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The Role of African American Women in the Black Church

Women Outnumber Men in the Pews, Yet Are Rarely Seen in the Pulpit

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The Role of African American Women in the Black Church

Easter service in Harlem at Mount Olivet Baptist Church

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Faith is a strong guiding force in the lives of many African American women. And for all that they receive from their spiritual communities, they give back even more. In fact, black women have long been regarded as the backbone of the black church. But their extensive and significant contributions are made as lay leaders, not as religious heads of churches.

The congregations of African American churches are predominantly women, and the pastors of African American churches are nearly all male. Why aren't black women serving as spiritual leaders? What do black female churchgoers think? And despite this apparent gender inequity in the black church, why does church life continue to be so important to so many black women?

Daphne C. Wiggins, former assistant professor of congregational studies at Duke Divinity School, pursued this line of questioning and in 2004 published Righteous Content: Black Women's Perspectives of Church and Faith. The book revolves around two main questions:

  • "Why are women so faithful to the Black Church?"
  • "How is the Black Church faring in the eyes of women?"
To find out the answers, Wiggins sought out women who attended churches representing two of the largest black denominations in the U.S., interviewing 38 women from Calvary Baptist Church and Layton Temple Church of God in Christ, both in Georgia. The group was diverse in age, occupation, and marital status.

Marla Frederick of Harvard University, writing in ]The North Star: A Journal of African-American Religious History, reviewed Wiggins' book and observed:

...Wiggins explores what women give and receive in their reciprocal alliance with the church....[She] examines how women themselves understand the mission of the black church...as the center of political and social life for African Americans. While women are still committed to the historic social work of the church, they are increasingly concerned about individual spiritual transformation. According to Wiggins, “the interpersonal, emotional or spiritual needs of church and community members were primary in the women’s minds, ahead of systemic or structural injustices”....

Wiggins captures the seeming ambivalence of lay women towards the need to advocate for more women clergy or for women in positions of pastoral leadership. While women appreciate women ministers, they are not inclined towards politically addressing the glass ceiling that is evident in most protestant denominations....

From the turn of the twentieth century to now various Baptist and Pentecostal communities have differed and splintered on the issue of women’s ordination. Nevertheless, Wiggins contends that the focus on ministerial positions might camouflage the real power that women wield in churches as trustees, deaconesses and members of mothers’ boards.

 

Although gender inequity may not be of concern to many women in the black church, it is apparent to the men who preach from its pulpit. In an article entitled "Practicing Liberation in the Black Church" in the Christian Century, James Henry Harris, pastor of Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Norfolk, Virginia, and adjunct assistant professor of philosophy at Old Dominion University, writes:
Sexism against black women should...be addressed by black theology and the black church. Women in black churches outnumber men by more than two to one; yet in positions of authority and responsibility the ratio is reversed. Though women are gradually entering ministry as bishops, pastors, deacons and elders, many men and women still resist and fear that development.

When our church licensed a woman to the preaching ministry over a decade ago, almost all the male deacons and many women members opposed the action by appealing to tradition and selected Scripture passages. Black theology and the black church must deal with the double bondage of black women in church and society.

Two ways they can do so are, first, to treat black women with the same respect as men. This means that women who are qualified for ministry must be given the same opportunities as men to become pastors and to serve in such leadership positions as deacons, stewards, trustees, etc. Second, theology and the church must eliminate exclusionist language, attitudes or practices, however benign or unintended, in order to benefit fully from the talents of women.

Sources:

Frederick, Marla. "Righteous Content: Black Women's Perspectives of Church and Faith. By Daphne C. Wiggins." The North Star, Volume 8, Number 2 Spring 2005.

 

Harris, James Henry. "Practicing Liberation in the Black Church." Religion-Online.org. The Christian Century, June 13-20, 1990.

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