Confessions of a Black Lady Preacher: Why Can’t You Just Call Me Reverend?

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by Rev. Dominique Atchison

As I sat in my father’s car driving down Billy Graham highway in North Carolina, I heard my father utter the words, “I don’t like Black lady preachers.” That was at the very beginning of my journey, when I had just started seminary. Since then I’ve chosen to sarcastically refer to myself that way. Beyond writing about it, sarcasm has been my favorite tool to fortify myself against the downright foolishness I’ve faced as a young black woman in ministry.

As a “Black Lady Preacher” who serves God in the church and in health care settings, I am keenly aware that my presence alone is often a disruption of traditional sexist, ageist and racist sensibilities. I am aware that when a nurse asks a patient, “would you like to see the Chaplain?” a black female young adult is the last thing anyone expects to walk into their hospital room. I am aware that no matter how many times I refer to myself as “Reverend” (because, you know, I am an ordained reverend), I will still be referred to as “Deaconess” and “young lady” at best or “sweety”, “honey” and “boo boo” at worst or simply “Dominique”.

And I know there are some who are screaming at this article, “It’s not about the title! It’s about Jesus!” Of course and I ever cared about titles. As a matter of fact when I pastored my first church, I told the congregants to call me by my first name. But as I returned to a more traditional African American setting, I realized titles only didn’t matter when the title belonged to a woman. And any man who self-identifies as clergy wouldn’t have the same level of difficulty getting people to remember his title when referring to him. As a matter of fact, in the Black Community men and boys who SEEM even vaguely clergy-ish are often prophetically given titles (Reverend, Doc., Bishop, Pastor…) way before they’ve earned them.

The Black Community in general has had a difficult time accepting women in ministry. It’s been a slow process but the presence of “Black Lady Preacher” has become a much more prevalent reality. I will eternally be grateful for the trailblazing women who came before me, who received the brunt of the social violence that came with being the first. Yet like me, I’m sure the grand majority of women in these positions today still have distressing and downright funny stories to tell about their experiences entering into such a male dominated vocation.

There are so many black church goers who simply don’t want a woman ministering to them regardless of what she has to offer. As a black woman in the early stages of her ministry, I have not experiences a lot of the direct resistance in the Black churches where I serve and preach. What I have experienced is a sort of mental block that seems to stop brains from being able to process that I am indeed clergy. No matter how many times my bio is read there is something that stops people from fully knowing that I am ordained clergy. I don’t know how many times I’ve had to answer the same questions and comments. “Wait you were a pastor?” “You’re a Reverend like the Pastor is a Reverend?” “I thought you were just some woman who hung out with the pastor.” (True story.)

It’s like President Obama after his first Presidential elections. It didn’t matter how many books he published about his life, how many interviews he did or investigative reports were done on him, there were still people who said, “we just don’t know who he is. We know nothing about him.” I think that inability to process the information he gave over and over again was a sort of unconscious way of saying what couldn’t be said: “Help! The President is in the wrong body! Presidential bodies are white!”

In the same way for many in the Black Church pastoral bodies are male. And a female presence in the pulpit, collar or robe is a disruption of what has always been. It’s really on us as a community to begin to unpack what it means to shift our paradigms. Like with Obama, we have to be able to name our prejudices and not declare the act of hiring the first female clergy person the end of all sexism. We are no more in a post-gendered era in the church than we are in a post-racial era in this country. There is still a lot of work to do. And in order to truly hear God and do God’s work, we must be willing to do the uncomfortable but important work of unpacking the misogyny that is so pervasive in our church culture.

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The Rev. Dominique Chantell Atchison is a native of the Bronx. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in African American Studies from Oberlin College in Ohio and a Master of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary in New York. Rev. Atchison was ordained to Christian ministry by the United Church of Christ. She currently serves as an Associate Minister, Chaplain and Sacred Conversations on Race Coordinator. Rev. Atchison is also a singer, performance artist and a writer. She has contributed articles to several blogs, including the Young Clergy Women’s Project’s “Single Rev’s Guide to Life” and For Harriet.

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