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How can congregations help Black clergywomen flourish?

Not too long after I joined the pastoral staff of a church, another team member gave me some feedback from our senior pastor’s wife.

“The pastor’s wife is uncomfortable with you sitting in the chair next to her husband,” the staff member told me — she feared that congregants would think I was his wife.

I sat in the pulpit’s second row for the next five years. Hyperaware of my presence as a single woman on the pastoral staff, I never spoke about this conversation again.

I often felt alone and misunderstood, and I wondered, do other Black clergywomen experience such challenges? I resolved to find out, and applied for a Reflective Leadership Grant to conduct an ethnographic study of Black clergywomen.

I wanted to explore the challenges, but I also wanted to talk to women who were flourishing and cultivating space for other women in ministerial leadership. I focused on the question, What makes Black clergywomen thrive?

I interviewed 11 Black clergywomen and 25 congregants, along with scholars whose work includes areas of Black women and religious studies. There were seven denominations represented.

During my research, I came to realize that I was not alone in my challenges.

The Rev. Dr. Renita J. Weems aptly articulated the shared experiences of a majority of interviewees when she told me, “Black women, especially single ones, make the best work mules — grossly underpaid and obscenely overworked. We forget our boundaries because Christianity and ministry have elevated sacrifice and silence in women as a virtue. Women have to learn the importance of boundaries, saying no and saving parts of themselves for themselves.”

Yet that’s not the whole story. In spite of the opposition that Black women have faced for centuries, I saw that they are dismantling that which is destructive, oppressive and seeks to limit their thriving.

I heard many hopeful stories. Women are refusing to give most of their time and energy to demanding respect or legitimizing their work, instead devoting themselves to preaching in pulpits, writing books, transforming communities through social activism, traveling abroad and living dreams that would have seemed impossible to their ancestors.

I am sharing some of the findings of my project, from which I identified three key factors that contribute to the flourishing of Black clergywomen.

Intentional self-care

Black clergywomen who flourished were not only committed to providing care for communities; they prioritized it for themselves. They were committed to rituals, rest, friendships and activities that nourished their souls.

“We [Black female pastors] try to bear [the] whole world and lose ourselves. … Joy has to be our active form of resistance,” said the Rev. Cece Jones-Davis, who serves on the pastoral staff at The Table in Oklahoma City.

She said that part of her routine was watching a comedy show before going to sleep, “even stuff that’s not good, because I need the lightheartedness before I can rest.”

Clergywomen said they exercised, received regular massages, cooked meals and went on vacations.

Others learned to ask for what they needed to thrive, including sabbaticals, therapy sessions and, in some cases, travel funds for a spouse or a child to accompany them to ministry engagements.

Congregational ethos of care

Black clergywomen flourished in congregations that had an ethos of caring for them. In these spaces, they were paid well, and their contributions were valued and respected.

Elders and other congregational leaders understood the importance of supporting their well-being, including paying for professional and personal development.

Yet even where Black clergywomen were flourishing, they were often carrying more than their share — and suffering for it. Some churches claim to be progressive and egalitarian, but when you examine the roles, responsibilities and organizational charts, those ideals are not borne out in practice.

For those who hire and work alongside Black clergywomen, consider it your responsibility to assist in dismantling practices that silence, harm and prevent them from being able to speak up and show up as their full selves.

Congregational openness to new approaches

I also found that Black clergywomen thrived in places where congregations and their leaders showed an openness to dismantling systems and practices that hindered their expression of their whole selves.

In some churches, leaders were willing to re-envision and restructure hegemonic leadership and worship practices destructive to Black clergywomen — and the wider community.

Congregants at St. Paul’s Baptist Church in Philadelphia told me about changes that happened when the Rev. Dr. Leslie D. Callahan became the senior pastor in 2009. Among them: learning to use inclusive language.

“The God-talk is different here. It is not what we were raised with or accustomed to,” an associate minister at St. Paul’s told me.

I found that Black clergywomen who were flourishing had been encouraged and permitted by denominational and congregational leadership to re-imagine new ways of leading and loving themselves and their congregations.

Their churches tended to show more signs of collaborative leadership; people in the decision-making circles did not all look alike, think alike or share the same educational and socioeconomic backgrounds.

Through making changes in liturgical practices, church governance and teachings that expand the imaginations of their congregants, Black clergywomen are modeling what it means to invite others into their liberation.

Their very work shows promise in that the life-giving traditions that have sustained Black people for centuries can be amended and overhauled to give more possibilities for the flourishing of wider communities.

What will it take for churches to consider other models, beyond the personality of one (usually male) person in the pulpit and the work of women behind the scenes?

It was not until I had the space and time to listen to the stories of Black clergywomen that I allowed myself to wrestle with the problematic situation I encountered in my previous church setting.

Why did I feel I had to stay silent? Why did we as a staff not teach people that a woman who holds power and is next in line to the pastor does not have to be his wife? Why did I move to the second row instead of working with my congregation to dismantle the prevailing assumptions about a woman’s role in the church?

I was heartened to talk with Black clergywomen who are doing just that — taking care of themselves while changing the church. My hope is that they will not be left to do this work alone.

In 2017, I was the pastor of a small-membership church, and my wife was a youth pastor at a church in the next city over. A week before Christmas, our 6-month-old daughter woke up with a high fever and a nasty cough. Her breathing was so labored that we took her to the emergency room.

She was admitted and put on oxygen. The doctors assured us that she would be fine — she had a bad case of RSV, which just needed to run its course. But for the next three days, she lay in her crib, an oxygen tube in her tiny nostrils, an IV in her tiny arm.

For a parent, there are few things more gut-wrenching than sitting helplessly beside the crib of your sick child.

For a young pastor married to another young pastor, there is no worse timing for such a crisis than mid-December. Between the two of us, we had a combined five Christmas services that needed to be planned and executed.

But it was this experience that really drove home to me the power of relationships in a small-membership church.

One day, while my daughter was napping, I called one of my lay leaders to talk through the rapidly approaching services.

My parishioner picked up the phone with a curt but well-meaning greeting: “Why are you calling me? Don’t you have other things to worry about right now?”

She knew me, and with those first comments, she let me know that she cared about me.

Rural and small-membership churches are places that depend on deep relationships. Carl Dudley has argued that small-membership churches are often single-celled organisms, with that single cell functioning as a caring unit.

Within a small church, the members tend to each other. If someone is sick, meals are arranged almost spontaneously. If a parishioner needs something from the church but can’t ask, other members will reliably let the pastor know. If someone has a small business, members are sure to shop there.

Members of the small church depend on one another — for connection, for friendship, for help.

Like most strengths, this can have a negative side. At times, small-membership churches have been criticized for focusing too much on internal relationships — an inward focus that can inadvertently close the community off from the outside world. It can be difficult for new members to gain entrance to that caring cell.

Yet with the world locked into physical distancing and isolation, I’ve been thinking a lot about the positive side of those relationships, that sense of community. In times of sickness and anxiety, it can be a powerfully sustaining force. It is one of the principal gifts of a small church.

I was the beneficiary of that calming gift that day on the phone. I explained that there was a lot of stuff to get done: people who needed to be called and visited, services that needed to be planned.

“We can handle those things,” my parishioner said. “Your daughter is in the hospital. You can call me when you’re home again.”

I was overwhelmed, both by the way my church cared for me and my family and by the leadership demonstrated by this depth of care.

Much of my work now is helping leaders of small-membership churches grow their confidence in organizational and institutional leadership, so that they can claim their role as anchor institutions within the community.

But what happens when church committees don’t meet in person and Sunday worship happens virtually or over a conference call?

I think this is when the strengths of the small-membership church are most apparent.

The early church persisted in part because it was networks of small groups that met when they could. This allowed the church to spread beneath the radar of those who wanted to stamp it out.

Our small churches today continue to exist for the same reason — deep relationships that draw people in and form them in community.

During the pandemic, I’ve been captivated by the stories of leadership I’m seeing in small churches. Pastors who print weekly devotionals and Bible studies and deliver them to parishioners — a friendly but physically distant presence waving at members through the window, reminding them they are not alone.

Lay leaders who organize phone trees to make sure everyone is checked on and connected with a friendly voice. Leaders who host conference calls where people can share their prayer requests and have others respond.

On Palm Sunday, we received a text message from the volunteer children’s director at the church where we attend and volunteer as youth pastors. “You’ve been egged,” it said.

Out in the yard were 24 brightly colored plastic eggs. A gift bag with a palm leaf and a book about ducks — my daughter’s favorite animal — was on the porch.

In place of the community Easter egg hunt, volunteers were scattering eggs in the yards of the kids and surprising each with a personalized goody bag.

As my daughter ran around the yard, I found myself grateful for the community that knew us and remembered us, a community that reminded us we were still cared for and were not alone.

In this time of uncertainty, we might turn to the small-membership church for guidance and wisdom. We can learn from the ways that leadership in a small church is not bound by established institutional channels — the ways that committed silos break down over family dinner conversations, that pastoral care is shared among all the members.

My daughter’s RSV was not COVID-19, but when I lingered in the uncertainty of her illness, I depended upon the relationships, the compassion and empathy, that were foundational to my church.

In a world where “social distancing” is now common language, the small church can help us recover this formational life of community, forged through deep relationships that sustain us even in uncertain times.

At 8:00 on a Sunday morning, I usually worship in the suburban Chicago church where I am pastor, wearing a stole and sensible flats. But this Sunday, I am leading a group of 10 on a hike in a Chicago forest preserve, wearing a bright blue Osprey daypack and hiking shoes.

We’ve done introductions, named our intentions and are heading off toward the first stop, where I will guide them in a contemplative practice I’ve found in a book. I feel utterly ridiculous and absolutely delighted.

It is an event for my Meetup group, “Re-Creation: Hour-long retreats in the outdoors.” Meetup, a social networking site, gives people the opportunity to connect in real life around activities they enjoy — like hiking and contemplation. My group invites participants to spend time in nature and connect with other spiritually minded people and practices, and with the Holy.

For Re-Creation, I planned some events on Saturdays and some on Sundays, even though it meant I would miss worship on three Sundays in the summer. As I’m the lead pastor, this felt like a big deal. But it was good for the congregation to know how important I thought it was for us to actively seek out people who would not normally come to church. Just unlocking the doors on Sunday morning wasn’t bringing masses of newcomers.

The group roster swelled to 100. Then 200. We’re now up to more than 400 members. Not nearly that many people sign up for the events themselves. Usually four to six Meetup people come, and three to four people from my church. And there are always those who RSVP and then don’t show, just like church.

My congregation received my announcement about the Meetup roster with an audible gasp. We’d confused shrinking worship attendance with a lack of interest in God. The people who attend the Meetup also meditate, see reiki practitioners and go on silent retreats.

They want to connect with other spiritually minded people. They want community. They want experiences of the holy. These are all things the church should be good at, but we exert a lot of effort not offering them.

We spin our wheels getting people to serve on committees and bring treats to coffee hour. No wonder people trade church for coffee shops and weekends on the lake. People are spiritually hungry, and we ask them to cook for potluck suppers.

After introductions, I lead us just a short way down the trail and then pause at an opening in the trees. I read a Mary Oliver poem and then teach a form of centering prayer. We continue on the hike. The group divides into two clusters. The people who joined via the app get to know each other, while the five people from my church talk like old friends. How do they ever expect us to grow if they don’t talk to strangers? I think.

We continue until about the midway point of the trail, where I introduce them to “lectio divina in nature,” in which the natural surroundings are the text, instead of Scripture. I hand out a description of the steps on a laminated sheet complete with the church logo and website. “They are less likely to toss the laminated paper,” I had explained to my secretary. “The logo reminds them about the cool church that organized the Meetup.”

I had told my church that success was simply meeting people we otherwise would not have met. I lied. Secretly, I thought this Meetup would clear a path from the forest preserve to our sanctuary.

We finish the hike in contemplative silence. At the end, I teach an embodied prayer.

Hands raised. “Christ above me.” (Participants are invited to use whatever word for the Holy fits for them.)

Hands out to the sides. “Christ beside me.”

Hands to the chest. “Christ inside me.”

Hands out in front, to receive and to offer. “Amen.”

We share with each other our worries, so that we won’t have to carry them alone, and those things for which we are thankful, so that we can celebrate with others. As we say goodbye, people hug. Community is formed.

As a college student, I spent time in a conservative evangelical campus community. We wanted people to follow Jesus so that he could save them from hell. Those of us in the mainline church don’t worry so much about the unchurched getting saved. We worry more about saving our churches.

We get anxious about numbers, and we shrink evangelism to church growth, measuring success by butts in pews and dollars in plates. We want people to come to church to replace the ones who have died or moved or left angry or just burned out. We want to reinvigorate the congregation with “new blood,” forgetting that blood transfusions are for the benefit of the recipient, not the donor.

As I drive home, I reflect on the morning. When our walk started, I thought my delight was because I was ditching church for a walk in the woods. But my delight was deeper than a day off. I often feel more like the executive director of a religiously affiliated institution than a pastor of a congregation of disciples. Leading this pack of strangers was the most I’d felt like a real pastor in a long time.

I wasn’t skipping church. I’d been to church. I see the point of the day for the first time: it wasn’t to invite people to church but to participate in church with them.

I remember a holy moment. During the lectio divina, I’d hiked ahead of the group to the gathering point on the trail. Dense fog had hushed the distant sounds of traffic and cloaked the woods and prairie in mystery.

I slowed my pace. Breathing. Noticing. A deer stepped out of the woods onto the trail about 50 feet in front of me. We stood, eyes locked for several seconds. Both of us beholding, and beheld.

What Kinds of Activities Can the Congregation Do?

As is the case with pastoral activities, congregations should not worry about what they hear other congregations doing during their pastor’s sabbatical. Your congregation is unique, and the life history and social setting of your members come together to form a community unlike any other. This means that, as with pastors, conversations about this uniqueness and what feeds the soul of the people in that place can be incredibly valuable in and of themselves. Most congregations have regular conversations about mission, identity, growth strategies, etc., but when was the last time your congregation had an unhurried, open conversation about what things give it life?

book coverThis is the joy of renewal periods — they are gloriously superfluous. By refusing to serve the immediate, they open space for the deep and expansive. They are not designed first and foremost to be congregational strategy sessions about worship design, church growth, financial matters, etc. Just as, while on sabbatical, the pastor is invited to step away from the day-to-day demands of ministry and leadership in order to focus deeply on spiritual matters, so too the renewal period can be a time for the congregation to indulge in the blessed luxury of asking questions about joy and meaning.

Now, in saying this I do not mean to go against what I said before about how congregational leaders might also pick up some leadership tasks while the pastor is away! But the truth is that the two emphases — greater congregational leadership and deeper time for exploring questions of what gives life to the congregation — are not actually opposed. The former can draw out the latter, and vice versa.

A congregation whose pastor was on sabbatical instituted a lay preaching series to help cover the pulpit while the pastor was away. One by one, various leaders and faithful members of the congregation shared testimony during the sermon time about the operations of God’s grace in their lives. As the series continued, the congregation realized that the intense focus on new programs and added activities in the last few years had, inadvertently, served to clutter some of the core reasons why people chose to go to church there — personal connections, unhurried worship, clear focus on the gospel.

The congregation taking on more “preaching to itself,” as it were, served to create a space in which eventually the people had the courage to take a pause and begin to engage in what C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison [in “Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus”] call “slow church” — the careful, connectional, simple realities of life together in community apart from busy-ness and pressure to grow. So increased leadership and increased reflection can go hand in hand.

The best congregational activities during a renewal period, then, are the ones that draw on and enhance these twin goods: encouraging leadership among congregation members while also creating space for reflection.

Some congregations (such as the one discussed in the Introduction) bring in guest speakers and preachers to focus on topics of interest to the congregation — especially if those topics relate somehow to the theme of the pastor’s sabbatical leave. Depending on the congregation’s finances, it can draw on local colleges, seminaries, or other educational institutions for speakers. Most seminary professors and professors at Christian colleges in particular are eager to speak in congregational settings. Be sure to allocate money in the total renewal period to pay a fair mileage rate and honorarium.

Don’t assume that the most profound topics will be the most “religious,” or vice versa. Sometimes, congregations have gotten more out of bringing in experts to talk about ecology, science, art, or health care than would have happened had they brought in theologians! Just as some of the most theologically rich sabbaticals consist of “non-church” activities that nonetheless draw the pastor deep into the joy of God’s creation, so too sometimes congregations can have their imaginations for ministry fired by topics that at first seem irrelevant to ministry, but soon show themselves to be deeply resonant with the lives of the people.

Again, have the frank conversation about what is on the hearts of the people in the congregation, and don’t be afraid to craft a plan that might make no sense to a neighboring congregation, but for your people is fitted and right.

Things to Avoid

As the congregation thinks about its activities, its imagination should range far and wide. However, there are several categories of activity that should be avoided by congregations during the renewal period.

First, while the pastor is away, the congregation should not hire consultants or bring in speakers/facilitators who will cause the congregation to start having conversations that are best had while the pastor is present. While conversations about theology, mission, Bible, history, culture, etc., can be very profitable for congregations to discuss while the pastor is gone, if talks turn to finances, staffing, outreach, or other sensitive matters, then the congregation might find itself embroiled in controversies that can spin out of control. Do not bring in “stewardship experts” or “church growth strategists” or others whose talks are likely to set off debates about sensitive matter such as money, attendance, and staff performance/compensation.

Some congregations make the mistake of thinking of the time when the pastor is gone as akin to an interim period between pastors, which is a time when congregations are called to be introspective about both mission and ministry details. Renewal periods are not that; they are times for introspection about mission, but not for detail work around financial and operational matters. Let the renewal period be a time to focus on spiritual, theological, and recreational matters; this will, as with the pastor, give the congregation fresh energy and insight to tackle practicalities once the pastor and congregation are reunited.

Meanwhile, if the congregation has secured grant funding or donations for renewal activities during the sabbatical, then make sure that the money goes toward activities and not capital improvements to the building or grounds. A congregation who uses the renewal period to focus on, say, Celtic spirituality has the potential for a very meaningful time; however, if that same congregation were to use funds set aside for renewal to build [a] multi-thousand dollar labyrinth on the church grounds, it might be hard to avoid the impression that the labyrinth itself (or the augmented sound system, or the patched roof, etc.) was the real point of the renewal. Focus on experiences, not property.

As with the pastor’s activities, the congregation should not feel bound by a theme. If a theme is helpful, then use it; however, it may be that the best way for the congregation and the pastor to both have powerful experiences during the renewal period is for each to chart an individual course, so as to marvel at the ways God can make the courses converge once reunion happens.

From “Planning Sabbaticals: A Guide for Congregations and Their Pastors” by Robert C. Saler. Copyright © 2019 by Robert Saler. Published by Chalice Press and reprinted with permission.