Women preachers struggle to lead churches in US

Samuel Freedman

Samuel Freedman

NEW YORK - When Suzan Johnson was 14 and already standing 1,8m tall, most afternoons she went to the basketball courts in Mullaly Park in the Bronx, an otherwise male preserve.

After the weeks and months it took for Johnson to earn full acceptance on the asphalt, she resisted the temptation to cling to her unique status. Instead, she started to bring along a lanky female neighbour from her apartment building to join the game.

More than 35 years later, as the Reverend Suzan Johnson Cook, she has held to the same method of not only banging open the door but also leaving it ajar for followers. Reverend Sujay, as she is commonly known, applies the approach now to African-American women who, like her, have aspired to enter the male-dominated field of ministry.

"Shooting hoops with the guys gave me a comfort level around them that I've never lost," she said. "I've always felt I deserved to be on the team. And it also gave me the understanding that having another sister around makes a difference."

In her clerical life Cook, 50, has nurtured black female protegees at all three churches she has led in New York. The Reverend Henrietta Carter succeeded Cook in her first pulpit at the Mariner's Temple in the Financial District. The Reverend Karen Jones served as Cook's assistant pastor first at the Bronx Christian Fellowship in the Pelham Parkway section and currently at Believer's Christian Fellowship in Harlem.

Both Carter and Jones in turn have cultivated younger black women as staff members and pastoral interns.

This kind of informal web of connections matters enormously in African-American Christianity because the overarching tradition across denominations is of local control.

"Every pastor a bishop" goes an idiom, and one of the major uses of such autonomy is the grooming and selection of young ministers.

From slavery through segregation, the ministry offered black men one of the precious few occupations that commanded respect even among whites. The male franchise on the pulpit also reflected the strain of social conservatism that has long infused black Christianity.

The leading black ministers of postwar years, men like the Reverend Gardner Taylor of Concord Baptist Church in Brooklyn, counted literally dozens of men as their "sons in the ministry".

While African-American women have increasingly enrolled in seminaries and received degrees and ordinations in the past 30 years, they continue to lack the personal access that transforms education and credentials into a prominent pulpit.

Nearly half of the black seminary students are now women, yet they are far less likely than men to lead a congregation.

The most authoritative study of the subject, conducted by Delores Carpenter of Howard University, looked at the outcomes of more than 800 black men and women who earned divinity degrees from 61 seminaries covering 18 denominations from 1972 until 1998.

Half the men, but barely one-fifth of the women, went on to a position as senior pastor. Some of those women had to shift into a more theologically liberal denomination - typically from Baptist to United Methodist or Presbyterian - to increase their odds of landing a job.

In such a climate, networking can be an evolutionary force.

The relationship between Cook and Jones makes for an instructive example. Jones said she first felt the divine summons to ministry as a 14-year-old growing up in the San Francisco area. Yet the minister of her church told her, "God doesn't call women to preach".

Jones did not gain ordination for another 20 years, while married to a minister in Nashville. That same year she first heard Cook, who was speaking at a Christian-education conference.

"This is a woman," Jones said she recalls thinking at the time, "who I need to know".

The opportunity arose five years later, in 1998. By then, Jones had moved to New York and earned a divinity degree, and Cook had been named by Ebonymagazine as one of the top 15 black preachers in the US. Cook went on to serve as a White House fellow during the Clinton administration and win a term as the first female president of the Hampton Ministers Conference, the black clergy's umbrella organisation.

Officially, Jones came on board as the part-time director of Christian education at the Bronx Christian Fellowship. More broadly, and more profoundly, Cook thought of her as "my safety sister".

Both ministers understood how to free the other for family duties, how to balance professional and domestic responsibilities.

By now, after almost a decade of partnership between the safety sisters, their latest church, Believer's Christian Fellowship, has grown to 300 families. - New York Times