Female pastors in Lowcountry carve out road so other women can answer the call

abredeson@islandpacket.comJune 6, 2014 

The Rev. Bettye Walker-Broomfield, pastor at Allen Chapel AME Church in Burton, is photographed in the church sanctuary on Wednesday.

JAY KARR — Staff photo Buy Photo

When the Rev. Dr. Bettye Walker-Broomfield was a young girl she noticed something missing behind the pulpit at her Southern Baptist church.


There were no female pastors. To her fellow congregants, it wasn't seen as biblical. Women were to serve the church in more submissive roles, and that was that.

This didn't keep Walker-Broomfield from dreaming about her own theological future, though. She told her parents that one day she would wear a robe and lead a congregation. It was such an unlikely prospect that her mother could only laugh at the aspiration.

Despite all this, Walker-Broomfield decided to go with her gut, and now, more than 20 years after she accepted the calling, she is pastor of Allen Chapel AME Church in Burton.

While her denomination welcomes women in the pulpit, many others don't -- in fact, female spiritual leaders are still not widely accepted in the Beaufort area, she says.

This doesn't mean things aren't changing, though.


Biblical scholars have debated the issue of women leading churches for hundreds of years. Like many things in the Bible, it depends on how a person interprets Scripture.

The Rev. Christine Herrin, pastor of Lowcountry Presbyterian Church in Bluffton, said when Paul spoke about women being silent in the church, he was speaking to a particular church in which the women were perhaps talking during the service.

"It wasn't a pronouncement from on high that women should never preach or teach," she said. "But people will take the Bible out of context to justify anything they want. ... So you look to Jesus and how he treated women."

Herrin said Jesus trusted women with his message, and there are plenty of examples of that in the Bible. After Jesus arose from the dead, the Bible says Mary Magdalene was the first to see him. She went and told the people he was alive. The story of the woman at the well is another example.

Opponents say women are not meant to be leaders in the church because the Bible says they should be submissive. They say women are meant to be helpers, as Eve was to Adam. Women can be missionaries. They can teach Sunday School. They can lead prayer groups. But they are not meant to lead churches.

1 Timothy 2:11-14 says: "A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man."

Some argue that if you translate that into Greek, it actually means that a woman should not usurp the authority God has given to a man, which is his role as a spiritual protector. And even if a woman is leading a church, she is under the authority of a man because she would be under the authority of Jesus.

Opponents also cite 1 Timothy 3:1-13 and Titus 1:6-9 because the verses refer to overseers and elders with masculine pronouns.

Supporters, on the other hand, often refer to Galatians 3:28: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus."

They argue that if men and women are all equal, then women can be pastors. Opponents respond to this by saying the verse needs to be read in context. They say Galatians 3:28 is referring to salvation through Christ and has nothing to do with the structure of the church.

The Rev. Jeannie Smalls of Grace Chapel AME Church in Beaufort is the Episcopal president of the 7th District AME Church (South Carolina) Women in Ministry. Smalls said yes, the Old Testament says women should be submissive. But, she points out, the New Testament is different.

Joel 2:28 says: "And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions."

"In other words ... God was prophesying that in the last days women will be called to preach," Smalls said. "And I think women are being called in abundance."

Some opponents say the women who believe they were called by God are basing their theology upon experience rather than Scripture. In other words, God wouldn't tell them to do something that he forbids in the Bible.

"It's a nontransformative way of keeping females from being who God has called us to be," Walker-Broomfield said.

"I truly feel God is calling me to this," she said. "I'm just trying to be faithful and answer."

But Herrin, whose congregation welcomed her with open arms, said it doesn't help to argue with people.

"I learned a long time ago you're not going to argue someone into believing that females can be pastors," she said. "You're not going to convince someone. The only way I think people change their minds about that is when they experience a female pastor."


Even those who do accept women as clergy often have perceptions of what a female pastor should be like. Smalls said some people think they should be drab, with long skirts and no makeup.

"Well, that's not me," she said. "God made me as a woman, and he called me as a woman."

Walker-Broomfield said women have a tendency to want to change themselves. But they don't have to. God loves everyone just the way they are.

"You have to be who you are and who you are in Christ Jesus," Walker-Broomfield said. "And allow the holy spirit just to guide you. ... Know who you are. You don't have to change your voice. You don't have to change your demeanor, your DNA. You are called. ... I am who I am. I'm at the pulpit wearing stiletto heels, makeup, looking nice and everything."

She said people don't see it, but spiritual leaders lose a lot of themselves in their calling.

"They see you laughing and smiling, but they don't see the inside," Walker-Broomfield said. "They don't see what has happened to transpire that transition or that transformation, to see why God has me at Allen Chapel AME Church. It's because I stood up for myself. I stood up for myself because I know that God called me as a female, and I don't have to change."

The expectations are also higher for women in ministry than for men, Smalls said.

"It's not spoken, but we are expected to do a lot more, to prove that we are worthy of this position and worthy of this calling," she said. "And that's not by God. That's only by man's standards."

Smalls said another challenge for female clergy is juggling family and the ministry.

"I remember sitting in on a conversation with some male pastors, and they were saying, 'Oh, when I leave here, I'm going to relax on the couch, watch the game and wait until my wife fixes dinner,' " she said. "And I said to myself, 'Well, I can't go home and relax on the couch, watch the game and wait until my wife fixes dinner. I'm the one fixing the dinner. I'm the one cleaning.' "


Some people say it can be advantageous to have a woman leading a church.

Walker-Broomfield said women tend to be more nurturing than men, and that quality can go a long way when counseling parishioners.

She recently visited a church member in a nursing home. The woman needed to sit up in bed and her blouse wasn't in order. Walker-Broomfield was able to straighten her up and help her go to bathroom. She even combed her hair.

"These are just small things," she said. "But would she have felt comfortable with a male combing her hair?"

Smalls said not too many men came to her with their problems when she first began at the church, but now they are confiding in her as a pastor.

The first woman to pastor her church, Smalls said she has been very welcomed by her congregation, but it seems women have a tougher time accepting her as a pastor than the men do. Walker-Broomfield has gotten the same feeling from women.

But they say it's certainly better than it used to be.

"Have we as females reached the mark?" Walker-Broomfield asked. "We haven't even attempted to even crack a window for women in ministry."

Smalls feels good about what she and the other women are doing through their work.

"You can see the road that you've carved out for other women," she said.

Walker-Broomfield said she knows there's a woman out there who doesn't feel worthy of the calling.

She said she hopes someday they realize they are.

Follow reporter Amy Coyne Bredeson at twitter.com/IPBG_Amy.


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