Doing the Work, Preaching the Word: 6 Black Female Christian Leaders Who Inspire Us

by Tracey Michae’l

"Yes, baby. Man might be the head of the Body but us women are the neck. Without us, the head wouldn't know which way he is going."

The old woman gave me a crooked grin and a wink as she finished doling out her words of wisdom and shuffled back down the middle aisle of the church.

In that moment, I totally got her. This was her way of saying that while she refused to divorce herself from the belief that men should be the heads of both individual and collective households, she was not willing to be deemed subservient or of little consequence. Despite some within the church who would question the soundness of her theology or those outside who would vehemently resist the notion that men HAD to be the head of anything, this was her way of deciding that she, just like Deborah, Miriam, Tabitha and Junia in the Bible, would be seen and heard. Her words made a clear distinction between "headship" and "leadership."

Go 'head, Granny, I thought to myself.

And yet, if one were to examine the faces of evangelicalism in general and the Black church specifically today, there is arguably still an emphasis on men in leadership. Whether it is America’s still acutely patriarchal culture or the conservative lens of the church itself, most of the known names both within Christendom and in secular circles, are so-called celeb-Christians like T.D. Jakes. Even a reality show like Preachers of LA, as problematic as it is, featured all male pastors and leaders. All other critiques aside, men are the most prominently featured Christian leaders in traditional media (TV, radio, and publishing).

However, as my own Granny would often say, "Believe only half of what you see." There are numerous Black female faith leaders—some who might not be on traditional radars—who are doing significant work in the community and completely rocking out in the name of Jesus. Here are just a few we should all be taking note of.

Rev. Dr. Brenda Salter McNeil – The Reconciler

Dr. Brenda Salter McNeil is an Associate Professor of Reconciliation Studies in the School of Theology at Seattle Pacific University, where she also directs the Reconciliation Studies Minor program. She is also an author, speaker, and thought leader with over 25 years of ministry experience in the field of racial, ethnic, and gender reconciliation. Her mission is to inspire and equip young Christian leaders to practice reconciliation around the world and to build communities that partner with God to bring relational healing and social wholeness.

Rev. Traci Blackmon – The Champion of Social Justice

Initially ordained in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Rev. Traci Blackmon is the first woman pastor in the 156-year history of Christ The King United Church of Christ in St. Louis. She obtained a Bachelor of Science degree in Nursing from Birmingham-Southern College and a Master of Divinity degree, with coursework emphasis in Womanist Liberation Theology from Eden Theological Seminary. Rev. Blackmon is also the co-founder of "When Women Gather…," a monthly ecumenical gathering committed to facilitating the spiritual growth and development of women by studying the Word of God through the unique lens that is womanhood. Some of Rev. Blackmon's most significant work has been ministering on the front lines during protests in Ferguson. She took leave from her job as a full-time nurse to give her full attention and support to demonstrators responding to the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown.

Priscilla Shirer – The Preacher

A graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary, Priscilla Shirer is the daughter of Tony Evans, Senior Pastor of Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship Church, and holds a Master’s degree in Biblical Studies. Shirer loves nothing more than to teach the Bible. Considering it a privilege to serve believers from every denomination and culture, Shirer travels the world helping them to know the truths of Scripture intellectually and encouraging them to experience these truths practically by the power of the Holy Spirit. She is the author of many books including A Jewel in His Crown, Discerning the Voice of God, and the New York Times Bestseller The Resolution for Women.

Rev. Susan K. Smith – The Advocate

Rev. Dr. Susan Smith is a graduate of Yale Divinity School and United Theological Seminary. After raising two children as a single mother while pastoring a church, Dr. Smith’s ministry has endeavored to break the cycle of poverty and disenfranchisement of women and children through education, opportunity, and empowerment. She is also the author of Forgive Who? The Struggle to Obey God's Awful Command and is a regular contributor to the Washington Post’s “On Faith” blog.

Dr. Love Sechrest – The Theologian

Dr. Love Sechrest is an Associate Professor of New Testament in the School of Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. She is the co-chair of the African American Biblical Hermeneutics section in the Society of Biblical Literature, and gives presentations on race, ethnicity, and Christian thought in a variety of academic, business, and church contexts. Prior to earning her MDiv and PhD, she pursued a career in the aerospace industry at General Electric, managing over 300 engineers and a $50 million technology and software development budget, before eventually functioning as chief information officer of an $800 million division within Lockheed Martin.

Dr. Christena Cleveland – The Social Psychologist

Christena Cleveland is a social psychologist, author, speaker, and professor with a hopeful passion for overcoming cultural divisions among diverse groups. Drawing from a vast body of research, she uncovers the underlying processes that affect relationships within and between groups and helps leaders understand how to promote an appreciation for diversity and build effective collaborations with diverse groups. In 2014, Christianity Today magazine named her one of “33 Under 33” (millennials leading the next generation of Christian faith) and JET magazine identified her one as of 5 “online shepherds to follow.” Christena is the author of Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces that Keep Us Apart, a 2013 Leadership Journal Book Award winner. She’s currently writing The Priesthood of the Privileged which examines power and inequality in the Church.

What other Black women faith leaders do you know of? Shout them out in the comments!

Photo: Shutterstock

Tracey Michae'l is a regular contributor to For Harriet.

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