Whether in the pulpit of a church, at the podium of the Democratic National Convention, or over the phone for an interview, when Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie speaks, it is an experience. Her voice is full-bodied, brimming with the wisdom one only gains from years of overcoming, and also perfectly calm -- a manifestation of someone with a great God in her corner and no worries. When I hear that steady confidence backing up every syllable, I couldn’t help but think, “I want that.” But as the title of the Bishop’s first book denotes, her current state of being is “Not Without a Struggle.”
Like most positions of authority in this world, church leadership is and has historically been a male-dominated field. Though her book on women in Christian leadership was published in 1996, it wasn’t until 2000 that Bishop McKenzie was elected and consecrated to her position, becoming the first female bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church. In 2005, she defied history again, becoming the first female president of the Council of Bishops and therefore, the titular head of the A.M.E. Church.
But the traditional understandings of biblical scriptures, and particularly those New Testament scriptures written by the Apostle Paul who forbids women from being in church leadership or authority over men, still pose a barrier to women in ministry. Even a decade after she first broke the “stained-glass ceiling,” as she famously told EBONY Magazine at the time, the Faith Communities Today 2010 survey of 11,000 churches of various denominations showed that only 12% of principal Christian church leaders are women. That statistic drops to 3% for African American women. Bishop McKenzie says that the barriers to women answering the call to preach and to pastor in the church are wrought with institutionalized sexism and a misunderstanding of scripture in context.
“We have to ask, what is the historical context and what actually is Paul addressing? We look at what God says and we look also at how Jesus acted. When we look at the whole spectrum, what we see is that Jesus talked to women and Jesus included and empowered women in the ministry. The first person He spoke to after His resurrection was a woman [Mary Magdalene]. He told her ‘Go. Tell my disciples that I have risen.’ The word He used when he said ‘go’ was the same word for ‘preach,’ or ‘go and tell.’
People try to legislate what people ought to believe and say, ‘This is what you ought to believe.’ Well, no. Everyone has a right to share what they believe and what they don’t believe, what they like and what they don’t like.
“You can even trace the thread of female leadership from the Old to the New [Testaments], women are there. In the Old Testament, Miriam was just as much a prophet as her brother Moses. Huldah was a prophet, Deborah was a prophet, the wife of Isaiah was a prophet. Move over into the New Testament, the woman at the well was sent by Jesus to tell everybody in her village about Him, the four daughters of Philip, Aquilla and his wife Priscilla were co-pastors of a church, Lydia’s house was the place where the church started, so the thread of female leadership in the Bible is very impressive and very constant.”
While she has been very active in speaking to women and empowering women to answer the call without fear of the obstacles both in the pulpit and daily on her website and Twitter page, the Bishop does not feel a need to try and justify the call on her life to anyone.
“A wonderful woman told me once, ‘You can spend your whole entire ministry trying to justify your call.’ But if [you’ve been called by God], that is not of your own choosing, and in responding to the call you prepare yourself, whether it’s in seminary or other kinds of processes, you prepare yourself to exercise this call that you have. If God called you, He called you, not [the naysayers]. As you preach, some people will be converted and will believe and some will not. That’s between them and God. What we’re called to do is to demonstrate the love of God in tangible ways and to have an impact on the people who God has called into the ministry and on the broader community. It’s not my call to fix the whole world; that’s [God’s job]. My call is to exercise my ministry and gifts [alone].”
Bishop McKenzie’s evident peace of mind springs from her differentiation between a person’s responsibilities and God’s responsibilities, and it is sweeping, covering even the most emotionally and politically-charged issues of the day. When faced with sexism and racism inside and outside of the Church, as well as the intersection of religious ideologies and the secular political world, from same-sex marriage to abortion debates, Bishop McKenzie says,