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Today in the Mission Yearbook

Presbyterian clergywomen put on the mantle of leadership


Women of color ‘lift voices and sing’

May 18, 2023

Originally published January/February 2020

The Rev. Erika Rembert Smith is just one of many women of color who are putting on the mantle of leadership, paying forward the opportunities given to them so that a new generation of women can “lift up their voices and sing.” (Photo courtesy of Erika Rembert Smith)

Whenever they step into their pulpits to preach, the Rev. Erika Rembert Smith, pastor of Washington Shores Presbyterian Church in Orlando, Florida; the Rev. Dr. Alice Ridgill, previously the pastor of New Faith Presbyterian Church, the first and only African American Presbyterian Church in Greenwood, South Carolina, and now the associate general presbyter for the Presbytery of Charlotte in North Carolina; and the Rev. Amantha Barbee, formerly pastor of Oakhurst Presbyterian Church in Decatur, Georgia, and now the pastor of Quail Hollow Presbyterian Church in Charlotte are challenging calcified notions about women in ministry.

“Some still believe that pastoral ministry is reserved for men,” said Smith, noting that she has experienced “time and again being overlooked, discounted and underestimated” throughout her ministry by men and women — clergy and laity — alike.

Patriarchy aside, these women are also blazing a path forward to a more diverse Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), taking on the mantle of leadership as senior and solo pastors in a denomination that is still predominantly white. According to the 2018 statistical report of the PC(USA), 89% of its congregations were white and 4% Black/African American/African.

One of the voices of the past that have inspired today’s women in ministry is that of Sojourner Truth.

Truth, who escaped slavery and became an evangelist, abolitionist and advocate for women’s suffrage, is a guiding light — a North Star of sorts.

Women today who, like Truth, say that they are “called by the Spirit” face varying degrees of resistance in seminary and even after they are ordained and enter into church leadership.

Barbee, who was ordained in 2013, shared such a tale about her uncle, who’d been a prominent judge in Baltimore. Upon retirement he moved back to rural North Carolina, joining a Southern Baptist church of his childhood. In preparation for his next chapter, Barbee’s uncle wrote his obituary and requested that she officiate his funeral.

“He knew that I would have issues with the male pastor, but he assured me that I could handle it,” she said.

When the time came for her uncle’s funeral, the pastor of the church was not happy with the already written obituary.

“He wanted to call me a eulogist, an evangelist, a teacher — but not a minister or pastor (as the obituary stated),” Barbee said.

The pastor revised her uncle’s obituary. Barbee, however, resubmitted the original obituary to the funeral home. The day of the funeral, when it was time to process into the sanctuary, the pastor stepped in front of Barbee and gave her a stern reminder that she was in his church, she recalls.

Smith was asked by one of her parishioners to participate in her mother’s funeral. The pastor of the church said that was fine, but only if she read Scripture from the floor and not the pulpit, and was called “sister,” not “Reverend.”

Smith is a third-generation Presbyterian. After her college graduation, while attending a non-Presbyterian church, she mentioned the idea of her entering ministry to the pastor who had previously “discerned that I had gifts for ministry.”

“The pastor said that ‘there was no place in ordained ministry for me at that church,’” Smith said.

Ridgill has multiple degrees, including a master’s and doctorate in ministry degrees from Erskine Theological Seminary; a certificate in executive leadership from McCormick Theological Seminary; an MBA from Louisiana State University; and a bachelor of fine arts from Presbyterian College in Clinton, South Carolina.

Her stellar education notwithstanding, Ridgill recounted an incident in her ministry where a deacon “purposely sat in the front row during my sermon so that the entire church could see him turn his back to me and go to sleep as I delivered the message.”

Smith, Ridgill and Barbee are just some of the women of color who are part of a new generation of Presbyterian leaders who are “living beyond old wounds” of sexism and racism.

Betty Winston Bayé for Presbyterians Today, Special to Presbyterian News Service

Revised Common Lectionary Readings for Thursday, May 18, 2023, the Ascension of the Lord (Year A)

Today’s Focus: Presbyterian clergywomen

Let us join in prayer for:

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Moongil Cho, Associate, Korean Intercultural Congregational Support, Presbyterian Mission Agency
Tim Clark, Executive Vice President & Chief Operating Officer, Presbyterian Foundation

Let us pray

O Jesus, feeder of the multitudes, please feed us. Open us up and lead us to where you are calling us to serve. Thank you for seeing I us someone who could be equipped to serve and be your disciple. Amen.