The typical conference for women tends to fall into a familiar format. Lots of meetings are led by strong, expert women who give you a solid three points on a particular issue. Attendees studiously write down notes, trying to take in tidbits that will help them move forward in their roles back at home. For the most part, it’s a one-way interaction — the leader at the podium gives you the information, and you absorb it.
The Selah: Leadership Encounters for Women experiences are different. Sure, you’ll have the traditional panels and probably take a note or two. But the connection and mentorship don’t stop after the intimate workshops and expert panels are over. Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie, who is the 117th elected and consecrated bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, founded the event that is hosted this year in Atlanta, March 27-28, and Dallas, November 19-21. Bishop McKenzie aims to support Christian women leaders by creating an ongoing network of friends and colleagues who help and empower each other by opening doors, providing resources, and offering practical advice.
Urban Faith had a chance to talk to Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie about the Selah experience, how Christian women leaders can lift one another, and who inspires her.
How can women leaders best support each other?
Don’t kill each other off! Women in ministry have been so aware. There are more women in the ministry now than ever before. Some seminaries are 30%, 40%, 50%, 60% women. But when you go out in the field, you still might be the one — or one of two. So you have to be careful that you don’t use that platform to be the queen and, you know, there is only one queen. If you get it, you want to make sure there’s somebody else who is following you. I was elected and the next election cycle two women got in. And then the next election cycle, one woman got in. And we’re right at the door of another election cycle right now, and we hope to get another one. You want to be sure you are helpful to your sister. Sometimes when you’re in business or in congregations, you know the stuff, you know how it works, but you don’t share how it works. “Nobody told me. I had to learn myself. I know what to do. I know what to say. I know who to say it to. So you’re going to have to learn yourself, too.” No! Help a sista out. It’s always tricky. It’s called human relationships, human nature. I think it has limited ministry. We have an opportunity to develop a model of resourcing, of assisting and support that was not in place when we were coming along, which is why I do Selah.
What kind of experience can women expect when they attend Selah?
I want you to be exposed to people who are doing wonderful things, and I want you to be able to talk to them about their stories and how they got there. I want you to see where you can go. I want you to meet people who can open doors for you. I want us to talk honestly with each other about the problems that we have so we can figure out how we can solve some of those problems. I want to put you in front of people who are problem solvers, who you can connect to, who can help you. It’s trying to create a model that will help people get to the next level.
Given this new model of raising leaders, what do you see as the future of the black church?
We are moving into a new season in the 21st century. The way we do church has changed from the way when we started preaching 20-30 years ago. When we started preaching, you had big churches, and then you had megachurches. I think we’re getting to a place where success is not defined by size and real estate. Success is going to be defined by disciple-making and having the people inside impact the outside. Historically, our churches have always been the center of community in the neighborhood. We have anchored neighborhoods that were in trouble and kept people surviving. And I still think there is a role for that to play. But younger and newer generations are looking for other types of experiences. We have seen the growth in online churches and online experiences. So if you want to capture the new and younger generation, you’re going to have to have a dialog about Jesus where you’re having a dialogue about life—beginning that dialogue and discussion where they are talking to each other. We stop looking at technology as a toy and begin to use it as a tool of discipleship, a tool of coaching and mentoring, a tool for sharing the Gospel. Not just repeating scripture, but using it to be able to reach the hearts and minds of people who live online.
Your historic election in the year 2000 represents the first time in the over 200-year history of the AME Church that a woman obtained the level of Episcopal office. Which women who came before you do you admire or who have inspired you along the way?
I think that the first would be my family. The first women in my life who showed me that what I could do was not determined by my gender, but by my gifts were my mother, aunt, and grandmother because all of them were out of the box. They were managers back in the ’30s and ’40s. They were editors and publishers. They were chief editors, marketing directors, and entertainment directors. My family was a publishing family. They did all these things and my grandfather didn’t have any sons to follow him in the business. He had daughters. And so whatever your gift was, that’s what you did. I grew up in that atmosphere.
Cecelia Williams Bryant was the first woman in ministry that I ever heard, and when I heard her, that was the OMG to the third power. She has been a coach and a mentor. In the secular realm, it would be the late Congresswoman Barbara Jordan. I heard her speech before the Democratic National Convention, and I was like transfixed before the TV. She said what needed to be said, and I was like, wow, when I grow up, I want to be just like that. And then years later, when I stood up on the stage at the Democratic National Convention and gave remarks and a prayer, for me, it was full circle.