Editor’s Note: On July 9, the Disciples of Christ elected Rev. Teresa Hord Owens to lead the denomination. While Rev. Owens is the first Black woman to lead a mainline Protestant organization in a solo capacity, we failed to mention Rev. Denise Anderson. Anderson, a Black woman, was elected co-moderator of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) last year alongside Jan Edmiston. This marked the first time that the P.C.(USA) elected women as moderators and elected two co-moderators of any sex. The P.C.(USA) traditionally elects a moderator and vice-moderator.
In a matter of days, Rev. Teresa Hord Owens will become the general minister and president of the Disciples of Christ. The appointment, pending an election on July 9 during the Disciples of Christ General Assembly in Indianapolis, will make Owens the first Black woman to lead a mainline Protestant denomination in North America.
“Her nomination represents an opportunity for us to continue the important transformation of the church,” said Chris Dorsey, Disciples of Christ president of higher education and leadership ministries. “We seek to be a church that is more inclusive and more holistic, and she is the right person to help us do that.”
Owens, a native Hoosier, was raised in Terre Haute and is a direct descendant of the free people of color who founded the Lost Creek settlement in Vigo County. She has been an active member of the Disciples denomination since she was a young adult, when she and her mother moved to Indianapolis and attended Second Christian, now known as Light of the World Christian Church.
Ministry, for her, is both familiar and familial.
“My paternal grandfather was a Baptist minister in Terre Haute for nearly 30 years. I grew up in church, and even as a young adult I was a very active lay leader and worked with children and youth,” Owens said.
Owens, who is married and has one son, shared that the arts are also a huge part of her family’s life.
“My husband, Walter, was a music teacher and is now the full-time minister of music at Salem Baptist Church in Chicago,” she said. “I love music, I love to sing and I play the piano. When I had the opportunity, I was really involved in the drama ministry in church,” said Owens. When she was still living in Indianapolis, she and her husband wrote a musical entitled “Emmanuel.” Her son Mitchell, a graduate of Berklee College of Music, is a professional composer who has worked with Justin Timberlake, the Chicago Children’s Choir and a Korean record label.
After working in the corporate world for more than two decades, Owens enrolled in the University of Chicago’s Divinity School, where she became dean and served for 12 years. She also pastored a small congregation at First Christian Church in Downers Grove, Illinois. “This will be my third career wave, if you will,” she said with a laugh.
This year marks a number of other significant moments for the history of the church. For one, it is the centennial of the founding of the National Christian Missionary Convention, a gathering of African-American Disciples. In the late 1960s, the group completed its decades-long efforts to merge with the predominately white Disciples of Christ.
“This year we are celebrating 100 years since Preston Taylor, a Civil War veteran, businessman and philanthropist in Nashville, Tennessee, originally born into slavery, formed a ministry among African-American Disciples called the National Christian Missionary Convention. This adds an addition aspect of significance to (Owens’) election this time,” said Nathan Day Wilson, ordained minister in the Disciples Church of Christ and Director of Communications at Christian Theological Seminary.
“She brings with her a deep understanding of institutional and organizational structure and culture; she is dedicated to the formation of leaders for church and public ministry, which she demonstrated by serving as a trustee at Christian Theological Seminary; and, at a time and in a country when it seems as though division and fragmentation is growing, Terri embodies the denomination’s commitment to wholeness as the first African-American woman to head a mainline denomination,” he said.
Owens believes that her connection to this moment is “pretty significant.”
“African-Americans have always been a very vital part of the Disciples of Christ,” she said. Preserving this history and calling for more unity among members is a chief focus of hers.
“The constant work that we have to do to live out the message that we are all one in Jesus Christ is ongoing. It’s hard work, and it will continue to be in a society that is more divided now than it ever has been. That’s work I take seriously,” said Owens. “At the same time, I’m very clear about my own identity as an African-American woman. I am who I am; that won’t change. If the church is going to live out that calling of unity and oneness, it must allow me to be an African-American woman, without compromise.”
Owens is also prioritizing innovation as a goal for the organization.
“Part of what we have to restore is a commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ. What people are seeking is spiritual wholeness and wellness. People need and are searching for resources and communities in which they can feel whole and navigate, ways in which they can deal with the crazy circumstances of life,” she said. “Sometimes (congregants) are not inspired by the (church) structure and what they see on Sunday morning, and that congregation may not be committed to issues happening in their neighborhoods. The church must be relevant on all those fronts.”