As a clergywoman and the departmental leader at an interfaith organization, I’ve been able to give voice to a variety of community needs. I’ve preached or spoken from different church pulpits (Catholic, Presbyterian, Methodist, and more) and have met with various individuals and groups at synagogues and meeting houses (Jewish, Quaker, Buddhist, and more). I’ve prayed in the public square, engaged other clergy and laity, and developed several interfaith poverty reduction initiatives.
In 2016, I celebrate 20 years of walking in the footsteps of many women who have paved the way for me to me to become a leader. On this day in Women’s History Month, I write about two women of God who stand out most. You’ll find the name of one in the Bible and the other on my birth certificate.
In Acts 18:1-3, 18-28, the apostle Paul introduces us to first century Priscilla and describes meeting her in Corinth with her husband Aquila. She was known as an authority on the teachings of Jesus. She and her spouse were a formidable ministry team who taught Apollos, another fervent Jewish convert.
In Romans 16:3-4, Paul extends greetings to Priscilla and Aquila, calling them his fellow workers in Christ, “who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles.” They helped Paul start the church in Corinth and led a church in their home in Ephesus. By describing them as fellow workers or laborers, Paul puts them both in the same prestigious league with Timothy (Romans 16:21), Philemon (Philemon 1), Demas, and Luke (Philemon 24). Priscilla’s leadership would influence me for years to come.
Likewise, my mother, Nettie Lee Hunter Robinson, laid the groundwork for my call to ministry. She utilized her gifts in teaching to build our church’s Sunday School department and to train other believers. Despite excelling in school, growing up in the segregated South meant her socioeconomic opportunities for obtaining a career were limited.
Decades later, my mother would accomplish her dreams of getting her G.E.D. certificate and graduating from a community Bible school. My father and I beamed with pride as we watched her walk to the stage to receive her diploma.
During her middle years, she was a sought-after teacher and lay speaker within my home church and denomination. I still remember watching her teach and speak with authority and confidence. Mother’s passing in 2013 has not dimmed the reality of her legacy as my biological and spiritual mother. Her life and leadership, in word and deed, still serve as my personal model for inspiration and action.
Historically black women fill the pews in black churches, and black men fill the pulpits. Consequently, our churches are more used to affirming male leadership — especially in senior positions. African-American women live and worship with the effects of racism and sexism.
In her Fuller magazine article, “Women’s Leadership in the African American Church,” Dr. Alexis D. Abernethy lifts up the positive aspects of female leadership:
“Our leadership theories have shifted from the ideal of a white male authoritative leader to more diverse, team-oriented, emotionally intelligent, and transformational leadership orientations. These approaches are more consistent with a traditionally feminine leadership style that is more collaborative…We have been challenged to examine more carefully the Scriptures to clarify God’s intent regarding male and female roles and distinguish the influence of tradition from Scripture.”
I agree and point to Priscilla’s scriptural legacy. Many biblical scholars name Priscilla as one of the first female pastors and teachers in the early church. In African-American churches of my denominational affiliation, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), women entering the ministry are called Priscillas. I am known as a Priscilla of Twelfth Street Christian Church in Washington, D.C., because that is the church that ordained me.
Priscilla’s story provides support for gender equality for women in all forms of ministry: laity (like Priscilla and my mother) or clergy (like me). Abernethy notes with appreciation the models of courageous women leaders who “lead out of their calling, creativity, intuition, femininity, comfort with their own power, and sensitivity to the power of the Holy Spirit…”
Priscilla, my mother, and other women have ventured into deep waters to cross the boundaries of tradition and to broaden women’s leadership. Today I, too, follow in their footsteps and dare to lead in interfaith spaces and times of peaceful or treacherous waters. Who will benefit from your gifts of leadership? To God be the glory!