Professionally trained and committed black women are moving into the pastoral ministry at a rate unprecedented in the history of American Protestantism.
But their talents are largely being lost to the black church because of historic bars against ordaining women, according to assistant professor Delores Carpenter of Howard University Divinity School.
In the last 12 years, the number of black women graduates from accredited theological seminaries across the country has increased 676 percent, said Carpenter.
"Most of them are now serving in main-line, predominantly white denominations," however, rather than in black communities, she said, "because of the opportunity for ordination and employment."
Carpenter's statistics come from a national study she has done on black women who have completed three-year graduate programs for the pastoral ministry. The survey forms the core of the dissertation she hopes to complete by January for her doctoral degree from Rutgers University in sociology of religion.
Carpenter, who has taught religious education at the Divinity School since 1982, is one of four black women scholars participating in a month-long lecture series on "The Feminine in Religious Traditions," which began this week.
Her study covers 1972 to 1984, a period when women, black and white, were flocking to seminaries all over the country.
Of the 380 black women who graduated during this period, "the majority graduated after 1981," she said. "I feel black women are about 10 years behind white women in getting into the pastoral ministry."
By 1984, the vast majority of these black women were employed full-time as pastors or assistant pastors of churches or in such church-related posts as chaplaincies or pastoral counseling. "Only a small percentage was in nonchurch-related work, the way it used to be -- you held a secular job and did ministry on the side," Carpenter said.
The current lecture series was arranged "to take a scholarly look at women in the religious tradition," said Divinity School Dean Lawrence Jones, and "to give female scholars a podium." The lectures will be published in Howard's scholarly journal. "We hope it will become an annual tradition," Jones said.
Other speakers in the series are Cheryl Sanders, assistant professor of Christian ethics at Howard, next Tuesday evening, and Cheryl Gilkes, assistant professor of sociology at Boston University on Oct. 23. Carpenter will speak Oct. 31. All sessions begin at 6:30 p.m. Delores Williams, who is completing her doctoral degree at Union Theological Seminary in New York, was the first speaker.
Carpenter said she found in her research that "over half" of the black women studying for the ministry enter seminary after establishing themselves in another career.
Moving into the ministry, where opportunities for women are uncertain and for the most part carry low pay, these women "are very highly motivated and tend to be more focused on what they want to do," she said.
"And they are good students," she said, with "very strong academic skills" and a sense of professionalism.
"Many come to seminary having never known another woman minister," she said. "They come because they feel a call from God. They have been lay leaders in the church. They know what the church is all about."
The infusion of these older women into the ranks of church leadership "contributes both to the graying of the clergy, plus a higher level of professionalism."
Carpenter said that in addition to the "talent drain" from black churches, she sees trouble ahead as a result of the tendency black women clergy have to move into the predominantly white denominations. With most of these women assigned to the few largely black parishes in such church bodies, it's only a matter of time, she predicted, until those slots are filled, and then "the doors will shut."
But the black church "is changing," Carpenter said. "There are more opportunities for women" as more women move into the pastorate and prove themselves.
Furthermore, "whatever happens in another religious group" has an effect. "The conservative rabbis' decision to ordain women -- that has an impact on black churches," she said.
"There is such a crisis in the black church over this issue," especially in the Baptist church, where the tradition against women ministers is strongest, "because most blacks are Baptist," she said, then added quickly, "of course, not all the problems are with the Baptists."
Some traditionalists, once they actually encounter a woman minister, drop their opposition. "You hear these testimonies all the time," she said. "It's like the ad says: 'Try us, you'll like us.'
"Of course there are the horror stories . . . . I've had plenty women come cry on my shoulder. But they're becoming fewer and fewer."
If Carpenter has encountered "horror stories" in her own ministry, she doesn't dwell on them. She said she was 18 when she "heard the call" to the ministry and was ordained in a black Baptist church in Baltimore. "I didn't realize there was anything special" about a woman being ordained, she said.
When the senior pastor had a stroke, she stepped into the gap. "My ministry flourished," she recalled. "Nobody felt threatened, because I was so young." When the new minister came, "he was very open, and I thought the whole world was like that."
At Howard, where she earned her ministerial degree in 1969, she met and married a United Church of Christ minister, Anthony Carpenter, and went with him, first to Missouri to a "German, evangelical, all-white congregation" and then to New Jersey, where he served a church jointly affiliated with the UCC and the Christian Churches (Disciples of Christ). She transferred her ministerial standing to the later denomination.
"During this time I had been helping my husband in his churches" between raising their two daughters and, in New Jersey, serving as associate dean of a community college in Newark.
"About 1980, I began to feel called to a pastorate of my own," she said, and after making her interest known, "I started getting invitations to candidate," the term for trying out in pastoral jobs.
Carpenter said she even was interviewed at a black Disciples congregation on Long Island. "Even though it was 80 miles away" from their New Jersey home "and just impossible" to consider because of the distance, "it made me feel so good -- that the times were changing. The black church was ready for women."
She came to the Howard faculty in 1982, at the same time her husband became an active duty chaplain for the Navy, stationed at Quantico. About the same time she was invited to fill in as interim pastor of an overwhelmingly white congregation in Silver Spring.
"I felt fairly good about that," she said.
Earlier this year, Carpenter was installed as copastor of the Michigan Park Christian Church, a church that decided to stay in its Northeast Washington neighborhood when its largely white congregation fled to the suburbs two decades ago. It is now a thriving black congregation.
"There have always been black women ministers and preachers," she said. "They have been in storefronts and independent churches they have started themselves. In some cases what they have begun, a man has later taken over."
In 1969 she did a study of the Shaw neighborhood that found "there were more women pastors than men" in such churches.
"So, the tradition for black women preachers goes back to slavery. What is happening now that is new is the professionalism, the educated women" who are moving into leadership of the churches.
And blacks, Carpenter noted with emphasis, "have been taught to value education."