How is the Role of Women Changing in the Black Church Tradition?

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Answered by: Alaenor, An Expert in the African-American Religion Category
For those of us who were nurtured in the Black church tradition prior to the 1990’s, the roles that men and women could play in the business of the church were often strictly parsed by gender. Many of us remember a time when the preacher—the Reverend—was always male. The Reverend was indeed to be revered and his maleness was as much a part of his mystique as was the dramatic rise and fall of his voice during the sermon or his upright carriage or his tendency to seem larger than life even in the midst of mundane tasks.

In contrast to the conspicuous centrality of The Reverend were the non-images of the countless, nameless, faceless women who were often the backbone of the church. Aside from the First Lady—the wife of The Reverend—many youngsters reared in Black churches were never called to pay close attention to the women of the church. The Reverend was male. The deacons were male. The trustees were male. The women were the silent ushers who showed guests to seats. The women were the church mothers who privately prepared Communion that they could not be seen touching publicly. The women were the cogs that kept the whole place running, but, except for few who were allowed to teach and guide the children or lead the music, they were largely excluded from church leadership.

In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s however, a trend began in progressive Black churches all over the country. We who had never seen a woman out front started to see the development of the “Evangelist” class of women. These women were allowed to actually speak the Word of God at church gatherings. They were not The Reverend. They were most often not allowed to stand in the pulpit or wear vestments, but that did not stop them. These women stood proudly and proclaimed the Good News with every bit of the power and authority as The Reverend always had. They were just as knowledgeable, as Spirit-filled, as engaging and as charismatic as The Reverend ever was and they were WOMEN!

It was not long before every progressive Black Church had to have an “Evangelist” to trot out for Women’s Day and to send out as a guest speaker at other churches. These powerful women—still marginalized by tradition—blazed trails that forced a change in the Black church tradition. As female evangelists became more common, it became clear that women carried a unique witness for which the church had been unknowingly longing. The fulfillment of this yearning caused churches to increasingly recognize the validity of the Call of women to ordained ministry.

Throughout the 1990’s and early 2000’s, Black churches were impacted in a profound way by the presence and ministry of women boldly proclaiming the Word while claiming their place among God’s chosen. Like all trailblazers, these early women faced obstacles and opposition. Those who were not ready for a change in tradition have fought every step of the way. I have heard stories of protests and death threats against women whose only crime was a desire to walk in the Calling they believe God to have placed on their lives.

Was it worth it? In 2013, there is an entire generation of children who do not remember a time when The Reverend was always and only male. All leadership roles in many Black churches are now open to women. The spaces in Black churches that are still resistant to the ministry of Black women are limited. Women’s lives have been enriched in countless ways and girls have a whole new vision of the possibilities for their lives. Because of a few courageous women, the entire tradition has changed in a fundamental way and yes, it was worth the struggle!

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