Rev. Sheila Sholes-Ross has a big vision! She envisions multicultural churches with women and men sharing equally in leadership and with multicultural Divine Feminine imagery included. Sunday morning at 11:00 continues to be the “most segregated time of the week,” many years after this indictment by Dr. Martin Luther King. Rev. Sholes-Ross intends to change that. And the majority of congregations continue to exclude women from pastoral leadership and female divine images from worship. Rev. Sholes-Ross intends to change that.
Her big vision inspired her to create the Equity for Women in the Church Community, sponsored by the Alliance of Baptists but reaching across denominations and cultures. The purpose of this ecumenical, inclusive Community is to facilitate access and congregational receptivity so that clergywomen of all ethnicities find clergy positions in order to transform church and society. In partnership with Community members, Rev. Sholes-Ross is promoting a national conference that brings together clergypeople inclusive of ethnicities and gender to create strategies for achieving equality. And she is busy raising funds for this conference.
Rev. Sholes-Ross has an impressive history of “dreaming big” on justice issues and raising funds to make her dreams reality. As Executive Director of Communities in Schools of Orange County, North Carolina, she wrote a grant for “The Green Awakening Math and Science Initiative” and received $180,000 to start the program. Sheila and her colleagues created this summer program to help middle-school students improve their skills in math and science while increasing their respect for the environment and their potential access to employment that supports eco-friendly projects.
Growing up in a Baptist church in New Orleans, Louisiana, Sheila never saw female clergy. At church and at home, she heard only male references to God. “As far back as I can remember, I had an interaction with an entity called ‘God the Father,’ she says. “My mother had a strong faith in this God, and my father acquired a relationship with this ‘God the Father’ after marriage to my mother. Even today, I can clearly see them on their knees praying. I wanted that type of relationship.”
However, this image of God as Father presented problems for Sheila. “My father was a very strict disciplinarian, so from an early age I had difficulty with this ‘heavenly Father’ image, who I believed was a strong disciplinarian and very hard on me. Being in a somewhat conservative African-American Baptist faith, this could not be brought to light as a problem.”
Sheila found a more empowering divine image. “For as long as I can remember, I viewed God as Creator, a Creator of good things, such as springtime in New Orleans, and Creator of me, ‘Who’ provided me with strength as an African-American girl growing up in a racist society. I have always been involved with jobs that advocated on behalf of people facing injustices. I believe those jobs brought out the ‘creator’ in me, meaning having an ability to provide hope for others in situations that were not fair and just. I have been a counselor with a battered women’s program, and since then, all of my executive administration positions have centered on advocacy on behalf of children and youth in areas of education and healthcare. Currently, I still view God as Creator, since for me that image creates in humanity the ability to address injustices and promote peace.”
A sermon Sheila preached in seminary led her to include “Mother” and “She” in her references to the Divine. “I was invited to preach on Mother’s Day at a multicultural church. I was burdened to preach, ‘God Our Perfect Mother.’ I was terrified and begged God to give me another message, but ‘She’ would not. It was storming that Sunday, and the only consolation I had is that I believed no one would show up due to the weather. Well, there was good attendance for such a horrible day. After the worship a parishioner stated she had not come to church in many years on Mother’s Day because of a poor relationship with her mother, but she was burdened to come that day. With tears in her eyes she said that after ‘God’s Message’ she would contact her mother, since the God I preached about was her perfect Mother and she did not have to try and find perfection in her biological mother.” Sheila says that ever since she preached that Mother’s Day sermon in 2008, she has believed the message was more for her than for the congregation. “I was having problems viewing God as ‘He.’ Prior to the sermon, I also had difficulty accepting the female images of God. After that sermon I began to view God differently. ”
Rev. Sholes-Ross believes in the importance of changing divine images because exclusively masculine imagery is a barrier for men as well as for women. “With the current church language and symbolism women are perceived as powerless, and men are perceived as having all the right answers relating to life. This is a burden since no one gender ever had all of the answers. Whether a person is unable to view the image of God as male because of suffering emotional or physical abuse or because it hinders a person’s true understanding of being created in God’s image, changing to inclusive imagery is worth the effort, and most times an uncomfortable effort, in hopes of facilitating positive change.”
With passion and persistence, Rev. Sholes-Ross preaches and teaches this hope of changing church and society. At an American Baptist Women in Ministry Conference in St. Louis, she led a seminar entitled “Igniting the Flame: Taking Responsibility to Change the Status Quo!” She sounds this challenge: “As a preacher you must forget you are a woman, and as a preacher you must never forget you are a woman! Women do not need to become like men or submit to masculine definitions of their lives as women in the church. White and black women have joined in religious associations and secular clubs to bring about social reform. Black women have played a crucial role in making the church a powerful institution for social and political change. Women’s voices are emerging and being heard on every continent of the world. Women will not allow our voices to be silenced.”
Women pastors and female divine names and images in worship change church and society, Rev. Sholes-Ross believes, because they provide hope. “With traditional views, society appears hopeless; and in the church, where there used to be hope, there appears to be helplessness. I believe the use of female divine images and the acceptance of women as pastors will lead society and the church back to a venue of hope. Why? Because hope incorporates a newness of doing things. And with that newness there is justice, fairness, and equality. At first, it may be uncomfortable for the masses; however, once hope and newness are presented and the Holy Spirit convicts, then the God in us can take over and lead us to conduct the overall work of the Creator.”
This hope for “newness” led Rev. Sholes-Ross to initiate the Equity for Women in the Church Community. Personal experiences of rejection of her pastoral calling have increased her determination to work for equality. With twenty-five years of administrative experience, many years of experience in speaking and preaching, three graduate degrees (Master of Administration/Supervision, Master of Public Health, Master of Divinity, magna cum laude) and two undergraduate degrees (Bachelor of Music, Bachelor of Music Therapy), it seems obvious that everyone would see her as highly qualified to serve as a pastor. But this hasn’t happened.
“I have had rejection and more rejection, disrespect and more disrespect towards my calling and vocation,” she says. “Once when I attended a city-wide revival with many well-known local preachers seated in the pulpit, other clergy arriving later were invited to join them. A seated clergyman denied me the seat next to him by placing his handkerchief on the seat. I moved to another vacant seat. I have been rejected seventeen times for full-time ministry positions. I try my best to represent God and the gospel well through sermon preparation and delivery. I participate in on-going educational development; however, with all of my preparation, gifts, talents, and abilities, I am still unacceptable in many venues. Lately, my conversations with God about this matter are heated, but ‘She Whispers Sweet Peace to My Soul’ (adapted from old Negro gospel song). I was burdened to advocate on behalf of women in ministry because of the pain I have experienced and because of the hope I have that change is inevitable.”
This hope for change, Sheila says, led her to the Alliance of Baptists where she found the opportunity to form the Equity for Women in the Church Community. “During Community work conversations I am encouraged when strategies are discussed and efforts come to fruition. The injustices against qualified women in ministry will be eradicated, because ‘The Creator’ in me says so.”
In spite of obstacles and rejections, Sheila has never considered leaving the church. “I have stayed with the church because of my relationship with God and God’s people. Although I become aggravated and angry with many people in church, all relationships go through difficult times. I have not considered leaving the church because of the hope it provides me.”
Sheila says her husband, Nelson, also gives her hope and strength. “My husband is constantly holding me before the Creator to remain steadfast in ministry as I walk through the obstacles and disappointments. For many years in my hometown of New Orleans I felt God’s call, but I believed ‘He’ was calling my husband, Nelson. I told my husband that he needed to tell God that he could not accept the ministry call because I refused to be married to a minister. My husband kept reiterating that God was not calling him. It was not until I came to North Carolina and observed practicing female clergy that I recognized that God was truly calling me. When I told Nelson that God had called me into ministry, he said, ‘I’m glad you have finally heard God’s call.’”
Because of her personal experiences, Rev. Sholes-Ross is resolved to mentor and to advocate for clergywomen. “One struggle as an African-American ordained clergywoman has included not acquiring an advocate on my behalf during or after seminary,” she says. “It appeared that males were taken under the wings of senior male clergy, but there was no one to advocate on behalf of me. During my ordination interview process a clergy interviewer told me I must mentor young women entering ministry. I thought, ‘What about me now?’ She just thought the manner in which I presented myself during the ordination process, along with my educational background and administration experiences, would make me an asset to younger female clergy. Maybe that statement was the prophecy for the ministry with the Equity for Women in the Church Community.”
Sheila says that she is finding mentors and advocates through this Community. “This one venue is providing such monumental emotional victories and interactions with strong women clergy. I am in awe of these women from varying ethnic, cultural and denominational backgrounds—women whom I now call friends, colleagues, and also mentors.”
Increasingly, Rev. Sholes-Ross feels confident to mentor other clergywomen. “Being affirmed as a writer and Bible scholar, I am becoming more self-confident as clergy, and I will pass encouragement on to other clergywomen, whether fresh out of seminary or seasoned. We all have a duty to be our ‘sisters’ keepers.’ The keeper who advocates on behalf of, the keeper who challenges with honesty and love, and the keeper who says, ‘I understand the injustice associated with being a woman in ministry; just keep on standing and telling your story, for you are God’s Chosen Vessel.’”
Having experienced the double discrimination of race and gender, Rev. Sholes-Ross also envisions racially-inclusive faith communities to overcome injustices. “I cannot accept that Sunday is the most segregated time of the week. If with differing worship styles/liturgies, we are unable to feel a level of comfort with one another during our worship of God, then how can we truly work together to do God’s work in the world? There must be an upsetting of our comfort zones. Yes, in many African-American churches there is ‘celebration’; however, in many Anglo churches there is celebration too. We must come together to discuss our ‘perceptions’ about worship and what celebration entails. This will not occur until we cross pastoral ethnic and racial lines to have the discussion about ‘ism’ against Divine Feminine images in relation to multicultural pastorships. Once this occurs, it will not be ‘them or those people,’ but the conversation will focus on ‘us’ as the Body of Christ.”
Rev. Sholes-Ross sees racial/gender-inclusive leadership, language, and theology closely connected to peace and social justice. “This aspect of inclusiveness allows humanity to observe that we all have the same hopes, dreams, and even issues. If we become better connected during such an intimate time as worship, then maybe we will better understand one another and see the Image of God within us all. We cannot have any aspect of social justice and peace if there is inequality towards any race or gender of humanity.”
As one of forty volunteer associate ministers in her home church, Union Baptist in Durham, North Carolina, Rev. Sholes-Ross challenges the senior pastor toward greater inclusiveness. “I have suggested to the senior pastor that during the ministers’ annual retreat there should be a discussion reviewing the use of female divine language and images. I was told the discussion must take ‘baby steps’ and start with the book The Shack. Although initially I did not want to be labeled as radical by African-American colleagues in my home church, now I am becoming more comfortable in conversations with parishioners when I use ‘She’ in reference to God.”
Rev. Sholes-Ross articulates her big vision: “My vision for the future of the church is that on Sunday mornings we will no longer say, “Hey we have a lot of diversity in this community because there’s a Black church on that corner, and there’s a White church on the other corner, and there’s the Latino Community church on the opposite side…and all of them now allow women to speak in the pulpit.” No, we will not have to make those statements as a point of reference since multicultural and Divine Female imagery will be the future church—too Pollyanna, I don’t think so since it helps me to hold on to hope. I am like Abraham: even if I don’t see the fulfillment of God’s Promise, I believe it will occur. I will be faithful in doing my part as the clergy advocate, as the clergy mentor, as the clergy colleague, and most of all, as the woman-clergy friend.”