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Strong sense of calling undergirds ethnic clergywomen


The Rev. Cynthia Belt is pastor of Centennial Caroline Street United Methodist Church in Baltimore. She was one of 300 participants in the United Methodist Racial-Ethnic Clergywomen's Consultation. UMNS photos by Marta W. Aldrich.

A UMNS Report
By Marta W. Aldrich*
Jan. 14, 2008

The Rev. Cynthia Belt was in her 30s with an established career and three children before a family tragedy convinced her that her life-long calling into the ordained ministry was an authentic calling from God.

"My nephew was shot (and killed) two days before his 16th birthday in a drug-related incident and, in the process of moving my family through that, I really began to heed God's call on my life," recalls Belt, now 52 and pastor of Centennial Caroline Street United Methodist Church in Baltimore.

She gave up a $70,000-a-year job in construction accounting systems in Washington D.C., and took a student local pastor's job for $14,000. She graduated from United Methodist-related Wesley Theological Seminary, became ordained as a deacon and then elder and, in the course of her new career, discovered her gift for ministry to young people.

Throughout her ministry, Belt's high sense of calling from God has helped to sustain her in challenges as an African-American clergywoman in the predominantly white United Methodist Church, where only about 2 percent of clergy are women with a racial-ethnic background.

"Corporations are there waiting to grab up our gifted and talented young racial-ethnic women. When those same women come to the church and say they feel called to preach the Gospel, we make them jump through hoops just to prove they're worthy of ministry."

Feeling a high sense of calling was a common theme that emerged from a 2004 study on the status of United Methodist racial-ethnic clergywomen in the United States. African-American, Pacific Islander, Hispanic, Native American and multi-racial clergywomen participated in the study by the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry and its Division of Ordained Ministry.

The survey also identified common struggles, including loneliness, feeling a lack of support from the denomination, financial challenges and a sense of disconnectedness between the seminary experience and actual ministry. The women cited a lack of opportunities for appointments and visible leadership roles and experiences of racism and sexism within the church.

Belt said her experiences as an ordained elder are consistent with many, though not all, of those themes, and she agrees with the study's findings based on her own conversations with other racial-ethnic clergywomen. She was among almost 300 participants in the United Methodist Racial-Ethnic Clergywomen's Consultation that convened Jan. 3-5 in Los Angeles.

Discouraging the call

"There are still many women who are discouraged from entering the ministry because of their gender or the color of their skin," Belt told the group in a closing forum. "Some never make it to the ordination process because their pastors and people around them discourage them. … There is also still a great gulf in opportunities and compensation as compared with our Caucasian sisters and brothers."


The Rev. Junann Johnson and the Rev. Motoe Yamada sing praises to God
during the Los Angeles consultation.

Having spent several years in her first career as a consultant to IBM, Belt said working as a black woman in a white environment "is not new to me," but that the church sometimes thwarts the call to ministry by young women of color––both intentionally and unwittingly. Many annual (regional) conferences have an unwritten quota system for clergy who are women or have a racial-ethnic background, she said.

"Corporations are there waiting to grab up our gifted and talented young racial-ethnic women. When those same women come to the church and say they feel called to preach the Gospel, we make them jump through hoops just to prove they're worthy of ministry. … Often they go the other way. The pay is better, the benefits are better and they get a whole lot more respect."

Belt said her own ordination process was "not as horrific" as many of her counterparts because of two mentors––the Revs. James Manning and William B. McClain––who helped her navigate the process. "If you have a strong mentor, that makes all the difference," she said.

Pay parity is another important issue. "There's a huge disparity in the pay of not just ethnic clergywomen, but clergywomen across the board," said Belt, also an adjunct faculty member at Wesley Theological Seminary. "Most ethnic clergywomen remain throughout our careers at the minimum we can be paid … after 20 years while one of my white counterparts may be making three times as much with perks."

'It can be lonely'

Belt said she has been fortunate not to feel the isolation that many racial-ethnic clergywomen feel because she is one of many African-American pastors in the denomination's Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference.

"I'm blessed with a strong support system from my family and clergy sisters, and I understand my calling to ministry."

"If you're someplace like Iowa or even Kansas––where there might be only two ethnic clergywomen in the whole conference and you're in a cross-racial appointment––you either develop a support system with clergywomen from other denominations or you're out there feeling like there's nobody who looks like you. It can be lonely."

Prejudice based on race, gender and age is also very real, she said. "Sometimes you're treated like you're invisible at conference gatherings or meetings," she said. "People will greet everyone around you and look right past you.

"Other people will say things to denigrate you, but I can ignore it. I'm not easily provoked. I'm blessed with a strong support system from my family and clergy sisters, and I understand my calling to ministry."

\*Aldrich is news editor of United Methodist News Service.

News media contact: Marta Aldrich, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

Related Articles

Clergywomen of color build unity to build influence

Racial, ethnic clergywomen to explore gains, barriers

Study: Clergywomen of color need better support

Resources

The Status of United Methodist Racial-Ethnic Clergywomen Report

United Methodist Clergywomen

Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference

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