Gina M. Stewart: Everyone needs an advocate, especially women leaders

The Rev. Gina M. Stewart speaks to her congregation in Memphis. Photo courtesy of Christ Missionary Baptist Church

Moving the needle for women means amplifying their voices, highlighting their gifts and advocating for them, says a pastor and nationally known preacher.

When the Rev. Gina M. Stewart stepped into her role as senior pastor at Christ Missionary Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee, she discovered some dissenting voices.

She grew up in this church, experienced her call in this church and was ordained in this church. Most members supported her fully, but a small minority had concerns about her leadership.

“They were OK with me as a minister, but the idea of me becoming their pastor, and their [senior] pastor, was a bit more than they could handle,” she said.

She knows the struggle of a woman in church leadership and wants to “move the needle” for other women leaders -- especially those in environments where senior leadership is not supportive of their call.

She was the first African American woman elected to serve an established African American Baptist congregation in Memphis, and the church has grown under her leadership and vision.

“Overall, the ministry journey has been a good journey. You don’t stay somewhere 24 years and miserable,” she said with a smile.

In addition to her role as senior pastor of CMBC, Stewart has served on the national board of the NAACP since 2017 and was inducted into the Martin Luther King Jr. Board of Preachers at Morehouse College in 2018. She is currently finishing a Ph.D. in African American preaching at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis.

Stewart spoke with Faith & Leadership’s Chris Karnadi while at Duke Divinity School to deliver the annual Martin Luther King Jr. lecture, sponsored by the Office of Black Church Studies. The following is an edited transcript.

Faith & Leadership: One of the first things I’d like you to talk about is your 2015 book, “We’ve Got Next: HERstory in HIStory.” Can you describe the message?

Gina M. Stewart: One particular year at a conference that I help convene, Dr. Renita Weems gave a message about women in ministry and what type of impact we have, and one of the questions that she raised was about “moving the needle” for women. After we preach, after we stand behind the pulpit, after we don our robes, have we moved the needle in a favorable direction for all women?

Part of her argument was that women move the needle by standing behind the pulpit and lifting up stories of women.

She said that a women’s day can’t be the only time that you preach a sermon about a woman. We have to tell the stories of women in ways -- assert ourselves more -- to make sure that people know that women have made major contributions.

My book, which is a book about sermons, followed that message. I decided that I would write a book of sermons and all the sermons would be about women -- hence the title “We’ve Got Next: HERstory in HIStory.”

Because she had challenged me, I began to look at my own sermons and interrogate my own preaching, asking, “How many of my sermons really lift up women? Or am I preaching more generic sermons that do not highlight and affirm the specific contributions of women?”

F&L: How did the previous pastor help in moving the needle in your congregation?

GMS: I think one of the roles in moving the needle is advocacy.

In my own life, I have to say that one of the reasons why I believe that the church that I pastor was able to be free, or was able to demonstrate the courage, to elect a woman was because of the advocacy of my pastor.

He was the person who saw the gifts and graces that he believed I possessed for ministry, affirmed those gifts, licensed and ordained me for those gifts, and affirmed me in front of the congregation to say, “This is someone that I believe that God has called to do ministry.”

And because of that affirmation, when he died in 1994 and the church began a pastoral search and my name was submitted as a candidate and eventually submitted as a finalist, the church was able to break away from denominational precedent and the peer pressure of other people and make a decision to elect a woman in a Baptist church in 1995.

That was a long time ago. That was 24 years ago. And as you know, I’m sure, the journey and the climb for women in the pastorate has still been an uphill one.

F&L: Could you describe what men should do to help move the needle?

GMS: The brothers have to be willing to take some of the bullets, because there is a cost in some contexts for embracing, affirming, empowering women, and there are still some contexts that don’t believe that women should be called to preach, and certainly be called to pastor.

I discovered after my pastor’s death that he paid a much higher price for licensing me and ordaining me than I realized, because in a lot of ways, he was a buffer for me.

There were people that didn’t necessarily agree, but they did not say anything, because he was covering me. He was my protector.

So one of the things that the guys can do to help break down some of those barriers is to be willing to have the courage to speak up when women are silenced. And not only that, they must empower women in their local congregations -- that’s really what my pastor did.

He believed that when I came to him and said, “I believe I’m being called to ministry,” it wasn’t even up for debate. He already knew it.

He said, “I was wondering what took you so long!”

After I accepted my calling, it’s as if the floodgates opened, because people said, “OK, there’s a guy over there on Parkway and he’s giving sight to the blind and he’s licensing women.” And so they began to say to him, “You’ve opened up a can of worms. Now all of these women are going to be coming over here and they’re going to want to be licensed to preach.”

It’s like Ahasuerus with Vashti when she refused to visit him and the advisers were like, “If you don’t do something about this woman, every woman in the kingdom is going to disrespect her husband.” At the root of it is fear. There was this fear that the church would be overrun with all these women who were coming, claiming a call to ministry. And they were not ready for that.

So to some extent, I guess you could say they would tolerate one, but they didn’t want several. They wanted a token woman, but they didn’t want every woman to feel that [she would be affirmed] if she felt called to ministry.

F&L: What would you say to those women, to those black women that are maybe coming up against leadership instead of being welcomed by leadership?

GMS: I think that’s a contextual answer, because there are some spaces that are unalterably hostile to women. When a person recognizes that they’re in those types of situations, they have to make some decisions about whether they’re going to stay or whether they’re going to explore other opportunities.

I don’t necessarily like to tell people a definitive answer, but I do think that is where prayer and discernment comes in. A person has to begin to pray and say, “OK, God, I know what you called me to do, but this is a setting where I’m not being given that opportunity to use these gifts. What do I do now?”

I also think that there are times that it’s just not an ideal environment. The pastor or whoever that senior leader is has not yet recognized the gift that you have for ministry.

I think this is where vocational discernment comes in, and you have to look at what is God gifting you to do -- that even if you don’t get a chance to preach, even if you don’t get a chance to be in spiritual leadership, it does not stop you from leading. There are nursing homes, hospitals, orphanages, prisons, all kinds of places out there that need your leadership.

I’m not of the opinion that unnecessary suffering is the will of God. I’m just not. I hear people all the time, especially women, who say, “I’m at this church and the pastor doesn’t believe in women. They’ve told me that they never see a day that a woman would ever preach in their church.”

And these are people that clearly have a call on their lives. But they have convinced themselves that the Spirit didn’t tell them to leave.

I don’t argue with that, because that’s a conversation that they have with the Spirit. But they also have this idea that somehow if I hang around, I can reform from the inside.

Sometimes that’s true, and sometimes that’s not. And so I think that a person has to have discernment if they’re going to stay in a place that’s like that: “Do I have the time to wait like this?” The answer may be no.

I was talking to a young lady who is Baptist by heritage, but she’s Presbyterian by practice. She told me, “I didn’t want my gifts to go to waste, and I made a decision to move to another denomination.”

Our hope is that the institution will embrace us or -- if it’s not the institution -- that the person in leadership will embrace us. But if they just clamp down and say it -- “No women now, no women ever” -- then I think that it’s incumbent upon the person who is a woman to make some serious choices.