Women’s Leadership in the African American Church

In African American churches, women’s leadership includes all areas of responsibility—from the more traditional roles as leaders of women in missionary societies and women’s groups, to congregational leaders in areas such as Christian education and pastoral ministry. My reflection on women’s leadership in African American churches will include a brief overview of women’s leadership, potential impediments to women’s leadership, approaches to addressing these obstacles, some of the contributions of African American women, and signs of hope and encouragement.

While African American women represent an estimated 66–88 percent majority (Barnes, 2006) in African American churches, men still tend to hold most of the leadership roles. The greatest disparity in women’s leadership is in the pastoral role, specifically the senior pastor. Despite these challenges, women are being ordained and appointed as pastors and bishops at increasing rates. The appointment of Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie in 2000 as the first woman bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church was an important step toward gender inclusivity.

Although women continue to lead in traditional areas in church leadership and more women are being appointed to pastoral leadership, insights from the broader literature on female leadership may be helpful in elucidating factors that may delay this progress. Cook and Glass (2014) noted that when women are given leadership opportunities, they may face the challenge of a “glass cliff”: leading a poorly performing organization that may be on the brink of failure. There is some support for this perspective; some women pastors may be assigned to churches that are facing inordinate challenges, and these pastors may not receive comparable support, financially and organizationally (Barnes, 2006). In addition, theologian Katie Cannon notes that while the increasing number of women leaders is encouraging, this sometimes results in more barriers and increased expressions of sexism. This resistance to women’s leadership is expressed not only by men, but also by women.

In a national sample of 1,863 African American churches across seven denominations, Barnes (2006) found denominational differences in openness to women clergy: Baptist denominations, followed by Churches of God in Christ, are the least likely to support women clergy. A subsample was interviewed to clarify factors that influenced openness to women clergy. There were two major themes. One entailed indirect opposition that reflected a glass ceiling effect: women were supported as pastors, but not senior pastors. The second entailed opposition based on theology, doctrine, or tradition. These findings highlight progress as well as challenges.

One important approach to addressing these challenges might build on Barnes’s research. It might be helpful to identify the specific ideological positions—based on theology, doctrine, or church tradition—that are barriers for women’s leadership. Discussions that address the intellectual and relational issues surrounding these concerns may be helpful and clarifying. African American women scholars and pastors have contributed to a deeper articulation of Black liberation and Womanist theologies. Seminary graduates have added more gender-inclusive theological voices to this discourse, including male colleagues who have been invaluable allies. Ongoing discussions and challenges to the status quo are critical in fostering a more informed dialogue that includes a consideration of the role of sexism in matters of social justice in the African American church (Barnes, 2006).

Additional encouraging signs include a more thoughtful appreciation of the unique challenges facing African American women. For many African Americans, the challenges facing African American men have been a priority. While African American women face similar challenges associated with racism, the intersection of racism and sexism has not been examined as frequently. Jones and Shorter-Gooden (2003) in their book, Shifting: African American Women’s Voices Project, examined the effects of racism and sexism on African American women. This work provides helpful insight for understanding the psychological effects of living amidst racial and gender bias. Unfortunately, this bias can be internalized and may partially explain some African American women’s lack of support for female leadership. While women have varied leadership styles, in some cases women may expect women to lead as men traditionally do and not appreciate the unique gifts of leadership that a traditionally female leadership style offers.

Our leadership theories have shifted from the ideal of a white male authoritative leader to more diverse, team-oriented, emotionally intelligent, and transformational leadership orientations. These approaches are more consistent with a traditionally feminine leadership style that is more collaborative. In the African American church, the traditional authoritative male leadership may still be present, but I am encouraged that some of these leaders are recognizing a need to shift to a more collaborative style. Some of these shifts are occurring due to courageous female leaders as well as male pastoral staff who are more gender inclusive. Churches that are drawing on and informed by the strengths and gifts of their diverse leaders have a greater likelihood of fulfilling God’s call.

African American women have played and are playing a powerful role in the survival of the African American church. The needs of families, including specific outreach to children, adolescents, and couples, have been responded to more fully because of women’s leadership. We have been challenged to examine more carefully the Scriptures to clarify God’s intent regarding male and female roles and distinguish the influence of tradition from Scripture. Women’s leadership has also been helpful in deepening our appreciation of the feminine nature of God. Just as is the case for all leaders, not all examples of women leadership have been helpful. Women leaders who are free to lead out of their calling, creativity, intuition, femininity, comfort with their own power, and sensitivity to the power of the Holy Spirit have been the most helpful models for me.

I am encouraged by the increased presence of women leaders in the African American church. I would want to encourage more research to identify in more depth some of the underlying concerns related to women’s leadership. Surfacing, articulating, and addressing these concerns would be an important step in the process of reexamining these positions in light of a changing local and global reality.

Barnes, S. L. “Whosoever Will Let Her Come: Social Activism and Gender Inclusivity in the Black Church.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 45 (2006): 371–87. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-5906.2006.00312.x
Cook, A., and C. Glass. “Women and Top Leadership Positions: Towards an Institutional Analysis.” Gender, Work & Organization 21 (2014): 91–103. doi: 10.1111/gwao.12018
Jones, C., and K. Shorter-Gooden. Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America. New York: HarperCollins 2003.