Millennials are the largest generation since their parents, the Baby Boomers, and already are making their mark on society and the church. As many young women are marrying and beginning their new lives, some will also take on the responsibility of first lady—the wife of the senior pastor—in their respective churches, a role with much spiritual and moral weight.
While the traditional idea of a first lady remains the same, many young women have a more contemporary view of how their lives can impact other women in their congregation.
LaToyia Ledbetter, 32, is a first lady at Mt. Pisgah MBC in Chicago. Her husband, Rev. Ernest Ledbetter III, is a third-generation pastor, so she is familiar with how the term “first lady” has evolved over the years.
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the title … People just want to find a way to respect you as the pastor’s wife,” she says. “But I don’t want you to put me on a pedestal. We are all supposed to be working in the body of Christ … and bringing souls to Christ. We don’t want it to be like, ‘This is the pastor and first lady. Rise when they walk in.’”
Katie Windley, a millennial first lady from North Carolina, says she prefers to be called by her name rather than “first lady” because it’s simply a title, something she says pales in comparison to the moral role at hand: setting a godly example.
“To me, you should represent your spouse, carry yourself to a standard where others can look up to you. You should always carry an attitude of faith and not of anger, attitude, or animosity, but love and kindness, but you should never allow your being a first lady to become arrogant,” she says.
Katie admits that being a first lady is “challenging, but most desirable because God gives you the strength to handle things.” Many of those challenges also come from the pressures to live up to a position that many women regard as a real-life example of the Christian walk, something that LaToyia believes is every woman’s duty.
Rocking the Label
LaToyia Ledbetter poses with her husband Rev. Ernest Ledbetter III of Mt. Pisgah MBC in Chicago.
“At our church, we say that everyone is the first lady in her household,” LaToyia laughs. “You should be the first lady in your house, so technically, there should be a ton of first ladies. I don’t think the title ‘first lady’ [defines] a great woman. You can be a great woman without being called a first lady.”
“My responsibilities do make me feel different, because I have to set myself apart from others, even the ones that are my age that attend church or family members,” Katie says. “I can’t [be effective] in this role if my living doesn’t match up, but I am still down-to-earth and love to laugh and have fun.”
Regardless of the labels we use, LaToyia says there are major keys to being married to a pastor that all women must keep in mind.
“You have to love God for YOURSELF,” she says. “Have a personal relationship with him and a STRONG prayer life. That will get you through the toughest of situations, especially in those beginning years when learning to balance ministry and marriage.”
She also reminds young women to respect their husband’s calling, by always ensuring he has time to himself to pray, study, and listen to God’s voice—never make him choose between God and you.
Katie also emphasizes pursuing your own calling while you support your spouse. “I make time for my dreams because you have to. You can cause yourself to be mentally and physically depressed trying to follow right alongside your husband’s dreams. You still have to live for yourself and accomplish all you set out to do.”
LaToyia also points out that a first lady must have a congruent personal and spiritual relationship with her husband.
“I tell women who are dating ministers, go listen to a sermon while dating. You may love his company and think he’s a great guy, but you can’t be with half of him. If he is teaching something that you as a Christian can’t agree to or respect, then you should reevaluate and pray as you will have to support both the man and the ministry in marriage.”
The New-Aged First Lady
While the role of first lady in the church is an important one, millennial woman are increasingly independent and putting marriage among their generation on hold. In fact, only 27% of millennials are tying the knot nowadays compared to 36% of Generation Xers, 48% of baby boomers, and 65% of traditionalists at the same age.
With more millennial women holding out on marriage and pursuing personal goals, where does the concept of being a “first lady” fit into life? By definition, a first lady is “the leading woman in a particular activity or profession.” This means the status of first lady is not directly tied to courtship, as many of us grew up hearing.
“I think women of past generations have seen themselves through the lens of patriarchy, i.e., they saw themselves as helpmeets to those whom they married, and they worked within that space—but never out of it,” says 20-something believer Kristina Redd.
Photo Courtesy of LeToyia Ledbetter
“Women have conceptualized the power to be leaders outside of their husbands’ work. Now, marriage isn’t the requirement to be a first lady. The dynamic has changed where it’s understood that women may be married or single, but their passions and dedication to their own work is commendable and glamorized.”
Some millennials also agree that being a leading lady isn’t confined to being the bar-none, most excellent person in your field. For many, a first lady is someone who gives 100% of her effort, and doesn’t exalt or separate herself from her fellow women.
Student Kathryn Turner says she believes that “the millennial first lady can be the last lady in her profession, class, or whatever it may be as long as she performs to her best abilities. She understands that all people are different and will not judge anyone.”
Kristina chimes in that women of past generations have often “distanced themselves, so to speak, from [the women] they lead. A millennial first lady is admired more for her approach instead of being a figurehead. She rolls up her sleeves, and she isn’t afraid of the first lady crown to fall off while working.”
Leading Ladies of Tomorrow
While many millennials still believe the first lady role is a symbol of personal and professional success, many point to personal qualities that set a leading lady apart from the crowd, making her more than just a profitable working woman. Compassion, supportiveness, and humility were frequently cited as key traits.
“She’s someone who had a first-hand experience and clearly bounced back—a survivor of some sort,” says 24-year-old Jacquelyn Segovia, who also says many people want a first lady to “act right,” so it’s important that she stands up for herself and be a people person.
“She’s also a go-getter! Anything with Christ, she can do!” Jacquelyn adds.
Kathryn says the millennial lady is particularly unique because she doesn’t aspire to fit into a category, but instead “helps other women create their own category free from persecution or criticisms by others who have not learned to live as confidently and as comfortably in their own skin as she has. She brings women together, celebrating both their differences and common ground without attempting to overshadow or remold one another.”
Kristina points out that a first lady should be a dynamic person who understands her influence. Her faith is vital because her growth is based on a desire “for God to empty her fully so she can commit herself to the void her life was written to fill,” she says.
Most importantly, many young women agree that the life of a first lady is marked by interactions with her peers. Being a testament to God’s love and strength goes a long way in making today’s woman a first lady.
“A millennial first lady can look like and be any woman,” Kristina says. “She is present in the lives of those she cares for, and has expectations for those whom she gives her heart to. Any woman can be the leading woman of her life and for the story God has written her into.
The Black church may have created a role that warrants reconsideration.
I want to pose a challenge to all of our readers. I’ll give $100 to the first person that can find the phrase First Lady or First Gentleman in Scripture as it pertains to the Church. If my wife knew I made this promise, she’d probably have me sleeping on the couch tonight. But I’m just that confident it doesn’t exist. There is no such thing as a First Lady or First Gentleman when it comes to the Word of God. They are fabricated, idealistic titles that have invaded Black church culture. I’ve written previously about my disgust with the term on A&E’s show “The Sisterhood”, which closely followed the lives of a group of women who deemed themselves First Ladies. But this week, I think it turned into some righteous indignation (which is a good thing, I think). It’s table turning time.
But let me start with a brief history lesson. The African American pastor has, as long as I can remember, always held a distinguished position in the Black community. In my hometown, you can talk about Black teachers, Black politicians, and other Black public figures. But you bet no dare “put your mouth” on the man of God. There’s that “Touch not mine anointed…” (see Psalm 105:15) thing going on there (a passage of Scripture that’s butchered from a contextual standpoint, by the way). The Black pastor enjoys certain privilege in the Black community. He has a nice parking space at the church, drives a nice vehicle (used to be a Cadillac), and gets fed well.
Enter the first lady. Because of the royal treatment of the black pastor, many of their wives benefit from fact that they are married to the shepherd of the church. Over the years, in the Black church, she has come to be known as the First Lady. As with any title, there are certain privileges that accompany the role of First Lady. Reserved seating is a no brainer. In some instances, she sits in the pulpit with her husband, while in other instances she is front and center in the pews. Depending on your context, an oversized hat may be involved. In that setting, nobody, I mean nobody, wears a hat larger than the church’s First Lady. That’s disrespectful. Regardless of context, certain things are expected of a First Lady. She’s to be supportive, highly visible, elegant, a prayer warrior, and, where children are involved, a great mother. That list is by no means exhaustive, but it gives you an idea of how Black culture has carved out a clearly defined role for preacher’s wives.
Yesterday I saw something related to the First Lady concept appear in my Facebook Timeline (because Facebook Timelines are basically our news sources these days). I checked out this picture of a pastor celebrating his third anniversary with his spouse. Honestly, my first thought was, “Is this real?” So I did what any sensible, intelligent person would have done. I googled the church. Sure enough, the church existed and the Pastor and his spouse just celebrated their third anniversary. The wording on the original flyer is what got my attention. The pastor’s spouse was referred to as the “1st Gentleman” of the church.
If you haven’t already figured it out, this pastor has a partner in a same-sex relationship. As such, that partner has embraced the role traditionally seen in the Black church in the context of heterosexual marriages—The First Gentleman. And this is not an anomalous occurrence. There are other First Ladies and Gentlemen out there in same-sex marriages helping lead churches. Look, I’m not here to argue the merits of same-sex marriages. That screams red herring and will distract from the main point I’m making here. Well maybe I will say a few words. First, there’s no scriptural support for same-sex marriages and, as a minister, I wouldn’t officiate a wedding involving one. As “radically inclusive” as we make Jesus out to be, Scripture is very clear about this issue. The fact that Jesus never condemned same-sex marriages in Scripture doesn’t automatically mean He condones the behavior. There are no specific teachings from Jesus or “red letter” passages on bestiality, pedophilia, or polygamy either. And no, I’m not making a direct comparison between those activities and same-sex marriages. I’m just saying that absence of teaching doesn’t mean that Jesus would condone certain human behavior. Trust me, this is huge and is something the Black church has to process and deal with in the coming years. According to a site dedicated to the community, there’s at least 7,100 documented gay-affirming churches. Some of them are led by pastors who themselves are in same-sex relationships. So there’s an active subculture in the Christian faith that has adopted the practices of the Black church. Among those practices is the adoption of our church leadership structure—including First Ladies (and now First Gentlemen).
But when folks adopt practices that are flawed in the first instance, I think the best approach here is the address those practices in their original context. So the main point I want to make here is that the Black church can’t keep hijacking cultural practices and slapping them in the church setting without seriously considering if we’re missing the mark. Can we eulogize the terms First Lady/First Gentlemen already? Like, for real, for real. Yes, 1 John address the “elect lady“. But scholars can’t even agree if the author is addressing a female leader in the church or the church as a body (Scripture often uses feminine terms to describe the church). Either way, there’s NO WAY we should use this text to excuse our canonization of First Ladies or First Gentlemen when it comes to church practice. Part of the reason we have so many problems in the black church is because we covout titles. That’s the antithesis of the Gospel message. Paul tells us in Philippians 2 that Christ himself took on the form of a servant. Paul, himself, hated titles (see Philippians 3). James, Jesus’ own brother (who could have plugged that fact in his letter), calls himself a term most Christians wore as a badge of honor in the first century—a servant. Does the New Testament address bishops, elders, deacons, and other leaders? Of course it does. But are we faithful to Scripture when we create our own structures, slapping titles on folks that don’t exhibit the accompanying fruit (oops, did I just say that)? Maybe, we should be less worried about titles and degrees and more concerned about worship on our knees. Many in the black community joked about worship-like atmosphere in the white smoke announcement of the Pope this week, but in reality we go to churches and worship our leadership weekly—including the First Lady and First Gentleman. The harsh reality is that if we don’t seriously think about making changes our places of worship will become museums with artifacts rather than places of transformation and change. And that’s a scary thought.
AMERICA’S FIRST LADY: Michelle Obama dancing with her husband at President Obama’s inaugural gala on January 20, 2009. A new book shares the history of her multiracial family tree.
While Alex Haley’s groundbreaking book, Roots: The Saga of an American Family, may have not been the first attempt to bridge history from the coasts of Africa to American slavery to modern-day life in America, it certainly galvanized widespread interest in African Americans tracing their roots back to their enslaved ancestors and beyond. Since then, scholar and educator Henry Louis Gates Jr. has become Haley’s heir apparent, generating new interest in tracing roots with the additional tool of DNA testing with his PBS show African American Lives and most recently Finding Your Roots. Finally, the proliferation of genealogical research websites such as Africanancestry.com has also made genealogical research more accessible than ever before.
With the scrutiny of the lineage of the nation’s first black president who has more of a direct connection to Africa than many African Americans, very little attention was paid initially to the lineage of Michelle Obama. However, Mrs. Obama’s lineage is likely more representative of average African Americans who may know some of the history of their grandparents in America but have little knowledge of their connection to their enslaved roots or African beginnings. In 2009, a genealogist discovered that Michelle Obama was the great-great-great granddaughter of Melvinia Shields (a former slave) and a white man. New York Times reporter Rachel L. Swarns wrote about the discovery and was later convinced to expand the article into her new book American Tapestry: The Story of the Black, White and Multiracial Ancestors of Michelle Obama. Swarns traces the ancestry of Mrs. Obama all the way to Clayton County, Georgia, where I have lived for several years.
Earlier this summer, Clayton County officials unveiled a monument dedicated to Melvinia Shields in Rex, Georgia, where Melvinia lived when she gave birth to Mrs. Obama’s great-great grandfather Dolphus Shields. Both black and white family members took part in the ceremony, although Mrs. Obama was not present. While Mrs. Obama declined to be interviewed for the book (as a policy, she is not interviewed for any books, Swarnes said), Swarnes interviewed Mrs. Obama’s family members including her aunt, uncle and others and explained just how all of these people, both black and white, spanning several states, are related. In fact, she traced Mrs. Obama’s maternal and paternal roots, spinning a rich history that is surprisingly relevant today.
One of the book’s recurring themes is how tenuous civil rights can be, particularly for American black people. Following the Emancipation Proclamation, during the era of Reconstruction, blacks were given unprecedented freedom and access to representation in government, both locally and nationally. Jefferson Long became the first black man to represent Georgia in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served less than three months before leaving his seat in 1871. Swarnes noted that it would be over a century before another African American represented Georgia again as segregationists and Ku Klux Klan members began implementing schemes and laws rescinding the rights of African Americans. In 1908, “blacks were effectively barred from the ballot box altogether when whites amended the state constitution to require voters to pass a literacy test and own property. … They also had to own forty acres of land or property valued at $500.” As I read example after example of civil rights reversals, I was reminded of the contemporary controversy surrounding the recent implementation of voter ID laws throughout the country that many believe will effectively disenfranchise black voters. In fact, Rev. Al Sharpton and his National Action Network launched a “Voter Engagement Tour” this summer to travel to various states where new voter ID laws have been enacted to educate voters about their full rights.
With all the debate about marriage, whether it’s for white people or gay people or any people, I was interested in how marriage was presented Swarnes’ book. A successful marriage has always been a difficult feat, though there is a tendency to romanticize the marriages of yesteryear. Dolphus Shields was married four times. Fraser Robinson II, Mrs. Obama’s paternal grandfather, left his wife and children in Chicago after nearly seven years of marriage around 1941. In fact, when he enlisted in the Army on March 26, 1941 at 28 years old, he was described as “separated without dependants.” He did, however, ultimately reconcile with his wife around 1950. Mrs. Obama’s maternal grandparents Purnell Shields and Rebecca Jumper Coleman separated after having seven children. The couple lived separately, blocks away from one another in Chicago, although they never divorced.
The black church and the historical impact of religion were also apparent in this work. What has been deemed as “Christian” has certainly changed throughout history. In the 1800s, “one Methodist minister told his congregation that ‘catching and returning runaway slaves to their masters is a Christian duty binding upon any church members.’” I wonder if the church (First Baptist Church of Crystal Springs in Mississippi) that recently refused to allow a black couple to get married at their church would have supported such a stance had it been in existence then. Dolphus Shields, who was a deacon, helped to found Trinity Baptist Church and another church in Birmingham, Alabama, that still exists today. Lavaughn Johnson, for whom the First Lady is named (her full name being Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama), was deeply religious, becoming the first African American woman to manage a Moody Bible bookstore.
As I read American Tapestry, I considered how genealogy is also a persistent theme in the Bible. The lineage of Jesus included Rahab the prostitute, King David the adulterer, the less-than-supermodel Leah, the wise King Solomon, Joseph the dreamer and many other interesting people. Slavery, wars, famine, government takeovers, and more served as backdrops. I believe genealogy in the Bible, as it does in American Tapestry, demonstrates that human beings are essentially the same from generation to generation despite modern innovations, shifting cultural sensibilities and evolving laws through the years. As there is nothing new under the sun, we will always need a Savior to help us resist temptation to be inhumane toward each other and achieve our highest human good. Remembering from whence we came as individuals, families, and nations can help remind us that we’re all part of an evolving legacy of human struggle, hope, and redemption.