Rising Above The Stained-Glass Ceiling

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VASHTI McKENZIE: Bishop, African Methodist Episcopal Church

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Be Better Than the Men

There is no feminine for the word bishop in the Sesotho language. The word literally means "father." This was a bit dismaying to Vashti McKenzie when she arrived in Africa four years ago. After all, McKenzie, now 57, had just been elected the first female bishop in the history of the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church and been posted to its 18th district, which includes the churches of Lesotho, Swaziland, Botswana and Mozambique. Friends had warned that the African church was particularly patriarchal, and here was linguistic proof.

But Bishop McKenzie has a time-tested philosophy on combatting patriarchy. "For women, especially for African-American women," she says, "you always have to be better than men to get ahead." Assigned a 300-member church in a depressed part of Baltimore in 1990, she not only built the congregation to 1,700 but also worked with the state of Maryland to get 600 area people off welfare, save a public school and renovate a key local building. Her election campaign for bishop in 2000, following another woman's 1996 defeat, was unapologetically aggressive, featuring T shirts, buttons and campaign visits to dozens of churches. Her victory was a milestone for a church whose membership is 70% female.

She reports similar success in Africa, from which she returned just last month to take her turn as president of the A.M.E.'s Council of Bishops. Some of the African diplomats, politicians and clerics, she says, "would have preferred a man, because a man knows the rules, how to play the game. With a woman, it was like, 'If I push her, is she going to cry?'" Instead, she established a program to build group homes for children orphaned by the AIDS epidemic. Her African work impressed the home church enough that at least one current female candidate for bishop is using it as an argument for women's efficacy.

And that pesky language problem got solved. Instead of "father," McKenzie says, her flock began describing her as "the mother who holds the sharp end of the knife," a reference to the Bible's Solomon-and-the-disputed-baby story, in which the child's authentic mother elects to give up the child rather than see it cut in half. "They were telling me that I was their real mother, come to care for them," she says. Lest a listener miss the point, she elaborates, "When children come to the father, he looks down and doesn't know what to do. But when they come to the mother, she looks up and sees to their needs."

Find a Supportive Church

It did not take long for Sarah Jackson Shelton to find out how certain parties felt about her 2002 appointment as senior pastor of the Baptist Church of the Covenant in Birmingham — and thus one of the few female Southern Baptist pastors in Alabama. She had been on the job about a week when the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention (S.B.C.) rejected two of her congregants' applications to do missionary work in Swaziland. The convention's grounds: their refusal to sign a belief statement that says women should not serve as pastors, a view rooted in such biblical verses as Paul's observation that "I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence." Technically, admits S.B.C. official Richard Land, "we can't tell a church who to hire." But by the same token, he says, "that woman's church cannot tell the International Mission Board who it can send on its missions."

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