Growing Clout of First Ladies Helps To Reshape Church And Community Outreach
For more than a century, pastor’s wives were content to sit on the front pew or thereabouts with a pretty hat on or sing in the choir and teach Sunday School.
They smiled and served quietly, pitching in wherever they could in their local churches as the perfect helpmates to their husbands. But with the rise of mega churches in the 70s and 80s, came more attention to pastors and subsequently their wives leading to the advent of first ladies, a term almost exclusively born out of the black church.
Its core meaning is tied in definition to what many refer to as the “royal treatment” often reserved for pastors and while tracking the term’s origin may be difficult, its growing importance—with one in ten adults attending mega churches— is anything but.
The proof of that is reflected in the popularity of those like Dr. Betty Price, Lady Mae Blake, Taffi Dollar, Serita Jakes, Pastor Deborah Morton, Victoria Osteen, Pastor Bridget Hilliard, and Pastor Susie Owens who have not only amassed national followings through their speaking and ministry engagements, but in many cases have authored books and fostered programs that have impacted their surrounding communities.
A fierce advocate for community development, Dr. Betty Price—wife of Apostle Frederick K.C. Price, the founder of what has been dubbed as America’s first black mega church, Crenshaw Christian Center—is not only the author of several books, but a leader in the effort to restore beauty and viability to the Vermont Avenue corridor in Los Angeles. A world-renowned author and motivational speaker, Taffi Dollar—who along with her husband, Creflo Dollar established the Atlanta-based World Changers Church International with 27 locations throughout the nation, including Los Angeles—serves as CEO of their gospel record label and established an outreach ministry to women involved in the adult entertainment and sex trade industries. Sandy Iverson, wife of Pastor Aaron Iverson of Paradise Baptist Church has a lead role in the management of the church’s charter school.
“The third-pew-ensconced pastor’s wife has given way to a dynamic type of woman who juggles her own ministries, supports her husband, builds a church, and manages a family, all at the same time. Like another famous first lady, Michelle Obama, these women are not content with being symbols of status and position; they’re getting their hands dirty with the things that matter most,” wrote Newsweek/Daily Beast columnist Joshua DuBois, who once headed the White House’s Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
The factors contributing to the growing clout of first ladies is varied. For a very long time, the focus of mega church programming was inward—to ministries that sought to serve those who attended. But with a huge shift to outreach and the popularity of women’s programs (with women accounting for upwards of 60% – 70% of black church devotees) also helped to elevate the role first ladies play in the church and its extended community.
Mae Blake, wife of Bishop Charles Blake—Presiding Prelate of the 7-million member strong Church of God In Christ and pastor of the 20,000 member strong West Angeles Church of God In Christ—founded the church’s Women Affairs Organization and equips women on everything from inner beauty and discipline to managing a budget and getting one’s estate in order at her annual “A Day In May With Lady Mae”.
Fact is, throughout Los Angeles and the nation first ladies have stepped up in their communities establishing programs and services that outreach to the community everything from health, wellness and youth services to
voter awareness and political/social engagement.
“While being a first lady is not my identity, I’m happy to be in service,” states First Lady Judi Sauls of Holman United Methodist Church. “I really enjoy serving others and was privileged to have been honored at L.A. Focus’ First Ladies High Tea last year. I was amazed at not only the turnout but to see what other first ladies are doing as well. It opened my eyes to the impact we collectively have on the community. Lisa Collins is one of the first people to spotlight the work of first ladies and to coalesce them together as a force in this community.”
The first of its kind, the First Ladies High Tea—now in its 20th year— was established by L.A. Focus publisher Lisa Collins to not only honor the role first ladies have long played in their communities, but their contribution in shaping the destinies of our youth.
“I’m often in settings with pastors’ wives who are woefully underutilized,” says Tara Jenkins, whose husband Pastor Charles Jenkins is a Stellar-winning gospel artist and pastor of Chicago’s Fellowship Baptist Church. “Sure, their congregations will follow their hairstyle or their clothing—but will they follow them into community service?
God didn’t invite me into this role to sit; He invited me to serve.”
It is a sentiment echoed by Allyson Scott of Macedonia Baptist Church.
“I decided I didn’t want to just sit there in the front row and look pretty,” Scott says. “I wanted to get busy— involved. I had conflict in the beginning and would have run away if I could, but I knew what God was calling me to do so therefore I stood my ground and pushed through it. I’ve embracing my call and I’m walking in it.
She adds, “Today, first ladies are looked at more as individuals and not just a pastor’s wife. They’ve created their own platforms, their own businesses and other things they are doing aside from their husbands.”
In the past and now however, much of the tone is set by their husbands.
“When we first came to the church 35 years ago my husband told them that I wasn’t going to just sit there and do nothing,” said Togetta Ulmer, First Lady of Faithful Central Bible Church.
“I sing in the choir, I was on the praise team and then I lead a “Life Without Limits” event three times a year, which has been really great for women of all ages because we do everything. It was good for me because my husband spoke up to let them know that I may be doing some things and they can jump on the bandwagon or not. For the most part they did. Of course, there’s always going to be naysayers, but you have to do what you were called to do.”
“It can become overwhelming if you allow it to,” adds Rinnita Thompson, First Lady of Southern St. Paul Church. “After 12 years there’s still some times I second guess myself and think maybe I shouldn’t do this or shouldn’t wear that, but then you also want to be true to who you are. Just to be a woman of God, not only as a first lady.”
Standing her ground was something Park Windsor Baptist Church First Lady Regina Taylor learned firsthand.
“This is our third pastorate and I remember the very first one,” Taylor recalls. “They had an idea what the first lady would be like and because it was new to me, I was like okay this what I need to do. Going through that I kept thinking, ‘I need to be myself.’ With this third church— and it being the church I grew up in—I was received for myself and as a totally different kind of first lady. Because of my technology background, they are amazed at some of the things that I am doing at and for the church, managing the website and social media.”
While today’s first ladies have—for the most part— evolved beyond hats, gloves and reserved seating, expectations remain a sticking point in the friction that can arise between parishioners and their first ladies.
“I believe that first lady is probably one of the church’s toughest roles,” observes Apostle Beverly “Bam” Crawford, who serves as both pastor and first lady of Bible Enrichment Fellowship International. “If you chose it and you took college classes, you have to have a Masters and a Ph.D in human psychology when it comes to the expectations, but things are changing just as the world is changing. I’ve been in ministry for 45 years, but you can’t do ministry how you did it 45 years ago. You have to evolve.”
Michelle Porter, who became first lady of one of L.A.’s largest Baptist churches —Greater Ebenezer—just eight months ago, is still adjusting to the role.
“There is a certain amount of empowerment that comes with my husband being pastor,” Porter said. “Now there are certain things I have influence over and actual power to do, and with that comes a certain amount of clout. If we are listening to God and are able to join together, then we can actually accomplish quite a bit.”