By ADELLE M. BANKS of Religion News Service and PETER SMITH of The Associated Press
When a vacancy for bishop arose in the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in 2010, Teresa Jefferson-Snorton looked around to see if any women were offering themselves as candidates.
He knew that since its founding 140 years earlier by Black Methodists emerging from slavery, the denomination had never elected a female bishop.
“I was like, oh my gosh, this can’t be,” he recalled. “If no one steps forward, they give a pass to the church.”
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Jefferson-Snorton, who had spent decades as a pastor, chaplain, and theological educator, undertook several months of intensive prayer before discerning that she was “feeling a call” from God. Then he put forward his name.
“To some extent, it was a political statement,” Jefferson-Snorton said.
Despite opposition from some who said the denomination was not ready for a female bishop, she was elected 59th bishop of the CME, overseeing 217 churches in Alabama and Florida.
This story is part of a series by The Associated Press and Religion News Service on the role of women in male-led religions.
Jefferson-Snorton said people have come to accept her in the role, albeit in an uncomfortable way at times.
“I can’t tell you how many times people said ‘Yes sir’ to me,” he said. “I just remind them, ‘Yes, ma’am’ is fine.”
Eleven years later, she remains the only female bishop of the CME, a state made vivid in an official photo of the church’s college of bishops, where she sits among 16 men, all in purple and white robes.
Most of the major black Christian denominations in the U.S. do not have a doctrinal bar for ordained female leaders the way Catholicism and some other denominations do, and women have preached and been ordained in historically black churches. since at least the 19th century.
However, denominational leadership remained exclusively male into the 21st century, and women remain the exception at the top rungs.
Earlier this year, the Reverend Gina Stewart became the first female president of a major Black Baptist organization, the Lott Carey Baptist Foreign Mission Society, an organization that responds to disasters and fights poverty, hunger and human trafficking. persons.
“Whenever a woman is put into a role that is traditionally masculine, there is always some negativity surrounding her,” Stewart said, but in her first 90 days as president, she has received calls of congratulations from some male denominational leaders and support. of its predecessors, without encountering “any major resistance.”
“There is a change happening,” Stewart said, noting that more women have been promoted to lead important departments in the church.
“We know it’s long overdue,” added Stewart, who is senior pastor at Christ Missionary Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee. “But we give credit to those organizations that are making the effort, taking the initiative and giving women that opportunity.”
Faith-based organizations still need to do more to provide leadership development opportunities for women, said the Rev. Maisha Handy, associate professor of religion and education at the Interdenominational Theological Center, a consortium of historically African-American seminaries in Atlanta.
“We’ve certainly come a long way around that in the last few years, in the last few decades, but we still have a long way to go,” said Handy, who is also executive director of ITC’s Center for Black Women’s Justice.
Pastors often receive assignments in smaller congregations with fewer resources or opportunities to gain experience and preparation for denominational leadership, Handy said.
“It’s not just about ordination. It’s about the location, ”Handy said.
When black denominations began in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, according to Handy, their biblical interpretations were affected by the cultural attitudes around them. “When you think about the kind of patriarchy and misogyny that is intrinsic to American history and culture, it makes sense that it is reflected in those denominations as well,” he said.
To be sure, women have long exercised authority in unordered roles, outnumbering men in local church membership and also leading their own organizations within denominations.
But from the beginning, women had limited access to the pulpit, although some defied those barriers.
“If the man can preach, because the Savior died for him, why not the woman?” Jarena Lee, the first lay woman preacher in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, asked in the early 1800s.
A sister denomination, the African Methodist Zion Episcopal Church, ordained Mary Small, its prime minister, in 1898. By the mid-20th century, the CME and AME churches were also ordaining women. The records are less accurate among the more decentralized Baptists, but the ordination of women was long the exception among them.
In 2000, Vashti Murphy McKenzie was elected the first female bishop of the AME Church. McKenzie, now retired, later joined more female bishops, though men still comprise the majority of AME’s episcopate. AME Zion Church followed, electing Mildred “Bonnie” Hines a bishop in 2008, as did CME with Jefferson-Snorton in 2010.
Jefferson-Snorton, who in October was elected president of the board of directors of the National Council of Churches, said she is still sometimes questioned about biblical passages that are cited to justify giving men exclusive power to preach or lead. She quotes other passages, such as one that declares that in Christ there is neither male nor female.
“I often start with the resurrection morning story,” when followers of Jesus were told to “go and proclaim” that he had risen from the dead, he added.
“If Jesus hadn’t intended for women to be bearers of good news, that would never have happened,” Jefferson-Snorton said.
But to those who are “more hostile” in questioning women’s ministry, “I often say, ‘God called me to this ministry, so if you have a problem with him, you should talk to God, because I didn’t call myself.’ “, said.
In the Church of God in Christ, a historically black Pentecostal denomination, women have made their influence felt in other ways. Traditionally, only men have been recognized as ordained ministers or bishops, while women have led their Women’s Department, which oversees auxiliaries. COGIC officials did not respond to questions about women’s roles in the denomination.
But after her husband’s death, COGIC’s first presiding bishop-elect, Mother Mary P. Patterson, a retired real estate agent who ran her own travel agency, founded the Pentecostal Heritage Connection, dedicated to planting historic markers in honor COGIC leaders throughout the South. In November, the unveiling ceremony of the final scoreboard, an 8-foot aluminum sign in a corner in Little Rock, Arkansas, was attended by regional religious leaders, a representative of the governor and academics who traveled to the state for the occasion.
Sherry Sherrod DuPree, a Florida historian and past president of the Society for Pentecostal Studies, said Patterson’s effort exemplifies how women lead in a denomination known for its patriarchal hierarchy.
“She is a quiet, praying woman who ‘stays in her lane’ but is actively involved in getting the job done without fanfare, one of the skills of COGIC women,” DuPree said.
Patterson said, “Show other young women that you don’t have to be behind the pulpit to do a work for the Lord.”
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