Women of Color in Ministry: Ending Discrimination

The battle to end the rampant and persistent discrimination against women of color in ministry in the American religious community can be won.
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At last, the lens of fairness and justice are about to be nationally focused on the discrimination, prejudice, and sexism suffered by women of color in ministry. Women of color are entering every phase of ministry in large numbers. Yet, they are still being met with closed doors and glass ceilings. Change is way overdue! Now, women of color in ministry are finally organizing and systematically moving to end that discrimination.

The Women of Color in Ministry Project ("WOCIM") is hosting its Launch Event on October 17 and 18, 2014, at Convent Avenue Baptist Church, in Harlem, NY. The Launch Event will feature renowned women of color clergy, including Bishop Vashti McKenzie, the first African American female bishop in an historically African American denomination; Kathy Khang (who recently took on Rev. Rick Warren for his discriminatory remarks against Asians); Nikki Toyama-Szeto, co-author with Khang of More Than Serving Tea; Dr. Doris Garcia, the first female president of the Evangelical Seminary of Puerto Rico; Dr. Stacey Floyd-Thomas Vanderbilt Divinity School professor and Executive Director of the Society for Christian Ethics; and many others. All women of color clergy, those who are ordained, and those who are not, regardless of denominational affiliation, age, ethnicity, or sexual orientation, are invited to attend.

Why is this event being held? The general landscape of women's roles, expectations, and work is changing. However, it is changing very slowly in many areas of the Church and religious community. Except in sectors of the Episcopal, United Methodist, American Baptist, Unitarian, and Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, women, as leaders and senior pastors, have not been readily embraced. This leaves more than 100 Protestant denominations in America that are dismissing, underutilizing, and or minimizing women clergy! In the words of the Reverend Martha Simmons, president of the African American Pulpit, Inc., (a non-profit ministry organization) quotes civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hammer,

"I am 'sick and tired of being sick and tired' about the subjugation of women of color clergy."

In spite of documented mistreatment, more and more women are entering the ministry. According to one survey, between 2000 and 2011, there has been a 50 percent increase in women in ministry. Their numbers in seminaries also have increased greatly. The Association of Theological Schools reports that about a third of all seminary students are now women.

However, according to Dr. Barbara Brown Zikmund, who has performed the largest study of clergy women in America:

"Women clergy have greater difficulty in finding employment, they are more likely to be part-time, and even when their experience and qualifications match those of male clergy in the same denomination and in the same positions, they still average 9 percent less in salary."

Clearly, as women accept their call into ministry, many are experiencing prejudice and sexism. The problem is even more shameful as it relates to women of color clergy. Women of color are usually the last hired and the first fired, for paid church and denominational positions. Women of color also are faring poorly in gaining jobs in theological education. Even those institutions that are supposedly comprised of people who are theologically trained, continue to discriminate against women of color!

Sunday morning is not only the most segregated day of the week, it is the day of week that women of color clergy are most discriminated against. What are we to do with this discrimination and prejudice that exist so prominently within the religious community? Are we to sit back, continue to throw our hands up in the air in exasperation, and give up hope for ourselves and for our daughters? Women clergy and those who support them are loudly saying "NO! This discrimination must end on our watch."

The Reverend Martha Simmons has been tackling the issue of discrimination against African American female clergy for decades. With a firm belief in the power of collaboration, Simmons created the Women of Color in Ministry Project. Union Theological Seminary of New York and Sisters Chapel of Spelman College are the project's first collaborative partners. The project also has brought together a diverse Council of more than forty women of color (Asian, Native American, Pacific Asian, North American Asian, Latina, and African American) leaders from around the country. The Council is expected to have more than one hundred members by the end of 2014.

The WOCIM Project aims to "end one of the final frontiers of American prejudice -- gender discrimination in the Christian Church and in its attendant seminaries, divinity schools, and service organizations, especially as it relates to women of color. Discrimination against women of color in ministry is one of the last remaining civil rights issues of this century." Simmons states, "the aim of this project is to strengthen our institutions and women of color clergy around the country by educational advancement, ministerial mentorship, denominational advocacy, and employment assistance."

Tremendous excitement has sprung up around this project. The battle to end the rampant and persistent discrimination against women of color in ministry in the American religious community can be won. The Launch Event is our opening volley. Working together, women of color clergy will end discrimination in the church and in religious academia. Join us.

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