USC Dornsife College Of Letters Arts and Sciences

University of Southern California

A nascent #ChurchToo movement could improve gender equality in the black church

A nascent #ChurchToo movement could improve gender equality in the black church

A nascent #ChurchToo movement could improve gender equality in the black church

This article was originally published by the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts & Sciences

By Susan Bell

The first advice the Reverend Najuma Smith-Pollard gives male pastors is not to use terms of endearment when addressing women clergy.

“What I tell them is, number one, she’s not your baby, she’s not your boo, she’s not your sweetie-pie. She needs to be Reverend or Elder or Minister or Miss,” she said. “Recently, I’ve had pastors self-correct, so where before they would have said ‘baby,’ now they say, ‘Oh, Reverend Najuma.’”

Two years ago, Smith-Pollard, a pastor and program manager with the USC Cecil Murray Center for Community Engagement at USC Dornsife’s Center for Religion and Civic Culture (CRCC), says those conversations were not happening with anywhere near the same level of concern. The catalyst, says Smith-Pollard, whose work and expertise focuses on the African-American Church, has been the #MeToo movement, which has gathered momentum since late 2017 following the scandal surrounding widespread allegations of sexual abuse by Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein and other well-known, powerful men.

Like #MeToo, the nascent #ChurchToo movement is starting to mobilize and empower women to address long histories of abuse. Smith-Pollard says concerns are growing in the African-American church that #ChurchToo will reveal widespread sexual and physical abuse of women within the black church — revelations that, as they ripple out across congregations, could be devastating for many church communities and their leaders.

Special circumstances and complexities

Smith-Pollard is clear that issues of sexual harassment and discrimination are far from unique to the African-American church. Earlier this year, media revealed that the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, is grappling with allegations that more than 250 of its leaders sexually abused more than 700 people over the past 20 years. However, Smith-Pollard notes that several factors make it particularly difficult for women to come forward and report their experiences of abuse within black congregations.

“Too often, the only voices heard regarding sexual misconduct and abuse in the church are the voices of those in the evangelical community,” Smith-Pollard said. “We need our voices to be heard, too.”

Noting that the African-American church has traditionally been a man’s place, she pointed out that during slavery, a black church was the only place a black man could enjoy respect and authority. For women, it was a different story: The African-American church has long been a place of great suppression and oppression of women, including abuse and sexual assault, Smith-Pollard said.

And yet, it is female parishioners who invest most heavily in their church, she noted. Frequently the backbone of their congregations, women far outnumber men, devoting time, money and faith into a community that often plays a huge social and spiritual role in their lives. The knowledge that their church could potentially be destroyed by a report of abuse, Smith-Pollard noted, has historically caused many women to remain silent.

“Too often, the only voices heard regarding sexual misconduct and abuse in the church are the voices of those in the evangelical community,” Smith-Pollard said. “We need our voices to be heard, too.”

Highlighting the difference between reporting abuse in the church and making a complaint of this nature within a corporation, she pointed out that in the latter, the offender can simply be removed. In the church, however, the repercussions are much more complex and far-reaching, making women less willing to report abuse. Not only is there the fear they will not be believed — an almost universal concern for women in any circumstances when reporting sexual abuse —  but, perhaps even more troubling for many is the idea of coming out with a serious complaint against their own spiritual leader.

However, the widespread support and publicity engendered by the #MeToo movement will now encourage more women in the church to come forward, Smith-Pollard believes. She said this has already resulted in a change in behavior by male pastors, who are now keen to learn how to avoid any suggestion of impropriety with female clergy and parishioners.

In September 2018, Smith-Pollard organized a gathering of African-American female clergy from Los Angeles so they could share their experiences of sexual misconduct and assault in the church. The meeting, which also looked at some national cases involving church leadership and offered practical steps faith communities can take to further conversation, promote healing and positively impact their community, was covered by the Los Angeles Times.

Smith-Pollard is now planning a second conversation similar to this one to which she says male pastors will be invited.

Guidance for pastors

At the USC Murray Center, Smith-Pollard combines her experience as a minister in the African-American church and expertise as a community leader to run programs that train pastors to take on civic engagement work. This places her in a unique position to understand the challenges and opportunities for change currently facing the African-American church.

She sees one of the chief problems facing the church as the lack of training given to male pastors on how to interact with women clergy, especially when it comes to counseling, mentoring or coaching.

“Male pastors want to know: ‘How do I navigate that space?’” Smith-Pollard said. “There’s not a lot of training around that. And that’s where a lot of things can go really wrong. When does this mentoring and coaching turn into dating? When does it start to cross the line?”

The problem is compounded by the fact that many faith leaders are under-resourced and under-supported, often operating in deep isolation, Smith-Pollard said.

This is where the USC Murray Center comes in. Its mission is to equip faith leaders to empower communities by providing clergy and lay leaders in low- to moderate-income neighborhoods in Southern California with training, mentoring and a network of support, so that faith communities can become full partners in social change.

Painful but long-overdue change

Smith-Pollard is frank in describing the abuse she says exists in the church, both between male and female clergy and between male clergy and the congregation. But she is also hopeful — and anxious — that a #ChurchToo movement, although undoubtedly painful for the church, will lead to a long-overdue and much-needed shift away from today’s patriarchal model toward an improved gender balance in leadership.

The CRCC is already at the forefront of modeling balanced representation between male and female speakers at panels and conferences. Now, it is advising faith leaders individually on how to correct old practices and forge greater gender balance among the clergy.

“Concern about potential fallout from a #ChurchToo movement has meant that we are now seeing more male pastors putting women in leadership roles, ordaining more women and being more conscious about how they manage their female leadership in their churches,” Smith-Pollard said. “The men in leadership are awakening. They’re not yet woke, but they’re waking up in small pockets, and I think as we continue to have this conversation, the balance will shift in favor of greater gender equality in the church.”