Changing Church: Rev. Dr. Monica A. Coleman, African Methodist Episcopal Minister, Associate Professor of Constructive Theology and African American Religions, Claremont School of Theology

Rev. Dr. Monica A. Coleman

“Womanist theologies of salvation state that Jesus Christ can be seen as a black woman,” Rev. Dr. Monica A. Coleman writes in her book Making a Way Out of No Way. “Postmodern womanist theology argues that a black woman is often Christ. The Savior may be a teenager, a person living with a disability, a lesbian woman.” In the womanist tradition of engaging black women’s literature, one illustration of a Savior comes from Parable of the Sower, a science fiction novel by Octavia E. Butler. Lauren Oya Olamina, the African American teenage protagonist of the novel, walks north from a fictional suburb of Los Angeles when in 2024 her neighborhood enclave and family are destroyed. Other refugees join her journey, and she teaches them her “God-is-Change” theology, which she calls “Earthseed.” Rev. Dr. Coleman comments: “Lauren emerges as a Savior because she courageously uses her abilities to creatively transform. We know a Savior by what she does. Nevertheless, Lauren is an unlikely Savior. Because Lauren is young, black, and female, her leadership is questioned by the larger world.”

In Making a Way Out of No Way, Rev. Dr. Coleman gives another example of a Savior: Rev. Dr. Kathi Elaine Martin, founder of God, Self, and Neighbor (GSN) Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia, offering religious community to people who experience racism and heterosexism in both Christian communities and the wider society. “As an openly black lesbian woman with mental health challenges and multiple sclerosis, Martin does not appear to have the characteristics of a Savior. Yet as a theologian, teacher, preacher, and activist, Martin proves to be a worthy Savior. Like postmodern womanist theology, GSN understands the Savior as one who puts forth a theology of love and justice while generating greater awareness and health in the community.”

In third wave postmodern womanist theology “no one is left out, and no one is left behind,” Rev. Dr. Monica Coleman proclaims at the annual Faith and Feminism/Womanist/Mujerista Conference at Ebenezer/herchurch Lutheran in San Francisco. She elaborates on the “open hands” of third wave womanist theology, which engages black women’s religious experiences as it draws from Christian and other religious traditions as well as from black women’s literature. The goals are “justice, survival, quality of life, equality, acceptance, and inclusion.”

Monica Coleman grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, as the only child of Pauline A. Bigby, a public school administrator, and Allen M. Coleman, a General Motors executive. Active in Ann Arbor’s Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, Monica also spent much time at Shiloh Baptist Church in Washington, DC, when she visited her grandparents on Christmas and summer vacations. “We were always at church,” she says. “Going to church was like brushing your teeth.”

Her maternal grandmother had an especially strong influence on Monica. “My grandmother was a deaconess, Monica recalls. “The deaconesses would prepare the communion in these little cups and prepare little crackers. That was the coolest, holiest thing to me. I’d be sitting there looking at my grandmother, and she would sneak me a cracker. They used Matzo crackers, and they would crush them with their hands with white gloves on; everything was very pristine.” Monica went to church with her grandmother not only on Saturdays and Sundays, but on other days of the week for Bible study, prayer meeting, small circle group meetings, deaconess meetings.

Monica grew up with messages about the importance of education as well as church. Her maternal grandmother, one of nine children, earned a graduate degree. When Monica was two years old, her mother went back to school and became the first woman in her family to earn a Ph.D. “I went to classes with her, and learned how to read by the time I was three,” Monica says. An article in the News & Record of Greensboro, North Carolina, where she taught at Bennett College, comments on her precocious independence as a child: “It’s easy to imagine her as a barely-out-of diapers, high-energy youngster who sometimes put her clothes on backward—reveling in her independence. ‘I said, “She’s being willful, she’s being disobedient,”’ recalled her mother, Pauline Bigby, an educational consultant and retired educator. Her grandmother would say, ‘No, she’s being who she is. Let her be.’”

When she was only seventeen, Monica entered Harvard University. “It wasn’t till I went to college that I actually saw women clergy,” she recalls. “I didn’t think about being a minister, but now women clergy seemed more normal.”

When Monica felt a call to ministry, she at first responded, “No, no thank you, God. I don’t want to do this.” She didn’t like public speaking, and didn’t want to preach. Not long after, Monica was in Atlanta attending a National Black Women’s Health Project Conference, where Rev. Dr. Renita Weems was preaching. While listening to her, Monica started thinking again about her call to ministry. Monica then met Renita and for the first time said out loud, “I’m going to preach.” Renita responded, “Well, good for you!” Monica told her mom, who also responded with excitement.

In 1995, Monica Coleman graduated magna cum laude with honors from Harvard University with a degree in African American Studies. Then in Vanderbilt Divinity School she also had professors she describes as  “amazing” and “progressive,” including Renita Weems and Sallie McFague, who “had really great feminist and social justice approaches to religion.”

Monica had better experiences in the academic world, in both college and divinity school, than in the church. “The AME denomination in Michigan wasn’t used to women clergy, and they weren’t used to young clergy,” she says. She had challenging experiences when she met with ordination committees. “They would ask me these totally sexist questions like, ‘What if you marry a Baptist?’” Monica recalls. “I said, ‘I’m nineteen. I’m not thinking about marriage.’ I know they weren’t asking guys that. I had this radical idea about equity, and people could see that.” Monica recounts a conversation she had with one pastor:

“Are you going to change clothes?” he asked her.

“Why would I change clothes?”

“You’re wearing pants.”

“Well, you’re wearing pants.”

“I told you that you need to wear a suit.”

“This is a suit. It’s a pantsuit.”

After Monica had been at Vanderbilt about a year, she had a traumatic experience of sexual violence.  Adding to her pain were the insensitive responses of some pastors. These experiences led Monica to develop a creative project to help churches respond to sexual violence in compassionate and healing ways. Monica had found psychological, medical, and legal resources. “But there was something missing,” she writes in The Dinah Project: A Handbook for Congregational Response to Sexual Violence. “I still struggled in my personal relationship with God. I didn’t quite know how to pray anymore. I didn’t know how to worship God anymore.” So Monica created a ritual which became the first Dinah Project worship service on June 1, 1997, at Metropolitan Interdenominational Church, in Nashville, Tennessee. This project gets its name from the rape of Dinah, Jacob’s daughter (Genesis 34).

The Dinah Project grew to a comprehensive ministry program to assist churches of all races and theological perspectives with healing responses to sexual violence through worship, community education, and counseling. The program spread beyond Metropolitan Interdenominational Church to churches all over the country. In her book Monica Coleman details methods for planning and implementing this program in local churches, and she gives pragmatic resources for organizing this ministry. “The Dinah Project was the toughest thing I’ve ever done,” Monica says. “It was emotionally painful, and we had no money. But there was nothing I did that was more rewarding than The Dinah Project.”

In 1998, Monica graduated from Vanderbilt Divinity School with a Master of Divinity degree. In August of 1999, she was ordained as an elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Monica describes her ordination process as challenging partly because she was direct in saying that she didn’t want to be treated any differently than men. But when it came time for her ordination examination, one of the ministers on the ordination council redirected the conversation, asking the presiding bishop if he had seen her article in the AME Journal on clergy sexual misconduct and her article in Essence about the work she was doing in the area of sexual violence. Then the bishop and Monica had this exchange:

“Well, what do you want to do?” he asked.

“I want to be a professor,” she replied.

“Good. Go be one of the church’s great scholars.”

So Monica received approval and was ordained. Her mom said, “I knew the Holy Spirit would intervene.”

In 2004, she received her doctorate in Philosophy of Religion and Theology from Claremont Graduate University. That fall Rev. Dr. Coleman became Assistant Professor of Religion and the founding Director of Womanist Religious Studies at Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, North Carolina, the first undergraduate religious studies program to focus on the spiritual experiences of women of African descent.

In 2005, the interdenominational preaching magazine The African American Pulpit named Dr. Coleman one of the “Top 20 to Watch—The New Generation of Leading Clergy: Preachers under 40.” Rev. Dr. Coleman feels called especially to teach ministers. “I had such a great M.Div. experience, being introduced to theology and religious scholarship, that I like being able to provide that for others,” she says.

From July of 2006 to June of 2008, she served as Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago. In the fall of 2008, she became Associate Professor of Constructive Theology and African American Religions at Claremont School of Theology, where she has recently been awarded tenure. “There are not many black faculty at Claremont,” Dr. Coleman says. “In my first class, one young woman, a very bright student, came right up to me and hugged me. She said, ‘Now I have a black woman teacher.’ I am the only black woman on the faculty. I can see what a difference my teaching makes for the students, and that feels really good.”

Diverse leadership and symbolism in church, as well as in academia, make a difference, according to Rev. Dr. Coleman. “It was so important for me to see women clergy. Those who identify as feminists are especially helpful because they preach differently. Some preachers are women, but there’s nothing different about how they look at things. Feminists look for the underside of the texts. Racially diverse images in worship are so important too. I think you should be able to see yourself.”

Rev. Dr. Coleman believes in the power of inclusive divine images in church and has worked to bring them into worship. “The interdenominational church I went to in Nashville had a commitment to inclusive language, and this was rare in Nashville, Tennessee,” she says. “They would check with me to see if they were doing it right because they said, ‘Monica’s a theologian.’ I would keep them on inclusive language tasks. I think Mary Daly’s so right: ‘If God is male, then male is God.’ God is not male. It’s that simple. God is a Spirit. I was reading Sallie McFague’s Models of God, and it made sense to me to include female language for God. I think it’s important because of the prevalence of patriarchy. And the fact that people rail so much against female language for God shows how important it is. It’s just amazing to me how much people are attached to God’s being a man.”

In teaching theology students, Dr. Coleman finds receptivity to expansive divine imagery. “That’s why I like training ministers, because I get to expose them to liberation and feminist and womanist theologies,” she comments. “It’s exciting to teach this new information to people who are preparing to be ministers and leaders. I bring my activism into teaching by books I choose and by how I teach. When I teach Imago Dei (“Image of God”), I use the example of transgendered children. When we work on language for God, my students don’t always dig this female language. So I have them rewrite the twenty-third Psalm, using images I give them, like ‘God is my Mother’ or ‘God is my Counselor,’ instead of ‘the Lord is my Shepherd.’ I say, ‘What do we know about sheep? We live in L.A.! What do we know about shepherds?’ I also encourage them to use non-personal language for the Divine, like ‘God is my Rock.’ I give them many different images. My students rise to the occasion and write the most wonderful, creative psalms.”

Rev. Dr. Coleman sees inclusive leadership, language, and theology in the church as inseparable from social justice. “In many ways this inclusiveness is part of the social justice movement within the church. It’s an important step towards gender equity. But some in the leadership of the church are actually happy with gender inequity, even if they’re not saying women can’t preach anymore, which of course some churches do say. Many churches have women preachers, but then they don’t treat them the same. There’s so much sexual harassment that goes on and that’s tolerated and covered up. And then women, even if they have more education than men, get smaller churches that don’t sustain them financially.  All that still happens. So to take any steps toward gender equity within the church—that’s a social justice movement within the church. If you’re able to see injustices in the church, then you’re usually able to see injustices in other places too and understand that part of the divine calling is to resist injustice wherever it’s found. But sometimes that happens, and sometimes it doesn’t. Like some churches can see race all day long and not see gender, and vice versa, which I just don’t get. Or they can see gender and race but not sexuality; it’s all the same stuff!”

Rev. Dr. Coleman has a clear vision for the future of the Divine Feminine and womanist theology within the church. “A feminist church is my vision for the Divine Feminine within the church,” she says. “It looks like Ebenezer/herchurch in San Francisco. It looks like Circle of Grace in Atlanta. Of course, woman images of the Divine are in inclusive churches.” Included in this vision is a national organization of feminist churches and a website to help people find them. Her vision for the future of womanist theology is that “it would be as expansive and diverse as black women are in all ways” and that it would help all women “to assert our own authority.”

For more of Rev. Dr. Monica A. Coleman’s story, see: https://wipfandstock.com/store/Changing_Church_Stories_of_Liberating_Ministers

 

I also highly recommend Rev. Dr. Monica A. Coleman’s popular website (http://monicaacoleman.com) and blog for more inspiring news of her prophetic ministry, including discussions of mental health challenges: http://monicaacoleman.com/blog/

She also has an outstanding new book out entitled Creating Women’s Theology: A Movement Engaging Process Thought: https://wipfandstock.com/store/Creating_Womens_Theology_A_Movement_Engaging_Process_Thought

 

 

 

 

 

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