Women in the Black Church

In this Feb. 27, 2011 photo, Salome Desta of Ethiopia and other members of the congregation worship during a church service at Pentacostal Tabernacle in Cambridge, Mass. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)

Faith is a strong guiding force in the lives of many African American women. And for all that they receive from their spiritual communities, they give back even more. In fact, black women have long been regarded as the backbone of the black church. But their extensive and significant contributions are made as lay leaders, not as religious heads of churches.

Women Are the Majority

The congregations of African American churches are predominantly women, and the pastors of African American churches are nearly all male. Why aren’t black women serving as spiritual leaders? What do black female churchgoers think? And despite this apparent gender inequity in the black church, why does church life continue to be so important to so many black women?

Daphne C. Wiggins, former assistant professor of congregational studies at Duke Divinity School, pursued this line of questioning and in 2004 published Righteous Content: Black Women’s Perspectives of Church and Faith. The book revolves around two main questions:

“Why are women so faithful to the Black Church?” and “How is the Black Church faring in the eyes of women?”

Devotion to the Church

To find out the answers, Wiggins sought out women who attended churches representing two of the largest black denominations in the U.S., interviewing 38 women from Calvary Baptist Church and Layton Temple Church of God in Christ, both in Georgia. The group was diverse in age, occupation, and marital status.

Marla Frederick of Harvard University, writing in “The North Star: A Journal of African-American Religious History” reviewed Wiggins’ book and observed:

…Wiggins explores what women give and receive in their reciprocal alliance with the church….[She] examines how women themselves understand the mission of the black church…as the center of political and social life for African Americans. While women are still committed to the historic social work of the church, they are increasingly concerned about individual spiritual transformation. According to Wiggins, “the interpersonal, emotional or spiritual needs of church and community members were primary in the women’s minds, ahead of systemic or structural injustices”….

Wiggins captures the seeming ambivalence of lay women towards the need to advocate for more women clergy or for women in positions of pastoral leadership. While women appreciate women ministers, they are not inclined towards politically addressing the glass ceiling that is evident in most protestant denominations….

From the turn of the twentieth century to now various Baptist and Pentecostal communities have differed and splintered on the issue of women’s ordination. Nevertheless, Wiggins contends that the focus on ministerial positions might camouflage the real power that women wield in churches as trustees, deaconesses and members of mothers’ boards.

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Source: Miami Times