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‘We can do it’Women rising in Christian leadership

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After generations of often being passed over for church leadership positions in most denominations, more women are being chosen for offices that have significant spiritual authority.

“This is a story that needs to be told,” Pastor Tamara Bennett, of This Is Pentecost Fellowship Ministries, a prominent church in Sacramento, Calif., stated in a recent interview. “Sometimes we forget that ministry is God’s business. It’s not a man’s business. God gives gifts to whomever he sees fit.”

The last 10 years, especially, have witnessed a significant increase in opportunities for women in leadership at churches and within national denominations.

The African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church elected its first female bishops in 2000 and 2008, respectively. This summer marked the historic election of Teresa Snorton as the first female bishop of the Christian Methodist Episcopal (CME) Church.

In 2005, the Lutheran Evangelical Protestant Church chose Nancy Kinard Drew as presiding bishop, and three years later the Indianapolis based Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) elected Sharon Watkins as its general minister and president.

Also, some Apostolic and Pentecostal denominations are now certifying women as bishops, including the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World (PAW), which also has its headquarters here.

“What we have witnessed, since the 1980s, is a proliferation, or growth and development of the church in this area,” said Angelique Walker-Smith, director of the Church Federation of Greater Indianapolis.

Walker-Smith added that when she began her service in ministry, there was more of a “general structure” in many churches and Christian institutions that prevented women from rising to the top.

“Now we are seeing more of an openness, especially across mainline churches,” she said. “That has created more leadership opportunities not only for women, but for young ministers and other groups traditionally shut out of leadership positions.”

Pastor Sarah Barbour believes that more churches and denominations are embracing the concept of female pastors and bishops not just because of their qualifications, but also to meet practical needs caused by limited resources and manpower.

“Women in ministry are doing what we do because God needs ministers in the kingdom,” said Barbour, pastor of New Birth Family Life Worship Center, a new congregation in Indianapolis. “Some institutions in the Christian community are running out of options and the anointing of God is resting upon the lives of many women. So when it comes to preaching and church leadership, we’re just saying, ‘Hey, we can do it.’”

Walker-Smith noted that many women who serve as pastors, associate ministers, directors and evangelists have developed creative and exciting ministries. They have also become attractive candidates for leadership roles by becoming more educated and making up a significant number of both students and faculty at seminaries.

“We also have more women serving as co-pastors with their husbands, or becoming ordained and establishing their own congregations,” Walker-Smith said.

Barbour, for example, was ordained by the PAW, and was inspired to form a new church last year.

“I’ve actually been pastoring for over 10 years,” said Barbour, who makes a living as a sheriff’s deputy and serves as a chaplain for the department. “Our team serves over 3,500 people at the county jail. We counsel them, encourage them, baptize them, marry them and hold regular service and Bible study.”

Opponents of ordaining women for ministry service often site New Testament scriptures, particularly those found in the book of Timothy, as evidence that only men are qualified to serve as pastors and bishops.

Ironically, Barbour agrees that God originally called men as primary church leaders. She noted that in the book of Genesis, God gave his directions to Adam about not eating the fruit and it was his job to give those directions to his wife. The serpent (Satan) talked to Eve, because he knew Adam was the carrier of God’s word.

“Of course, the word of God has not changed,” she said. “However, what happened was the only way Adam thought he could be one with Eve was to partake of the fruit. When he did that, the forfeiture of his position left it wide open to whomsoever will serve.”

Barbour said God’s original design is for men to be preachers of the word and leaders of their family and households, but “because of the distortion of sin,” many are incarcerated, on drugs or homeless.

“I see myself as a 21st century Deborah waiting for Barak to come and do his job,” she said, referring to the prophetess who became the only female judge of Israel in the Old Testament. Deborah partnered with the general, Barak, to defeat Israel’s enemies.

Walker-Smith pointed out that despite progress in some denominations, others, including the major Black Baptist denominations and some Pentecostal groups, are still hesitant to move away from the tradition of giving senior titles and responsibilities only to men.

“Opportunities for women in ministry are definitely better, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a glass ceiling,” she stated. “We’re not necessarily looking at a rosy picture, but it is a more diverse one.”

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