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Women's role in male-led church

The officials and ministers are mostly men, but the denomination is hardly alone in that.

By WAVENEY ANN MOORE and TWILA DECKER

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 9, 1999


TAMPA -- As the nation's largest black religious organization meets in Tampa this week, its women, many dressed in white from head to toe, are nearly everywhere.

Everywhere, that is, except where their presence would matter most.

They are not among the 11 candidates vying to become president of the National Baptist Convention USA in elections today. Neither are they among its officers or state presidents. Few are ministers.

Instead, their primary role is to be supporters of the men.

Mary Wilkins, an African-American Southern Baptist from Tampa who came to this week's convention out of curiosity, says she has been struck by the lack of women leaders.

"Traditionally, black women are very strong leaders in the family. That's why it is so odd to not see more of them in control," said Wilkins, adding that is true of her own predominantly white denomination, as well.

The NBC is, in fact, hardly alone in relegating women to a secondary role. The Roman Catholic Church does not accept women as priests, and a number of predominantly white denominations have been slow to welcome women as ministers.

Carolyn Ann Knight, an assistant professor at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, said it is disturbing that the NBC -- a century-old organization that has always stood for liberating all people -- somewhere along the way forgot about women.

The NBC has fewer than 100 female senior pastors, and many Baptist women who graduate from seminary are unable to find full-time jobs at Baptist churches, said Knight, who was ordained as a minister in an NBC-affiliated church in 1978. The highest job most of them can aspire to is assistant minister, and many of those jobs are part-time, she said.

"Other groups and other organizations are being established that welcome women pastors," Knight said. "Women are leaving the Baptist denomination for others that are accepting them in their pulpits."

Dr. Arlene Churn of Philadelphia counts herself fortunate. She began preaching at the age of 5 and was ordained at 18.

"I must be very honest in saying to you, my experience in the Baptist Church has not been as negative as those of women that have entered into it in the past 15 to 20 years," said Churn, 57. "Because when I entered it, I was not a woman. I was a girl. I believe the novelty of my being a child sort of neutralized the opinion of men about women preachers."

Traditionally women have had their own organization within the convention. The women's auxiliary evangelizes and raises money for charitable causes and the NBC. It has helped pay down the mortgage on the convention's Nashville headquarters and fund American Baptist College, an NBC institution; a hospital in Malawi; and the NBC's youth camp. On Wednesday, the auxiliary distributed new clothing to women from area shelters.

Cynthia Ray, president of the auxiliary, which says it has 3.5-million members, said the group's primary fundraiser is its "Women in White March."

On Tuesday, hundreds of women wearing white outfits and white hats marched through the Tampa Convention Center to an afternoon meeting. Each woman in white was asked to contribute $100 to the group's causes.

"The backbone for the National Baptist Convention was its commitment to foreign missions through which women sacrificed and supported that ministry," said Churn, who organized Women in White Day in the early 1990s.

There has been some change through the years. At last year's convention in Kansas City, Mo., a motion was proposed that would ban female ministers, said the Rev. Acen L. Phillips, a candidate in today's election. It did not get a second.

This year, a few of the candidates in today's election for president have run on a platform of inclusivity.

"I think that the future of our denomination requires that we join the rest of the world and understand that racism and sexism are first cousins and they are double demons of evil," said the Rev. W. Franklyn Richardson, a front-runner for president.

Like many of the women pastors here, Knight is supporting the candidacy of Richardson, a former general secretary of the convention.

"I could not imagine being a woman pastor and not supporting him," she said.

The Rev. Roscoe D. Cooper, NBC general secretary who dropped his presidential candidacy Wednesday, said a woman is executive pastor at his church in Richmond, Va.

Women in the ministry is a volatile issue, he said.

"That's an issue that the convention has to deal with. As Baptists, we cannot dictate to the churches," he said, explaining that churches are autonomous and make their own decision about whom to hire.

Mrs. Ray of Brooklyn, N.Y., the widow of a minister, is content with the present arrangement. Men should be the head of the convention and its churches, she said.

"They are our pastors," Mrs. Ray said. "They are our leaders."

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