I write this on the last day of Women’s History Month. Over on my Twitter account, I spent the month highlighting—via the hashtag #BlackChurchHERStory—African American women religious leaders alive today who have been trailblazers in ministry and in the academy. These pioneers range from the likes of Rev. Dr. Yvonne Delk, who in 1974 became the first African American woman to be ordained as clergy by the United Church of Christ (UCC), to Rev. Dr. Monica A. Coleman, whose promotion this month made her the first African American woman full professor at Claremont Theological Seminary. Dr. Coleman’s colleagues in the academy include Dr. Yolanda Pierce, Dr. Stacey Floyd-Thomas, Dr. Eboni Marshall Turman, Dr. Keri Day, Dr. Stacey Edwards-Dunn, and Rev. Felicia LaBoy—all of whom lead Black Church Studies programs at some of the nation’s leading institutions. Meanwhile, Rev. Traci Blackmon, who gained national prominence for her leadership in Ferguson, Missouri after the death of Michael Brown, serves as the acting executive minister of the United Church of Christ’s Justice and Witness Ministries and was recently appointed a member of the President’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
Black women are clearly on the rise in the academy and the church. But obstacles still remain. African American women may comprise more than 70% of church members, but they still fall behind in terms of pastoral leadership. When Dr. Sandra Barnes conducted research on gender inclusivity in the Black Church, she found that gender-based equity remains an issue even among churches involved in social activism. According to Dr. Barnes, “organizational/denominational dictates continue to be influential where support for women clergy is approved, reinforced, and maintained from the top down in hierarchically structured groups . . . about 1 percent of churches in traditional African-American denominations are led by women.”
Professor Lawrence H. Mamiya of Vassar College concurs: “All of the seven mainline black denominations are characterized by a predominantly female membership and a largely male leadership, despite the fact that the majority of the major programs of the Black Church in politics, economics, or music depend heavily on women for their promotion and success . . . In the Black Church, the pulpit has been viewed as ‘men’s space’ and the pew as ‘women’s place.’”
Civil Rights activist Ella Baker often criticized the male-led, hierarchical, and messianic leadership style that historically shaped Black Church and Civil Rights organizations. Instead of accepting male clergy leaders’ exclusive control of (usually) benevolent theocracies, Baker advocated for a collective form of leadership based in participatory democracy.
Taking up Baker’s challenge in the Digital Age, I have been using the hashtag “#MLK2BAKER” to tweet and write about the democratization of communication via social media—and that trend’s impact upon leadership models and how we organize. Even as social media is democratizing communication, new models of decentralized leadership are emerging amongst the next generation of civil rights leaders. The use of social media and the democratization of communication have provided opportunities for new and marginalized voices to be heard and amplified.
As we celebrate Women’s History Month in this #BlackLivesMatter era and embrace emerging models of decentralized leadership amongst activist communities, I am curious about the role social media is playing and will play in the structure of the church. I am curious about whether millennial ministers, both male and female, will replicate the structures of old or build new decentralized models of “church.” Will they continue the exclusive, hierarchical leadership style, or will they adopt new decentralized and inclusive models of leadership? Will the democratization of communication and decentralized leadership models offer aspiring women more opportunities to exercise their gifts for leadership? Might social media platforms provide new entry points for women to launch their ministries? And how might online spaces be leveraged to bring greater exposure to women who are ministering in more traditional or denominational church spaces?
Millennials Navigating Digital Space. New Points of Entry?
In her recent research on African American Baptist women in ministry, Courtney Lyons stated that “since the 1970s, African American women have increased their seminary enrollment by 1000%.” Women make up 35 percent of all African American Baptist seminarians, but pastor only one percent of Baptist churches.
That said, some of our sisters are finding new points of entry as they navigate the digital space. Rev. Rahiel Tesfamariam—activist, public theologian and founder of the online lifestyle magazine Urban Cusp—is making bold moves. Since launching Urban Cusp in 2011, Rahiel has amassed over 300,000 Facebook followers. Responding to the 2014 Ferguson decision, she used social media as a pulpit and platform for leading a national Black Friday economic boycott called #NotOneDime. As a result, she became one of the six women Essence magazine included on its list of “The New Civil Rights Leaders.”
As one of Time’s “12 New Faces of Black Leadership,” Rev. Neichelle Guidry—the Associate Pastor to Young Adults at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago—is navigating the digital space and the church. In 2012, she launched the online community ShePreaches.com to give voice to African American millennial women in ministry. The site received over 3,000 page views on its launch, and Guidry was named to Ebony Magazine’s Power 100 list in 2015.
Tesfamariam and Guidry offer fine examples of women who are using new media to spread the gospel. But can social media truly be the great equalizer?
Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, renowned scholar of womanist theology, believes social media has provided space for women to come together in ways not possible during the civils rights movement. That said, she credits the women themselves, rather than social media, for shifting gender roles. She told me, “These [millennial] women have claimed their voices and claimed their agency perhaps in ways that it was not possible to do during the Civil Rights era, in part because of the state of black community and racial justice.”
[During that earlier time, there was always] a push and pull between black women claiming their agency as “women” and supporting black men in the struggle . . . [The tension existed partly] because of the way in which white feminists defined the “women’s” movement as . . . a fight with their men—they [white feminists] essentially wanted the privileges which white men had. As for black women, there was always first and foremost a commitment to the entire black community, [and] what black women came to recognize in the struggle was that [such] commitment [to community] did not always include them—[at least] as far as black male leadership was concerned.”
“If it wasn’t for the women . . .”
As is evident, new media and new movements—many of which are led by a new generation of women on the front lines—bolster Dr. Cheryl Townsend Gilkes’ assertion that “if it wasn’t for the women, you wouldn’t have a church!” Those of us who are committed to justice and fairness in the church and the wider world must remember those critical words—and not only during Women’s History Month. We must continually fight for equality for our mothers, wives, sisters, daughters, and women colleagues and friends, so that they are able to be everything that the most high God has called them to be.
These days, we can do that in the church, on the streets, and one provocative Twitter hashtag at a time. #WomenAreChurch.