique voices. The Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta exemplifies such curriculum, offering extensive coursework in African American religious history, womanism, and liberation theologies.

Provide mentors! Female and male ministers can provide game-changing support for aspiring clergywomen. Ministry mentorships provide a noncompetitive relationship for encouragement, constructive feedback, and practical wisdom. BWIM’s Dear Addie program, named for Addie Davis (ordained SBC, 1964), allows women in ministry to correspond with seasoned clergywomen about ministry concerns. Other ecumenical organizations like The Young Clergy Women’s Project (TYCWP), exclusively for ordained women under forty, host annual conferences, publication opportunities, online resources, and peer-mentoring. Teresa Fry Brown’s Can a Sistah Get a Little Help? (2008) offers a written source for ministry mentorship, with humorous and moving insights and practical advice—“Mother Wit and Sistah Sense” – for being an African American woman minister.

Work together. Multiple organizations promote women in ministry such as Christians for Biblical Equality, BWIM, ABWIM, Equity for Women in the Church, and TYCWP. By working together toward making education more accessible and relevant, developing support networks, and speaking prophetically against discrimination, slowly but surely, barriers to the pulpit will be overcome. As they bridge gaps between denominations, races, genders, regions, methods, theologies, and constituents, they can better collaborate to accomplish their shared goals: affirming and supporting women in ministry.

[1]To be published in Review & Expositor 110, no. 2 (forthcoming, 2013).

[1]JoAnne Marie Terrell, Power in the Blood? The Cross in the African American Experience (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1998), 113-4; Delores Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1993), 34-83.
[2]Katie Cannon, Black Womanist Ethics (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988, 40-67; Stephanie Y. Mitchem, Introducing Womanist Theology (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2002), 7-8; Marcia Riggs, Awake, Arise, and Act: A Womanist Call for Black Liberation (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 1994), 75.
[3]Cheryl Townsend Gilkes, If It Wasn’t for the Women: Black Women’s Experience and Womanist Culture in Church and Community (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2001), 33-38; Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness, 50.
[4]Delores Carpenter, A Time for Honor: A Portrait of African American Clergywomen (St. Louis, Chalice Press, 2001), 2.
[5]My definition of womanism is a summary of definitions provided by Cannon, Black Womanist Ethics, 6-9; Katie G. Cannon, Katie’s Canon: Womanism and the Soul of the Black Community (New York: Continuum, 1997), 34-56, 122-38; Monica A. Coleman, Making a Way Out of No Way: A Womanist Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2008), vii-9, 31-38; Marla F. Frederick, Between Sundays: Black Women and the Everyday Struggles of Faith (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 5-14; Gilkes, If It Wasn’t for the Women, 184-211; Diana L. Hayes, Hagar’s Daughters: Womanist Ways of Being in the World (New York: Paulist Press, 1995), 49-54; Mitchem, ix; Riggs, Awake, Arise, and Act, 1-8; Raquel A. St. Clair, Call and Consequences: A Womanist Reading of Mark (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2008), 1-12; Terrell, Power in the Blood, 6, 134; Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness, 1-8.
[6]Gilkes, If It Wasn’t for the Women, 111-14.
[7]This table contains the results of my poll. I contacted thirty schools, either Baptist seminaries or seminaries with programs in Baptist studies for student demographics, but only thirteen released enrollment information.
[8]Information for 1973 and 1984 from Carpenter, A Time for Honor, and information for 2004 and 2012 from The Association of Theological Schools Annual Data Tables, 2011-2012 (available at (accessed April, 2012). ATS provides racial distributions by gender, but does not classify this information by denominational affiliation.
[9]Pamela R. Durso and Amy Shorner-Johnson, “The State of Women in Baptist Life—2010,” Baptist Women in Ministry, 2011. American Baptist Churches USA, Women in Ministry Task Force, Report to Ministers Council Senate (2011), obtained via email from Patricia Hernandez, April, 2012.
        [10]PBS, “Prathia Hall,” (Accessed August 3, 2012).
[11]Courtney Pace-Lyons, “‘Freedom Faith’: The Civil Rights Journey of Rev. Dr. Prathia Hall,” (Ph.D. diss., Baylor University, 2013).
[12]Sheila Sholes-Ross, email to author, April 23, 2012.
     [13]Billie Cox, email to author, April 27, 2012.
     [15]Bettye Collier-Thomas, Daughters of Thunder (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1997), 12.
     [16]Bettye Collier-Thomas, Jesus, Jobs, and Justice: African American Women and Religion (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2010), 374-5.
     [17]Edward C. Lehman, Jr. Gender and Work: The Case of the Clergy (State University of New York Press, 1993), 90-95.
     [18]Vashti McKenzie, Not Without a Struggle: Leadership Development for African American Women in Ministry (Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press, 1996), 87.
     [19]A Time for Honor, 144.
     [20]Teresa Fry Brown, Can a Sistah Get a Little Help? Encouragement for Black Women in Ministry (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2008), 77.
     [21]Carpenter, A Time for Honor, 121.
     [22]Ibid., 139-40, 101-2.
     [23]McKenzie, Not Without a Struggle, 67.
     [24]Marvin McMickle, Deacons in Today’s Black Church (Judson, 2010), 89.
     [25]Ibid., 93-4.

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