By Rev. Dr. Tracy S. Malone
As I write this blog, I am mindful that I stand on the shoulders of many women and men (lay and clergy) who have pioneered efforts for full inclusion of women in the ordained ministry of The United Methodist Church. Many had the courage and wisdom to be prophetic witnesses to God’s declared vision for the Church. As with any historical movement, this change did not come without many years of pain and sacrifice, and I am thankful for their conviction and courage. I continue to be amazed at how God calls and positions a people, with a courageous voice and will to act, to boldly proclaim God’s truth and justice. I am convinced that God’s vision for an inclusive Church still remains and God is always seeking out those who have a courageous conviction to work toward the fulfilment of this vision.
While The United Methodist Church should be proud to report the number of clergy women who have been ordained throughout its recent history, the fact remains that the Church must continue to examine herself and confront and address the realities many ordained women are experiencing in their ministries. I have increasingly been concerned about the needs of many clergywomen across the connection, in particular African-American clergywomen.
While traveling across the connection, serving on several boards and agencies and attending conferences, I have the opportunity to listen to stories and experiences of many African-American clergy women serving The United Methodist Church. Most of these women have a passionate spirituality and they are highly capable, competent, effective leaders serving in cross-racial or cross-cultural settings and some serving in churches facing many and varied challenges. While some of their challenges and experiences may mirror what other colleagues face, the mere fact that they are African-American and women, too, often exacerbates the situations or challenges. And because many churches are not fully equipped to manage or resolve conflict or indifference, the default outcome becomes “the pastor is the problem.”
What African-American clergywomen need from The United Methodist Church today is an intentional system of support. Because they are faced with unique challenges as they enter a ministry context, the Church should position them for an effective ministry. What does this look like? When African-American women (or men) are placed in cross-racial/cross-cultural appointments, it would be helpful if other ethnic clergy (or those sensitive to the unique challenges) are within a reasonable distance of the appointment. Collegial support is a must for a successful cross-cultural/cross-racial ministry. The SPRC and other key leaders should engage in some form of a cultural-competency process. This process will help to name their fears/anxieties and provide a safe place to plan a way forward. I highly recommend that the District Superintendent check in with these clergy and SPRC to ask how things are going. I have found that some clergy serving in these contexts do not reach out for help not because they don’t need it but because of not wanting to appear as being incapable of serving.
I also suggest the same kind of intentional support be given to African-American clergywomen serving in what I can an “at-risk” church. These are churches that have long-standing issues and challenges with finances, membership, etc. Too often women clergy are being blamed for decline in membership and finances when they are other circumstances and issues at hand. I would recommend a regular check-in by the superintendent to make sure the pastor has the necessary support and resources they need for an effective ministry.
African-American clergywomen continue to serve with joy and passion amid challenges often faced. They are proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ with boldness and power. Their ministry continues to bearing much fruit, making a difference for Christ in the world. Their churches are large and small, city and rural, conservative and progressive, black and white, etc. What a faithful witness!
Rev. Dr. Tracy Smith Malone is an ordained elder who serves as Southern District Superintendent for the Northern Illinois Conference. She was called to ministry at the age of 13 and is a graduate of Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. She chaired the NIC’s delegation to the 2012 General Conference.