Saturday, December 12, 1998
Black women hear call to ministry
By DEBRA ELLIOTT
Scripps Howard News Service
Mary E. Moore swayed as she lifted the microphone and sang
in deep alto the final chorus of the hymn "Keep Me Everyday."
"I'm excited about being here tonight! How about you?"
she asked as "Amen" echoed through Grace Missionary
Baptist Church in Memphis, Tenn., during a Wednesday night revival
The tall, statuesque woman, dressed in a long, black robe with
two crosses on the front, could have been mistaken for a member
of a choir.
Only she wasn't there to sing from the pulpit with a Bible
in front of her.
The reverend came to preach.
Moore, 48, who became the first female pastor of New Salem
Missionary Baptist Church in South Memphis in February, is among
the growing number of black women in the pulpit.
Experts say the increase shows that more black churches have
begun to elect and to accept women in leadership roles, although
many denominations, black and white, don't support female pastors.
"Women are coming from behind the barriers," Moore
said. "Women are not as apprehensive as in times past."
Moore, who was licensed in 1990 and ordained a year later,
credits the female pioneers in ministry for clearing a path.
During the service, she acknowledged evangelist Nettie Rogers,
76, who has been preaching for more than 50 years. Rogers is a
member of Grace Missionary Baptist.
Rogers recalled her early days as an evangelist.
"It was male dominated," Rogers said. "I was
denied and turned away. They didn't accept us. They said the Gospel
didn't allow women."
Moore has a story of her own.
She once preached at a Baptist church where the pastor didn't
believe in female pastors. She'd been invited by a member who
hadn't consulted the pastor.
She wasn't allowed to deliver the sermon from the pulpit, and
the pastor entered the sanctuary only after she had finished.
He ignored her presence and proceeded to talk about his granddaughter's
Moore no longer preaches at churches where pastors do not believe
in female ministers.
During the revival at Grace, where Rev. Coleman Crawford is
pastor, Moore was received with applause and praises.
Crawford shook her hand and said Moore's message, on why Christians
should not complain, also helped him.
"It brought a lot of us, I said 'us,' under conviction,"
he told the congregation.
But black women in the ministry still face some of the challenges
Rogers and Moore have experienced.
On Nov. 17, the Memphis Baptist Ministerial Association voted
against allowing Rev. Sybil Mitchell to join the all-male organization
of about 400 men. Eighty-seven of them stood against her membership;
27 were in favor. The ministerial association includes some of
the most influential and respected leaders in Memphis' black community.
Mitchell had hoped that a vote in favor of allowing women would
serve as a catalyst for those who are hesitating to come forward.
"It does not send a positive message to women in the ministry
when we all know that God loves all," said Rev. Lee Brown,
pastor of Springdale Baptist Church, where Mitchell is associate
pastor, and one of the founders of the Memphis Baptist Ministerial
Association. "He is not gender-biased, just like He's not
racially biased. Right now, I am in shock."
Mitchell is an ordained minister, and has been an instructor
at the Tennessee School of Religion here, and religion editor
of the Tri-State Defender. "I thought we were further along,"
Mitchell said. "In the Baptist denomination, we are further
behind than others. These men are hard-liners standing on tradition."
Rev. J. L. Payne, president of the ministerial association
and pastor of Greater Mt. Moriah Baptist Church, said, "I'd
like for them (women) to tell me where it says in (the Bible)
they can (preach)," Payne said.
Rev. James Morganfield, pastor of Branch of Christ Missionary
Baptist Church, echoed Payne.
"We don't accept (female ministers). We don't find anything
in the scripture that does (support them)," Morganfield said.
"We stand on that."
Still, the number of women in the ministry is growing.
Memphis Theological Seminary officials said an estimated 15
percent of their 40 to 45 graduates each year are black females,
compared to the few who entered in earlier years.
"It's definitely increasing, without a doubt," said
Rev. Barry Anderson, director of student services at the seminary.
"It's larger than just people being called to the ministry
and deciding to do this. I think that in society as a whole, females
are being accepted in other roles."
The seminary's student population also is representative of
numerous denominations, meaning more women want to take on those
"(Women coming up now) have support. I didn't have,"
said administrative pastor Brenda Mills of Greater Harvest Church
of God in Christ. "I didn't have anyone to talk to."
Mills, an ordained minister, waited three years after feeling
she was called by God to the ministry to announce it.
"I didn't do it (before) because it wasn't popular,"
Mills said. "There were not a lot of women in the ministry."
She is one of six appointed "undershepherds," or
pastors, at Greater Harvest, and the only female among them. But
Greater Harvest has made an exception for her. Mills is not recognized
as a pastor in the Church of God in Christ.
Opponents of female preachers sometimes cite 1 Corinthians
14:34-35 to support their beliefs:
"Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is
not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be
under obedience, as also saith the law.
"And if they will learn anything, let them ask their husbands
at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church."
Supporters of female ministers argue that the scripture is
taken out of context, and that the Bible is filled with references
to women serving God as ministers.
"A woman can teach Sunday school. She can be a speaker.
She can even be the superintendent of Sunday school, but the problem
comes when she says that she's been called to preach," said
Rev. Gina Stewart, pastor of Christ Missionary Baptist Church.
Stewart, 38, became the first woman elected to serve a black
Baptist congregation in Shelby County in March 1995. She was the
second woman elected to lead one of more than 500 Baptist churches
in the county. Her church has a congregation of 1,100.
Each Sunday, Stewart's church is packed with men, women and
children, many of whom were members when she was elected in 1995.
She clearly has the support of her congregation.
A common practice in the church is an early morning greeting,
in which members walk through the church to hug or shake hands
with other members and visitors. Stewart was embraced and hugged
and called on from all sides one recent Sunday morning.
About the acceptance she found in her church, Stewart said,
"I think it's a good thing, but even more, it's a God thing."
She sees God working in her ministry, she said.
Rev. Melvin Lee, a member of the ministerial association and
pastor of Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church-Hyde Park, said
he believes it's time for black women to be accepted as ministers.
"The Bible said, 'Whosoever will, let him come.' We don't
restrict that to say that only men can be saved," Lee said.
"How can we testify that God can do anything, and then say
God can't call women to preach?' "
Mills at Greater Harvest COGIC said she no longer expects people
to accept her, as she did early in her ministry. Women called
to preach are answering God, not men, she said.
"My ministry is bigger than any denomination," Mills
said. "Ministry is more than a pulpit."
Rev. Rosalyn Nichols, 35, associate pastor at Metropolitan
Baptist Church, said she has been encouraged by other female ministers,
and men in her church.
"When I acknowledged my call, nobody said to me, 'You
can't because you're a woman,' " Nichols said. Rev. Fred
C. Lofton is the pastor at Metropolitan.
The African Methodist Episcopal Church has taken the lead in
giving ordained women a place in the church.
Rev. Helen Rogers of Bethel AME Church was ordained elder,
a position similar to a minister, in September. She is an associate
pastor at Bethel.
Rogers said women must serve when they are called.
"I had a hunger," Rogers said. "After a while,
the word became so nourishing that I hungered for it and couldn't
get enough. It all fell into place."
The AME church also has a rigorous five-year training program
for candidates who want to enter the ministry. Men and women must
pass each step of the program before being given leadership.
"We have had women doing ministry from almost our inception,
throughout the two hundred years (of) the church," said Charles
E. Ware, pastor of Bethel, which has two other women now going
through training. "We've never denied that they have been
Rogers is among the numerous women the AME church has ordained
over the years, including Rev. Benita Granberry, 42, of St. Andrew
AME Church, who also serves as on-call chaplain at the Regional
Medical Center at Memphis.
Granberry said she has had no difficulties in her ministry.
"It's been a male-dominated area for so long, and some
people's minds are simply not going to change," Granberry
said. "If God truly has called you to the ministry, the Lord
will make a way."
Rev. Deborah Thomas Dennie, an elder of Avery Chapel AME Church,
is considered one of the pioneering female preachers in Memphis.
She said she was called to the ministry in 1977; in 1980 she answered
Dennie, a fourth-generation AME, said she believes more women
will continue to accept the call.
"I think things are better because women are not cowering
down to these negative views," Dennie said.
Rev. Sharon Karamoko, 45, is senior pastor at Good Samaritan
United Methodist Church, which has a biracial congregation of
The daughter of a retired Baptist minister, Karamoko said women
must move beyond the controversy.
"Society is still very much patriarchal, but when God
starts stirring the water, people can't stop it," Karamoko
Sybil Mitchell said she prays her move to enter the ministerial
association served its purpose.
"Suppose that all the women who say they were called to
preach are wrong," Mitchell said. "When those women
stand before Him, they'll have all these people standing behind
them who have been saved. I don't think that would be too bad."
(Debra Elliott is a staff writer at The Commercial Appeal in
Send a Letter to the Editor about This
Story | Start or Join A Discussion about This Story
Send the URL (Address)
of This Story to A Friend:
Abilene Reporter-News / Texnews / E.W. Scripps Publications