Black clergywomen explore Black girl magic and 30 years of organized work

By Dr. Rosetta Ross

MYRTLE BEACH—From Oct. 29 to Nov. 1, African-American clergywomen of the South Carolina Conference of The United Methodist Church gathered on the coast for their yearly retreat.

Initiated to provide an opportunity to gather and affirm each other for individual and joint clergy responsibilities that lie ahead, the retreat offers a time of relaxation, relief, fun and self-reflection. In addition to games, movies and sharing, the session explored the theme “#Black Girl Magic: Religious Meaning and the Labor We Perform.” It was led by South Carolina Annual Conference elders; the Rev. Rosetta Ross, professor of religion at Spelman College; and the Rev. Millie Nelson Smith, conference director of Connectional Ministries.

The retreat offered opportunities to take an account of the often unseen emotional and intellectual labor women perform and to consider the meaning of significant milestone experiences in their lives.

This year marks three decades of organized work by the AACW. Begun when there were fewer than a dozen combined African-American women full elders, deacons, provisional and local pastors, today the group’s roll and the annual conference boasts more than 100 Black women clergy.

Long reputed for the greatest percentage of African Americans in any annual conference of the UMC in the continental United States, the number of South Carolina Black clergywomen is steadily moving toward proportional parity in relation to the number of clergy and the number of churches in the Annual Conference.

The organization began in 1993 when Black clergywomen gathered at Silver Hill UMC, Spartanburg, to develop a means of mutual support. Today, the group assembles annual workshops to enhance members’ skills and retreats for renewal and replenishment. Over the years, workshops and retreats convened at Hilton Head Island, Hickory Knob, Myrtle Beach, The Beaufort Penn Center and Asbury Hills. Meeting facilitators have included a founder of womanist theology, the late Katie Geneva Cannon; practical theology and pastoral care leader Carolyn McCrary; UMC denominational administrator and development officer Elaine Jenkins; womanist Christian social ethicist Marcia Riggs; anthropologist of religion (now dean of Harvard Divinity School) Marla Frederick; and psychologist doctors among others.

The AACW sponsors an annual celebration and commemoration of Jesus’ Seven Last Words; hosts a yearly annual conference luncheon; celebrates the ordination, commissioning and appointment of every new Black woman elder, provisional and local pastor; recognizes the retirement of conference Black clergywomen; sends observers to General Conference and Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference; and uses its collaborative influence to enhance the functioning, well-being and general advancement of the annual conference and the UMC.

Black clergywomen serve in various arenas across the South Carolina Annual Conference.

“This year’s retreat was life-giving for me, and I believe it was for others as well,” Smith said. “When you consider the place that our denomination is in right now, it gave me great joy to be in a place where the focus was on loving God, loving ourselves and loving and lifting each other up as sisters and colleagues. We sang, we prayed, we cried and, oh, my goodness, did we laugh!

“The best part is that these women are committed to serving God, their congregations and the communities where they serve.”

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