Changing Church: Rev. Christine A. Smith, Senior Pastor, Covenant Baptist Church, Wickliffe, Ohio

Rev. Christine A. Smith

The concept of the glass ceiling is not new. In the secular realm, the glass ceiling represents the barrier that prevents qualified individuals from excelling beyond a certain level due to their race, gender, or orientation. For those of us who serve in the sacred or religious realm, we know it as the stained glass ceiling, referring to the barriers imposed by churches. . . . Contrary to some reports, female clergy have not yet arrived. While a few denominations such as United Methodists, the Presbyterian Church (USA), United Church of Christ, Disciples of Christ, and American Baptists Churches USA have accepted and called women to serve as senior pastors, many qualified and well-equipped sisters still struggle to have their gifts of preaching and pastoring recognized. Among those who have become senior pastors, remnants of the stained glass ceiling persist.

With these statements Rev. Christine A. Smith begins her prophetic and practical book, Beyond the Stained Glass Ceiling: Equipping and Encouraging Female Pastors. Her purpose in writing this book is “to address the barriers and injustices that female pastors still encounter as they prayerfully pursue the senior/solo pastorate.” Rev. Smith cites studies showing that females represent only about 9-10% of senior/solo pastors in America and that females who serve as pastors receive much lower compensation than male pastors, although clergywomen are more likely to have seminary degrees. In addition to statistics, the book includes insights from interviews and surveys she conducted with 150 female pastors.

Because of the inequities clergywomen experience, Rev. Smith enthusiastically accepted the invitation to participate in the Access and Equity for Women Clergy Conference, scheduled this fall at Wake Forest University School of Divinity. The big vision for this historic gathering is to develop strategies to facilitate equal representation of clergywomen as pastors of multicultural churches. Christine states: “The invitation was an answer to prayer. My desire is to have opportunities to positively influence the church, the academy, and communities regarding increasing opportunities for women to pastor, preach, teach, and lead.” The conference planning committee selected her book Beyond the Stained Glass Ceiling to include in the materials for participants to study in preparation for the conference.

This book provides much-needed wisdom for the conference purpose of addressing the interlocking injustices of sexism and racism that women encounter in pursuing their call to pastor. “Sexism and racism have some tragic similarities,” Rev. Smith writes. “Racial minorities have been given ‘compliments’ such as ‘You are so intelligent! You are not like them. You are different!’ The implication is obvious: ‘You people are usually ignorant and incapable, but somehow you’re not like the rest.’ What an insult! Many persons of color have heard these words not as insults but rather as a reprieve from oppression—a welcomed affirmation, a hint of praise. Women have dealt with the same dynamics as they have reached higher levels. Out of extreme thirst for acceptance, they drink in patronizing words such as, ‘You aren’t like those other women; you can preach,’ or, ‘I like how feminine you are; you aren’t trying to act like a man.’ When one is psychologically and emotionally hungry, it is tempting to be drawn into the illusion of acceptance and relish the thought of being a part of the upper crust.”

In response to my interview questions, Rev. Smith draws additional similarities between sexism and racism. “Both have set up formidable systems that perpetuate oppression, self-loathing, economic injustices, and pain that we have yet to overcome. Sexism and racism blind power brokers to the true value of minorities and women. Their gifts and talents are frequently boxed in, for some, all or most of their lives.”

When she was sixteen, Christine was called to the ministry. She expresses gratitude that her home pastor was very supportive of women in ministry. Not until she was in her twenties and in seminary did she begin to understand the discrimination against women in ministry. “It was there that I heard the horror stories of other women and also faced the stark reality, particularly as a Baptist woman, that women were not welcomed in the pulpit by many of our churches.”

While she was in seminary at the Interdenominational Theological Center, Christine won a scholarship for an internship in a program called “Black Women in Church and Society.” Dr. Jacquelyn Grant, Professor of Systematic Theology and Womanist Theology, obtained a grant from the Ford Foundation for this program. Among Christine’s responsibilities as an intern were visiting homeless shelters, counseling students identified with behavioral disorders, and assisting in food distribution and restocking in a church pantry. Also, in this program Christine read books such as Bell Hook’s Ain’t I a Woman, Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mother’s Garden, James Cone’s God of the Oppressed, and Paul Tillich’s The Courage to Be. These books spoke to Christine about God’s call to women and men to serve the present age and about gender not thwarting God’s work.

Christine’s story makes clear that she has worked hard not to let gender or race thwart her call or her gifts. After graduating from seminary in 1990, she served as a staff minister for several years at Tabernacle Baptist Church in Akron, Ohio, where she continued to develop her skills in teaching and preaching. In 1995, she was ordained to the Gospel ministry. Rev. Smith served three years as a minister of education at Olivet Institutional Baptist Church in Cleveland. She continued her training through a Clinical Pastoral Education residency at St. Vincent Charity Hospital and then through psychology courses at Cleveland State University. For a year she served as a pastoral counselor to homeless women at Laura’s Home and then for five years as a chaplain at Metro Health Medical Center. For many years Rev. Smith has served as a trustee for Cleveland Baptist Association, a regional branch of American Baptist Churches USA. In addition, she served as Executive Leader for the Association and now serves as Acting Administrator in a transitional time. Currently Rev. Smith also serves as senior pastor of Covenant Baptist Church in Wickliffe, Ohio. She is the first female pastor of Covenant Baptist, the first African American pastor of this church, and the second female pastor in the Greater Cleveland Area of American Baptist Churches USA.

Covenant Baptist is a “transitioning” church, once predominantly white, now predominantly African American. Rev. Smith states that her challenges at this church “have been both racial and gender based.”

In Beyond the Stained Glass Ceiling, Christine writes about the challenges that she and other minority female pastors face. “With few exceptions, African American clergywomen will find most opportunities to pastor in Euro American congregations. In a perfect world, race and culture may not matter, but we do not live in a perfect world. At the onset, both pastor and people may be willing to work together; both, however may wrestle with the fact that they would like to have it another way…. Some might retort, ‘We should not be concerned about race—we are all God’s children, and heaven is diverse!’ Nevertheless, diversity should be an intentional goal that is sought out of a vision and passion for racial and cultural reconciliation, not the result of two parties that have few other choices. For minority female clergy who have been brought up, nurtured, loved, and supported by churches of their own culture, the pain of rejection after announcing the call to pastor, coupled with the fresh struggles of pastoring and compounded by the realities of cultural differences, can be daunting. Often, major differences exist in perceptions of leadership… administration… and worship styles…. It can be very discouraging. Yet, in a deep desire to fulfill her calling, many a clergywoman will press through the challenges, make the most of what she has, and cultivate something beautiful. If individuals are honest, however, the ugliness of deep-seated prejudices can make crossing the hurdles of cultural diversity tricky. A pastor may experience that the church has a burst of growth, numerically, financially, and culturally, only to have that growth cancelled by an exodus from those made uncomfortable by what is perceived as a potential power shift.”

Leaders from eight Christian denominations will gather at the fall conference at Wake Forest School of Divinity to plan strategies for creating culturally diverse churches where clergywomen have increased opportunities to serve as pastors. Rev. Christine Smith brings wisdom for this process: “If we are serious about creating true multicultural churches (representative of various cultures in styles of worship, teaching, preaching, mission work, etc.) and not just cosmetic diversity (people of different cultures attending the same church, but using the dominant culture’s worship style), we have to be intentional about incorporating a variety of worship styles into the process.”

Rev. Smith also brings her experience as pastor of a multicultural church. In 2008, she received the “Living the Legacy” award at the Rev. Dr. J. Alfred Smith, Sr. Institute for Social Justice conference, sponsored by American Baptists Churches USA, for her work as a pastor of a multicultural church, author, community leader, and advocate for social justice.

With deep faith and passion, Rev. Smith expresses the biblical and theological foundation for her inclusive ministry. “Genesis 1:27 declares, ‘In the image of God, God created humankind, male and female, God created them.’ It is critical that leadership reflects both male and female imagery because the church is both male and female. Additionally, male and female leadership is important to the balance of perspectives in ministry. Women tend to be multi-taskers, can be positive role models for other women and men, can provide pastoral care more easily in certain settings and highlight the feminine attributes of God’s love such as mercy, sensitivity, and compassion. Throughout history, women have been among the oppressed, abused, and disenfranchised members of society. God-endorsed feminine leadership highlights the message of the Gospel that God hears the cries of the oppressed, answers them, and exalts them—giving them a seat of honor at the banquet table. As the church and the broader community become more willing to make room at tables, conversations surrounding ‘doing justly, loving mercy and walking humbly with God,’ as Micah 6:8 suggests, will increase.”

Including all the female images of God in the Bible, Rev. Smith believes, is important to this theology of justice and inclusiveness. “Imagery is both powerful and important. I preach and teach using all of the imagery given in the scriptures.” She specifically mentions the image of God as a mother eagle stirring her nest. Also, she emphasizes an image used particularly in the African American tradition: “God is a mother for the motherless and a father for the fatherless.”

Just as God comes in varied ways to minister to people with varied needs, female and male ministers are necessary to minister to diverse people, Rev. Smith asserts. “God uses both male and female to address the multiplicity of needs coming from God’s people.”

It may be surprising, however, to learn that Rev. Smith has experienced resistance to her advocacy for women pastors from other women more than from men. “Most resistance on the front lines comes from other women,” she relates. “We have been made in the Image of God, yet have not been afforded all of the rights and privileges of that imagery. Therefore, our lack and oppression produces what I call, ‘strange fruit.’ The law of supply and demand pushes us into certain corners, so we come out fighting. Few opportunities and lots of female folk produces jealousy, envy, spite, and misdirected anger.”

Christine has risked disapproval and exclusion because of her advocacy for clergywomen. “Both men and women become uncomfortable and sometimes angry if you dare suggest that there is still much work to be done,” she acknowledges. “Contrary to common belief, we have not yet arrived! My risks have involved daring to write a book that addresses this issue, continuing to raise questions and suggest new approaches even when people get sick of me, and continuing to be an advocate even when it means being dismissed from certain circles.”

In Beyond the Stained Glass Ceiling, Rev. Smith indicts our churches and culture for patriarchy and racism that exclude women from pastoral positions. “In many ways, churches have remained captive to the patriarchal character of the larger culture. Although women have made great strides in recent decades, society in the United States remains patriarchal, and women still lag behind men in top-level positions and salaries. The complex dynamics of racism also play a role in the oppression of women of color. For communities of color in the United States—especially the African American community—the church is one of the few places where men hold positions of power and influence. These men may be considered of nominal influence on the job or in the marketplace, but when they come to church, they are deacons, elders, bishops, or pastors. Men may be reluctant to share these leadership roles with women.”

In the midst of all these challenges, Rev. Smith remains hopeful and confident in her call to change the church. She affirms that God has called her, anointed her, and appointed her for this prophetic ministry. She also gains encouragement, inspiration, and strength from other women and men who have worked “in the heat of the day, stood for what is right, and remained faithful in the midst of opposition and struggle.”

Rev. Smith articulates a powerful prayer for the future of the church. “My prayer is that the people of God will put aside the foolishness of discrimination, oppression, and cowardice and get busy doing the work of the Kingdom, being the hands and feet of Jesus in a lost, broken, and dying world.”

In her book she connects her vision for the church to the “beloved community” envisioned by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “While Dr. King was referring to racial integration, the concept is also appropriate for bringing about equality and integration of women into the pastoral ministry. In order to press on, the need is for more than rules and regulations that may begin the process but will not be transformative in the long run. What is needed is a change of heart and attitude through love.”

For more of Rev. Christine A. Smith’s prophetic work, see:, Shepastor, and Beyond the Stained Glass Ceiling: keywords=beyond+the+stained+glass+ceiling+equipping+%26+encouraging+female+pastors.


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