Having grown up as a child attending church services every Sunday, all day long, including Sunday night and weekly Bible Study with my father and mother as the pastor and co-pastor, respectively, I have come to know a great deal about the inner workings of the Black Church.
Even more, as I have followed in their footsteps, I know firsthand the challenges that women have long faced.
Special thanks to Dr. Susie Owens, the wife of Archbishop Alfred A. Owens, Jr., D. Min., whose husband serves as the pastor of Greater Mt. Calvary Holy Church in Northeast, a progressive, inner-city church with an adult membership of more than 7,000.
She provided invaluable information on the early and rich history of women who served as leaders in the church.
“Women in the pulpit stem back to the early 1800s,” Owens said. “And despite the controversial debate surrounding the validity of female preachers, God has used women to make an indelible impact on the body of Christ and the world at large.”
“This history includes: Word carriers, such as Mary the mother of Jesus – used to carry and bring forth the Word in the person of our Lord and Savior; evangelists, such as Mary Magdalene, who on the heels of her tomb encounter with Jesus, runs to proclaim the ‘good news;’ traveling evangelists, like Jarena Lee, the first African-American woman authorized to preach in the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1819; and church planters, like Sojourner Truth, who decreed prophecies as she declared in 1843, ‘the Spirit calls me, and I must go.’”
Other Black women during the 19th century in the U.S., made an indelible mark as orators, abolitionists, feminists and expositors including: Phoebe Palmer, one of the founders of the Holiness movement within Methodist Christianity; Antoinette Brown Blackwell, the first woman to be ordained by a major American Protestant denomination in 1853; Margaret Newton Van Cott, the first woman to be licensed to preach in The Methodist Episcopal Church in 1869; and Amada Berry Smith, who in 1878 became the first Black woman to serve as an international evangelist.
The summary of nearly 10 interviews below come from women who have been guests on my live, weekly, on-air time with Radio One’s, Spirit 1340, WYCB broadcast during which they shared their insights and perspectives about their roles as women of leadership in the church.
All but one, Della Reese, remain alive today.
Pastor Shirley Caesar talked about how hard it is to have to travel a million miles a year, and try to get back to Durham, after doing her gospel concert in Miami on Saturday night, then to preach on Sunday morning at her church, Mount Calvary Word of Faith Church.
“It’s getting harder and harder because I’m getting older now, so I don’t always make it back on Sunday mornings but I do the very best that I can,” she said.
First Lady Tramaine Hawkins shared with listeners what it means to be the first lady of the church, travel and sing as well. She grew up under her father, Bishop E. E. Cleveland, one of the founders of the Church of God in Christ, the largest black Pentecostal Church in the U.S., who served as pastor in San Francisco. Under his leadership, the choir was able to secure the biggest gospel, cross-over song of all time, “Oh Happy Day,” in 1967. It has been included on the “Songs of the Century” list. Hawkins has joined me twice, last year in August, and before that, several years ago when she was honored for her work during Black History Month.
Pastor Della Reese was a true sweetheart. She pastored in Los Angeles at Understanding Principles for Better Living, aka UP Church. She talked about how to have a healthy life, while living with Type 2 Diabetes. Despite her professional career as a singer and actress, she devoted the latter part of her life as the pastor of her nondenominational church. She said she never worried about how men treated her, because she had her own, stand-alone church to share her message with the people of God.
Sister Dr. Jenna is a Brahma Kumaris acclaimed, trusted spiritual mentor committed to bridging divides in societies and building relationships between global influencers. This amazing leader teaches from her pulpit seven days a week, all year long. Her messages are about peace, love, hope and joy. As the host of the popular America Meditating Radio Show and recipient of the President’s Lifetime National Community Service Award, she has traveled to more than 80 countries. In addition, she serves as a member of the Evolutionary Leaders Circle, a group of thought leaders from diverse disciplines in service to conscious evolution and was selected by Empower a Billion Women 2020 as one of 100 most influential leaders of 2015.
Rev. Sylvia Sumter, pastor, Unity of Washington DC in Northwest, is a natural and gifted spiritual teacher. She has had an extraordinary effect on the thousands who have heard her messages and taken her classes. Her reach extends far beyond the boundaries of her church, however. She has fostered a thriving and active spiritual community involved in dozens of transformational programs. She spearheads the national movement, “Stand Up for Humanity,” which brings together individuals from all walks of life and spiritual paths to promote positive action for the greater good of all.
Rev. Sumter said, “When people ask my advice as to whether they should enter the ministry, my primary answer is, ‘do not do it unless you are called! And, if you are truly called, then there is nothing else you can do!’”
“Ministry is challenging in and of itself, and pulpit ministry carries its own unique qualities,” she said. “You are tasked with bringing a message, an impartation from on high, that is meant to touch the heart, mind and soul of those listening. And while you are the vision carrier, there may be some who are not able to see what you see, nor hear what you hear and therefore it is not always easy to inspire them to take the journey with you.”
“But we women know how to make a way out of no way, to stretch the resources, to heal the brokenhearted all while keeping the House of God in good working order. The world needs expressions of compassion, healing, loving relationships, understanding and nurturance. This is our specialty and the time for the Divine Feminine to lead is now. Women can and will heal the world,” she said.
Rev. Niketa Wilson, a native Washingtonian from Southeast is also a trained singer from Duke Ellington School of the Arts. She was the opening act at the Carter Barron Amphitheater several years in a row and currently serves on the ministerial board of her home church in Southeast.
“God is raising up women’s ministries because so many of us are very willing to carry the gospel in our bellies and are spreading the gospel message,” she said. “A pulpit is a platform used to spread the gospel so where ever a woman places her feet to share the unadulterated gospel really is her pulpit. Women have had pulpit authority in that aspect for years and didn’t even realize it.”
Pastor Mary S. Smith, senior pastor and founder of the Key to Heaven Kingdom Ministries, located in Clinton, Maryland, said “I have been pastoring this awesome body of believers for 17 years. It has been a blessing and a joy serving God’s people. Certainly this is a great work and involves much sacrifice, time, resources and challenges, but it’s been worth it.”
“Although I wouldn’t trade my journey for anything, it is a little different for women in the pulpit than it is for men. But God has called me to this and given me much favor among his people. There is much more Kingdom work for me to do and I’m encouraged to hang in there to see what the end will be. I will not be silent; I will always worship the Lord,” she said.
Rev. Michelle Simmons, of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Gamma Phi Delta Sorority, Inc., said, “I believe that there’s no gender in the pulpit. It is just God.”
“When I’m in the pulpit, I want people to see the anointing of God, His grace and His mercy that is upon me, so when I get up and preach in a pulpit, all I do is ask for the anointing of God, because that is what destroys the yolks. Anytime I get nervous or anxious I go back into prayer and ask God to show up in me and through me and always pray His anointing is upon me,” she said.
Top 10 Women in the Pulpit Chosen by NewsOne Magazine
Rev. Suzan Johnson Cook raised in Harlem by her parents, was a pastor, motivational speaker and diplomat who made history by becoming the first woman and African American to become Ambassador-at-Large for international religious freedom.
Dr. Neichelle R. Guidry, a spiritual daughter of New Creation Christian Fellowship of San Antonio, where she was ordained to ministry in 2010, serves as Dean of the Chapel at Spelman College. In 2019 she received the William Sloane Coffin ’56 Award for Peace and Justice – a distinctive honor given to those working toward peace, devotion, and dignity of all individuals.
Dr. Prathia Laura Ann Hall is a theologian who is widely recognized for her role in the Civil Rights Movement. The Philadelphia native came from a lineage of preachers, as her father, the Rev. Berkeley Hall, was a Baptist minister. After graduating from Temple University, Hall joined the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and was one of the first Black women to become a field leader in southwest Georgia. She died August 12, 2002.
Dr. Carolyn Ann Knight is a Denver native whose theological training began at Colgate Rochester Divinity School in Rochester, New York, and later Union Theological Seminary in New York City where she received the Master of Divinity and Master of Sacred Theology degrees, respectively. The Rev. Knight was assistant pastor at Harlem’s Canaan Baptist Church for seven years before starting her own congregation, Philadelphia Baptist Church.
Bishop Jacqueline E. “Jackie” McCullough is a Jamaica-born preacher, gospel musician and author. Currently, she serves as senior pastor at The International Gathering at Beth Rapha in Pomona, New York.
Bishop Vashti McKenzie. Baltimore’s own, is one of the most prolific voices in the faith community. She has sat at the helm of African Methodist Episcopal [AME] Church since 2000, when she became the first woman in its 200-year history to obtain an Episcopal office as bishop. She retired in July 2021.
One of five women bishops elected in the AME Church, McKenzie remains ready to answer anyone who questions their ability to lead.
“Do I think women can do this? Yes,” she said. “Do I think women are called to this? Yes. Do I think the women that have been elected in my denomination have done an exceptional job? Absolutely.”
Sarah Jakes Roberts is the daughter of Bishop T.D. Jakes, blazing a trail for millennial women of faith. She and her husband, Touré Roberts, are co-pastors at The Potter’s House at One LA and The Potter’s House Denver. She has openly spoken about getting pregnant at just 14, after which she started a successful ministry.
Priscilla Shirer is an author, minister, motivational speaker and the founder of Going Beyond Ministries. She holds a master’s degree in biblical studies from Dallas Theological Seminary and her mission is to teach “the truths of Scripture intellectually.” Shirer designs studies for women and teens.
Dr. Gina Marcia Stewart is a senior pastor at Christ Missionary Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee. The University of Memphis graduate earned the distinct honor of becoming the first Black woman elected to lead an established Black Baptist congregation in Memphis and Shelby County.
Dr. Renita J. Weems is co-senior pastor of Ray of Hope Community Church in Nashville, Tennessee. She is a biblical scholar, an ordained minister and a writer who is an authority on spirituality and feminist theology. She was also a biblical studies professor at Vanderbilt University and was the first Black woman to deliver the Lyman Beecher Lecture at Yale University.