This essay is a product of the Collegeville Institute’s Emerging Writers Mentorship Program, a 13-month program for writers who address matters of faith in their work. Each participant has the opportunity to publish their work at Bearings Online. Click here to read other essays from the 2021-22 Emerging Writers Program cohort.
A woman of color lands a great job at a church with a majority white and male staff. She is welcomed warmly by a congregation that seems overjoyed to take steps in the direction of diversity. As work begins, however, she observes the environment and notices just how different she is. She learns that people communicate much differently than she is used to in her own cultural environment. She learns how to advocate for herself in a humble manner so as not to appear angry or divisive and ignores racially insensitive comments while biting her tongue or holding back tears. Other times she feels pressured to explain her culture to others, feeling like an educator or even a performer. She is shocked when she finds out she is getting paid much less than both white men and white women in similar job positions. She likely experiences harassment because she is seen as exotic or overtly sexual simply because of her ethnicity or skin color. She repeats each awkward or tense scenario in her mind, wondering what she should have done differently, or how to handle each interaction in a more Godly but firm manner. Most of all, she feels lonely and unheard, and this takes a toll on her work performance and mental health.
As a woman of color who has worked in many churches with majority white congregations over the years, I have faced all of these challenges. Whether it was in church plants, small rural churches, or large megachurches, I had the same set of experiences in each one. When I felt that my ideas fell flat or my ways of communicating came across in negative ways, I wondered if it was because I wasn’t spiritually attuned to the rest of the staff. I held back tears after microaggressive comments were made and cried silently in bathroom stalls as everyone else seemed to move about their day, unaware that I was so distraught. And reporting various incidences of sexual harassment to primarily older white male pastors and HR officers brought on feelings of humiliation and embarrassment. Was I to blame for poor communication skills, hypersensitivity to insensitive comments, or failure in keeping men’s actions at bay? In talking with many other women of color in similar situations throughout the years, however, I have come to realize just how common this is.
Most of all, she feels lonely and unheard, and this takes a toll on her work performance and mental health.
Despite efforts since the late ‘90s to plant and shift towards racial or ethnically diverse churches, very few women of color occupy ministry leadership positions. Many wonder why these women are so hard to find and even harder to retain. And, as national conversations of the effects of the Great Resignation on women of color lead to significant questions about how to support these women across most sectors, it remains to be seen just how involved and committed faith communities are in these conversations.
Women of color have persisted in unseen ways over time to lead their own communities and the broader church. Despite appalling disparities in their pay and rejections of their ordination, women of color continue to create new ways of leading outside of the four walls of the church that do not give them the support they need.
There is no doubt that God calls an abundance of women of color into ministry and leadership.
There is no doubt that God calls an abundance of women of color into ministry and leadership. The church needs women of color in a time when creativity and resiliency is required. But their flourishing requires work environments willing to support them.
I sense a sincere desire from churches to welcome and support women of color. I also know that there are plenty of amazing women of color who want to follow God’s call to be in church ministry, but many of us want to show up to the church as our full, God-given selves. We are looking for places that affirm those Christian values and care about the things that impact us directly. Here are some suggestions for those in church leadership who want to do a better job in this area.
- Redefine “success.” The desire to fit within a church’s metrics of success (usually in the form of finances and numbers of congregants) prevents women of color from experimenting and creating. Allowing room for women of color to experiment in doing the job in their particular way fosters creativity in what constitutes success for them and the church as well.
- Allow extra time for communication. Learning the particularities of how people communicate, resolve conflict, and voice their ideas involves lengthy conversations about identities, cultures, and history. Having these conversations up front can be awkward but very useful as they help to provide a common rule of engagement to navigate times of tension or challenges.
- Consider cluster hiring. The practice of cluster hiring, or hiring multiple people of color at one time, creates an affinity group to journey alongside each other across multiple departments. It helps women of color to feel less lonely and provides an additional support system. It also leads to staff retention and better quality work. But many churches with limited budgets cannot accommodate hiring multiple people at once, which leads me to the next suggestion.
- Sponsor women of color to connect with networks outside of your church. There are many support networks for women of color in ministry filled with wise and experienced sages offering advice in navigating ministry landscapes. Some denominations already offer this type of support and even resources for congregations.
- Publicly affirm the spiritual authority of women of color (and give them credit). Look for opportunities to offer supportive comments during meetings, such as thanking them for an idea they offered or actively listening to them during brainstorm sessions. Adding specificity in your comments avoids sounding patriarchal. Instead of a general “I am so proud of you, I knew you could do it!” consider, “I really like the way you explained ___. It helped me think through some things I had never considered before. Thank you.”
- Publicly speak out and stand up for women of color. You may begin to notice workplace biases or insensitive comments made towards your colleagues. It is a risky but important act to stand with them as an ally by checking in with them and publicly confronting others. Advocate for transparency in salaries and growth opportunities.
- Commit to the work of inclusion as an entire staff. Too often, the women of color on staff care the most about anti-racism or diversity efforts, tacking extra responsibilities to lead these efforts onto their jobs. By spreading out these efforts across all staff, there can be transformation on every level. The senior leadership should take part in inclusion efforts, showing that this is essential to the church.
- Schedule regular check-ins. You may think you are doing everything right, but if your women of color co-workers do not agree, find out why and how you can make things better in concrete ways. Routine evaluations by women of color staff members can shed light on inclusion efforts, providing a much-needed accountability. Thank them for their honest feedback and take some time to reflect on how changes can be made for the better to support them.
I acknowledge that these steps can be hard to implement, but they are necessary. By centering the flourishing of women of color, the church can better reflect Jesus in loving those marginalized in society, which can transform the entire body of Christ.