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I Am NOT Your First Lady! ------- On Womanhood and Ministry

It amazes me how disrespectful people can be, particularly peers and colleagues--people who you'd expect to be smarter or more sophisticated than they actually are (this is why we don't make assumptions๐Ÿ˜’). Many of them are aloof and would never think to interrogate the issue at hand, which is disappointing. For any woman out here who has ever dated/married a preacher, pastor, minister, minister in training, a deacon who wants to be a preacher, you have surely heard these words on Sunday morning or Wednesday afternoon or Thursday evening in the quad of your Seminary/Divinity school where you are studying to get your Master of Divinity degree: "Hey, First Lady!"

Yeah, you've heard it--either spoken to you or to someone in your presence. You might've even spoken these words to a woman you know who may or may not be a "First Lady"--who may or may not have interest in being or becoming a "First Lady"...who may actually be offended by such a loaded presumption of her role and goals.

I grew up in a very prominent black Baptist church in New Orleans, Louisiana. We had several ministers in our church. I think at one point we might've had 20+ licensed ministers serving our congregation--teaching classes, ministering to youth and young adults, planning conferences. Nobody was full-time but the church was held down by the senior pastor and founder, Reverend Dr. Webster, and the assistant pastor, Reverend Audrey. Now those of you who know me know that I have spoken about Reverend Audrey frequently throughout the past 18 months as I've stepped into this new thing that God is doing in my life. She was a force to be reckoned with--a preaching woman who stood with such poise and dignity. [Read more about her here]

Little Mia, age 4: playing in church
I still remember how her preaching made me feel 20+ years ago as I rambunctiously squirmed in my seat on the 5th row while many of the other kids left for children's church or sat in the back, right corner of the wide sanctuary. She was powerful, dynamic, radiant, and unfading. There were many other preaching women and ministers at my church: Reverend Madonna, my Sunday School teacher who gave me a dollar every time I memorized a Bible verse; Reverend Trina, who preached in a high pitch voice that set the church on fire; Mama Trudell, Rev. Webster's wife who let me know, even before I was aware, that it was okay to have natural hair, wear African print, and have a career. (I totally thought about her when I shaved my hair and dyed it blonde in 2015!) I didn't know it back then, but these women were setting me up to be the woman in ministry that I am today, not a First Lady.

It wasn't until I left New Orleans and moved to New York City that I realized how special my church was. By special, I mean unapologetic about affirming women in ministry. I soon discovered the perils of complementarianism as I watched the little boys club from afar. You see, there are many hip church spaces that claim to be "progressive" because the pastor has a mohawk, wears sneakers on Sundays, or shows his tattoos in the pulpit, but still exclude women from preaching ("speaking" from the floor and not the pulpit at the Women's Prayer Breakfast is passive aggressive). There are churches that still relegate us to the kitchens and the Sunday School cubicles, and that still groom young, anointed women to be first ladies or worship leaders, as if they are not also qualified to be senior pastors. I, fortunately, found a church home in Harlem that had several pastors and ministers who were/are women, and so I fell into yet another space that was affirming me before I was even aware of my calling into ministry.

But here we are, after all of that affirmation, after seeing myself in Rev. Audrey and in Rev. Trina, and in my cousins who are preaching women and pastors--Danielle and Rachel--, after being told how anointed I am, after applying and being accepted to one of the most prominent seminaries in the country, after completing multiple semesters of coursework, after reluctantly stepping into my call to preach (I put up a fight, y'all ๐Ÿ˜…), people are still talmbout, "Hey, First Lady!" Blows my mind. ๐Ÿ‘€ There are literally people who have come up to me throughout the years and said, "You'd make a great First Lady someday" or "You'd be a great Choir Director when so-n-so gets his church." These people would suggest that I was groomed only for First Lady, but Audrey and Trina and Madonna and Danielle and Rachel taught me otherwise, and for that, I'm grateful.

Listen, I'm not the only one experiencing this. I was recently at a conference engaging Womanist Theology, and a young black woman in ministry comes to sit at the lunch table I was sharing with a few of my colleagues. She tells us of an interaction she'd just had that made all of our eyes roll...thrice. She and her husband, who is also a minister, were in a conversation with a man who is an employee of the seminary that was hosting this event. After her husband walked away, the man turns to her and asks, "So, what do you do in relation to your husband?" ๐Ÿ˜ฃ๐Ÿ˜ซ๐Ÿ˜“ Huh?! He didn't ask her what brought her to the event. He didn't ask her if she were a minister, a seminarian, or lay person engaged in Womanist Theology in any way. He asked what she did in relation to her husband. And the funny thing is, she was actually at the event because she is all of those things--minister and seinarian--and her husband was there supporting her. He not only made assumptions about her presence in such a male dominant space (even though the event was geared towards black women), he posed a poorly framed question that would cause many 21st-century women across professions to raise an eyebrow.

And the stories don't stop here. I have a colleague who preaches, teaches, and curates theological content both in the church and in the field. She is an intellectual powerhouse. This woman is constantly being approached by male pastors who suggest that she would be an excellent choice for "wife" for one of their (likely less talented) "sons" in ministry. A choice for wife--as if she has no agency in deciding who to partner with or share life with. They have offered to set her up on dates and to facilitate introductions. Men have been all up in and through her DM's. She ain't the only one and sexual harassment has many forms. (That's another blog for another day though.)

I've also heard of female ministers who work with their spouses who have to set the record straight in their own congregations. One woman refuses to answer to "First Lady" or "Rev. Dr. Jane (insert husband's surname here)." She worked hard for her PhD (which she received under her maiden name). She wants to be called by the name that she built her professional brand with, not "Lady So-n-So," and she has that right. Other women don't care and they have that right also.

These are only a few stories. While our male colleagues in ministry run around calling each other "Doc" every five seconds, many of us are involuntarily enduring "First Lady" references from colleagues, congregants, and family members--even when we are not married to a male pastor--and are greeted by startled faces met with nasty attitudes when we correct the perpetrators. I've had several family members tell me that it would be impossible for me to pastor one church and my husband to pastor or attend another church, suggesting that my line of work can only be validated by my husband's presence, either as faithful congregant or co-pastor. Their "biblical" thinking says, "a godly family should worship together," negating the fact that this is a job! Do you and your spouse go to work at the post office/elementary school/restaurant together Aunt Mable? If I were a surgeon, would you be suggesting that my husband be present every time I cut someone open? Even if he was also a surgeon at the same hospital, he wouldn't be able to do his job fully if he had to be present for every move I made. Furthermore, with the way our economy is looking, two ministers dating or married can't afford to worship together! Lol It's a job, rent is high, and these loans ain't going anywhere, okay!

Speaking of money, there are many male ministers and pastors who are pushing back against "First Lady" ideology. Most of them say they don't desire a traditional partner who fits into an outdated model of womanhood/wifedom (now that's what they say but who knows?...) Yet, what I found most peculiar were the men who said that they couldn't afford a traditional "First Lady" and the expectations that come with that title even if they wanted one. They couldn't afford to have a spouse that might not work because her role (not job) at the church is so demanding, a spouse that had to set the standard for women's fashion in the church (fancy hats/suits/shoes/purses/jewelry), or a spouse that couldn't be elsewhere on Sundays if she wanted or needed to. With the way the cost of living continues to climb in our major cities, feeding into the tropes of tradition simply isn't fiscally responsible.

Here me when I say that some women love being first ladies. I am not coming for them or their traditions, but I take issue with any title that labels me as "first" anything--that speaks of my attributes or role in a way that takes away from the reason why we do church in the first place. We have the power to change this expectation. I'm especially calling on my friends and colleagues who are men  in ministry to take up this cross with us; and not just for us--the black women in ministry--but for all women who don't want to sit on the first row every Sunday.

This is for the woman who'd rather sneak into the balcony in jeans to hear her partner preach. This is for the woman who is not interested in being head of the Women's Ministry or spearheading a Women's Retreat--FIND ๐Ÿ‘SOME๐Ÿ‘BODY๐Ÿ‘ELSE๐Ÿ‘! This is for the woman who doesn't want to travel with her partner to the sausage fest Baptist/COGIC/Full Gospel Convention/Convocation. Hell, this for the woman who may want to sleep in once a month--who needs to travel for business or pleasure on the weekends...who has brunch plans with her friends from out of town!

Okay, I digress. I'm clearly feeling some type-a-way, but y'all get it. At the end of the day, I have 2.5 degrees, thousands of dollars of student loans, and a call to ministry that is so profound I couldn't escape it if I tried. And I tried! I'm grateful that I get to work in a church that is led by not 1 but 2 women of color. I get to see possibilities right before my eyes. One of my favorite pastors from my home church in Harlem just became the Senior Pastor of a church in Brooklyn!--a woman, y'all! Seeing examples of women in charge in ministry helps me see myself in the future and imagine a world where these roles that limit women's possibilities are dismantled. I'm also reflecting on the struggles my queer and gender non-conforming peers face as they continue to breakdown different, yet intersected, barriers in faith communities across the globe so that they, too, can have a place in the pulpit and live out their callings fully.


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