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Lisa Rhodes: Safe spaces promote thriving among women of color ministry leaders

“God doesn’t call women to ministry.”

Those are the words of my former pastor, who made that declaration 30 years ago during my early vocational discernment.

But black women — despite few female role models, mentors, guides and support networks to encourage them — have been entering ministry in increasing numbers. I am one of those women.

The belief that I am ultimately accountable to the Spirit inspired me to pursue my call against those kinds of patriarchal restraints.

What gave me courage to counter patriarchal resistance to women in ordained ministry and sexism in the church were the internal voices of my ancestors who instilled in me a fervor to pursue and do what “thus says the Lord.”

The Christian witness of Sojourner Truth, the 19th-century abolitionist and women’s rights activist, strengthened my resolve. The African American spiritual “We’re Gonna Do What the Spirit Say Do” sustained my hope. The wise counsel of the Rev. Dr. Katie Cannon — “Do the work your soul must have” — became my charge.

It was the lack of black female mentors and multicultural support networks that spurred me to create mentoring spaces for women in the church. That glaring need catapulted me into what has now been a 23-year journey of mentoring black women in ministry.

The development of the RISE Together Mentorship Network for women of color in ministry was an outgrowth of both my own beginnings and initial collaborations between the Spelman College Sisters Chapel WISDOM Center, Union Theological Seminary in New York and the Women of Color in Ministry Project.

A 2015 Lilly Endowment planning grant, awarded to Spelman College, supported a yearlong research project that allowed me to meet with women of color in ministry in focus groups across the country, hear their voices and assess their challenges and needs. The Rev. Martha Simmons, the founder of the Women of Color in Ministry Project, attended two of the focus groups.

Beginning in New York in May 2015 and ending in Nashville in May 2016, the project convened 16 multicultural focus groups. In 10 cities, 212 women of color in ministry, representing various denominations, age groups and stages of pastoral experience, engaged in what was welcomed as “a long-awaited and much-needed conversation about mentorship.”

As I reflect on this amazing journey, it is clear that giving women of color the opportunity to tell their stories can have a positive impact on their well-being and can help them thrive in ministry.

Many of the focus group participants expressed feeling alone and isolated in ministry, with little or no community. Women of color often find themselves in male-dominated ecclesial spaces or predominantly white churches and theological institutions. They do not feel safe.

The Rev. Leticia Alanis leads a discipleship group at All Saints/Todos los Santos Lutheran Community in Woodhaven, N.Y. Alanis is a mentee in the RISE Together Mentorship Network. Photo by Whitney Kidder

The focus group context helped address this challenge. Having a safe space for women who “look like each other” and share similar sociohistoric narratives met critical needs of safety, self-care and well-being, participants said. The gathering of women in one space for a common purpose was both cathartic and empowering.

The calls from these women for female mentorship and safe spaces to connect with other women of color in ministry were loud and constant across the country.

For the three hours of each session, these spaces were life-giving, participants said. The synergy was electrifying. A renewed sense of hope and excitement for ministry was in the air. Women were able to support, encourage and inspire each other while sharing in the collective wisdom of community. Each voice mattered, and everyone was visible.

In addition to establishing a safe space for honest engagement and dialogue, the women talked about the nature of mentorship and the critical need for successfully navigating the first 10 years of ministry. They agreed that mentorship was both a relationship and a process.

Most focus groups agreed that mentorship among women of color in ministry means engaging in a relationship of trust, commitment and mutual respect in which a more mature and experienced woman in ministry uses her wisdom to walk alongside a less experienced woman as she grows into her best self and embraces the fullness of God’s call on her life. One focus group participant described a mentor as “one who is willing to open [her] life up for the inspiration [of] others.”

For these women, the mentoring relationship was set forth as an intentional process of assessment and training, pairing and matching, goal setting and covenant, expectations and structure, and feedback and evaluation — all of which help frame its boundaries.

The women spoke of the need for companionship and support networks — developing relationships with each other while navigating the denominational landscape and negotiating career paths. They wanted to “get ministry right.”

As many explored decisions about ministry, love, relationships, marriage and family, they talked about wanting the collective wisdom and guidance of an intergenerational community of women in ministry.

They emphasized that mentorship should be “real,” providing opportunities to discuss the existential realities and conditions that can affect thriving, including racial and gender oppression, sexism and sexual harassment. These conditions have real impact on clergy placement and leadership. Safe spaces encourage women of color in ministry to truly delve into their experiences of oppression and sexual harassment.

Over the course of this yearlong focus group research, I learned important lessons about how women of color understand the nature and meaning of mentorship, and about the value and importance of psychological, theological and therapeutic spaces.

As I observed the focus group process, I saw an obvious power in the collective wisdom of the group — a kind of group consciousness and commitment, a sense of needed sisterhood and community. These findings helped inform and structure the design of the RISE Together Mentorship Network for women of color in ministry and will continue to inform my work going forward.

In the words of Sojourner Truth: “If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again.”