A Legacy of Inclusion

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Post author Christine Y. Wiley is a senior pastor, American Baptist and United Church of Christ minister, in Washington DC.  She has recently completed research on the intersection of religion and mental well-being with African American women.

In one year my husband and I will retire from a church we will have pastored for thirty-two years. I have much on which to reflect. My church has a legacy of inclusion and trying to build the beloved community, which at times has felt daunting. For many, leadership in the church universal has only felt comfortable if the pastor, elder, bishop, or priest has been male. While I admit that I have witnessed many gains for women in ministry over the last 30 years, it is also true that, with regard to the issue of empowerment of women in the church, much remains the same.

In 1983, this writer became the first woman to be endorsed by Covenant Baptist Church in Washington DC for vocational professional ministry; and in 1986, the first woman to be recommended for ordination and employed by my local, dually-aligned, Baptist convention. My employment was not without some trouble and harassment. A council of nine white men was established to determine the worthiness of this twice-married, once-divorced African American woman ordained to the gospel ministry. They were pleased to find out that my first husband had abandoned my little girl and me, instead of the other way around. In their minds, it better suited my ecclesiastical history to have been a victim.  

Nevertheless, this council recommended that 79 churches come together to vote on whether an ordained female minister should be allowed to serve as denominational staff in a part-time program associate position in Christian Education. The major concern was not that I was a woman, but an ordained woman. 

This convention was aligned with one Baptist denomination that endorsed the ordination of women, and one that did not. It was used to the gifts and talents of seminary educated women, but the ordination became the stumbling block.

Although a majority of churches voted to install me into the Christian Education staff position, several churches insisted that I could not minister in their churches, nor could any of their mission offerings go towards my salary. The process took several months. During this waiting period I learned that I was pregnant with my younger daughter and, when she was three months old, was told that the position was finalized. God sometimes has a sense of grace and humor. The delay gave me time to develop the Christian Education Ministry in my church, establish my pastoral counseling practice, enroll in a D.Min. program, and spend time with my infant baby girl.

Over the years the number of women enrolled in seminaries has increased significantly. I am happy that out of the more than 30 sons and daughters who have entered the gospel ministry under our pastorate, the majority have been women with amazing gifts and talents who have gone on to serve in significant ministry positions. The other reality, however, is that whereas the men have often had the luxury to be called to other churches and institutions, many of the women serve in volunteer positions and are bi-vocational, multi-tasking super women who appear able to do anything. As often noted, women have had to be creative over the years in response to sexism in the world and in the church. Often, in order to be engaged in ministry, they minister to others about self care and Sabbath time, but my concern is that they often do not allow time to pay attention to their own self care. 

Sexism has been deeply felt by many women associate ministers who have been denied the opportunity to serve as senior pastors. After years of service, I am aware of male senior pastors who have become concerned about their female associate ministers who possess advanced degrees, exercise progressive thinking, and demonstrate a capacity for deep theological reflection. There have been more than a few occasions where I have found myself in counsel and consultation with such women who have served churches for years with hard work and innovative success, only to be told that the church is “going in a different direction” and their services are no longer needed.

Injustice and oppression is an ongoing battle that we must continue to engage. Although sexism is a part of this struggle, we as the people of God cannot afford to be concerned only about our personal oppression and not see what is going on around us. We are in the midst of the “Black Lives Matter” movement, mass incarceration, police brutality and murder, racism, Islamophobia, homophobia, and xenophobia.  Even when it comes to Equity for Women in the Church, we are not all necessarily in the same place theologically. What I appreciate, however, is the opportunity to dialogue even around our differences. As an African American, female, progressive clergywoman, I have come to realize that there are many intersections that describe us as human beings

My personal experience with sexism in the church, as well as racism in the academy and the world, illustrates to me that other forms of bigotry cannot be ignored. When our church ordained me many years ago, we were thrown out of our local Baptist ministers fellowship. These kinds of oppressive actions have sensitized our church, reminding us that all people are God’s people. Members, leaders, and clergy of this church have resolutely decided to love all of God’s people despite the objections of our more conservative brothers and sisters. Some, of course, complain that our prophetic ministry conflicts with the conservative typecast of the Black Church. Newer members, however, have come seeking a church where the unconditional love of Christ is evident and where people are not afraid to welcome a rich diversity of God’s people through a radically inclusive ministry.

Although we remain a predominantly African American congregation, we are also gay and straight; black, white, and Hispanic; and we span the entire range of ages. Those early Southern Baptist members of Covenant laid out a legacy of inclusion in the late 1960’s by calling a black pastor and inviting African Americans to join the church. This occurred in a racially changing community in the midst of white flight due to Brown vs. the Board of Education. We tested the idea of “the beloved community” by addressing sexism, classism, homophobia, ageism, and, yes, even Islamaphobia when we hosted a conference inviting experts, including local Imams, to address “Breaking down the Barriers that Divide Us.”

Has it been difficult to remain prophetic and address many of the “isms”? Yes it has. Have some left our church because of it? Yes they have. But many more of God’s diverse and progressively minded people have joined us to become part of a “beloved community.” A legacy of inclusion, justice, equality, and liberation emerged in this church. It has always been my query, since I was a little girl, wondering whether the church could really be the church—a place where differences and diversity can be loved and celebrated. Can we really practice what our faith teaches, or would we say it is too impractical, too messy, too uncomfortable? I remember, when talking to one of my parishioners about our responsibility in the face of oppression as Christians, he said, “Pastor, I’m not trying to hear all that. I’m just trying to come to worship, get my praise on, and go home and watch the game.”

Retirement is just around the corner—2017. There have been some hindrances, we have faced some challenges, and perhaps even some adversity, but so did the central figure of our faith. It is our understanding that this trailblazing ministry is not only necessary, but can help to heal the breach that divides people one from another. It will help us as a church to authentically know what love is as we continue to build the beloved community.