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Women of ColorIn 1988, a trailblazing program designed to give financial, intellectual, and personal support to United Methodist women of color in theological and religious education was begun by The United Methodist Church. That program is the Women of Color Scholars Program.


Issues and concerns about women of color and the church were raised during a United Methodist Black Clergywomen’s Caucus. One of the most pressing issues was the lack of women of color faculty at United Methodist seminaries and theological schools. This informal discussion resulted in a recommendation that the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry develop strategies to address this imbalance.

Taking the Next Step

Working through its Office of Loans and Scholarships and the Division of Ordained Ministry, GBHEM set up the Women of Color Scholars Program. The program provides up to $10,000 a year in scholarship funds to women of color who are Ph.D. or Th.D. students. Recipients of these scholarships meet twice a year with mentors—women of color who are working in theological education. More than 22 graduates of this program now have their doctoral degrees in religious studies and are making contributions to academia and the church. And in 2007, GBHEM set up a $500,000 endowment to ensure that money would continue to be available for the scholarships.

Why It Matters

Dr. Anne Joh, now an assistant professor of theology at Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa, Oklahoma, credits the Women of Color mentors with helping her get through her doctoral program. She earned a Ph.D. at Drew in 2003.

“The landscape of the doctoral program is not so friendly to women in general and even more so for women of color. I did my academic work in my institution, but it was within the space of Women of Color gatherings that I was nurtured and empowered."

Women of Color Scholar Believed the Work of a Pastor Was Changing the World

Traci West instructs a class.Photo by John Goodwin

Traci West grew up believing that being a pastor was to be about the work of changing the world. Now associate professor of Ethics and African-American Studies at the Theological School at Drew University, West tries to live out her ministry in that service — changing the world.

“Church was always a big part of my life,” West says. “My mother insisted that we attend the early service, the 11:00 o’clock service, Sunday school, and youth group. And when I got older, instead of going to Sunday school, I taught!”

She grew up in Connecticut. Yet West’s pastor was surprised when at 17 she declared her intention to be ordained. West had never seen a woman minister and there were no ministers in her family. But she felt the call, and she felt it strongly.

She graduated with a B.A. in religious studies and went on to seminary at Boston University School of Theology and at Pacific School of Religion. Her first appointment was to a small church in Connecticut that initially said no to her appointment. “They had had Black ministers before, but they’d never had a woman minister, much less a Black woman minister. . . . we ended up having a good experience,” she recalls.

It was as a campus minister, however, that her call to academics and to pastoral ministry came together. She contacted faculty at the college she served and offered to be a guest lecturer. “The faculty took me up on my offer, and I began teaching ethics. I taught the ethics of anything — engineering, nursing, technology — you name it.”

Teaching, she discovered, was a way to reach a whole population of students who didn’t come to the campus ministry and were not active in a faith community, but would talk with her about issues of ethics and faith.

West went to Union Theological Seminary and earned her Ph.D. Domestic violence and rape emerged as a major piece of her work. So did addressing the abuses of power and the empowering craft of decision making by consensus building. She is deeply committed to community—how people don’t just tolerate one another, but how they challenge and open each other up to change and grow.

“It was the Women of Color Scholars Program that nurtured and sustained me throughout my doctoral work. The program gave me the opportunity to talk with peers who were from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds, who were facing similar issues in the academic world.”

West says that issues of finding one’s own voice in the academy, owning one’s own authority, and addressing intellectually issues of race and gender were some of the most life-changing dialogues for her in the program.

“The mentoring—the precious time spent one-on-one—with someone who had already navigated these waters . . . that was perhaps the most valuable aspect of the program. I had an amazing mentor, Katie Cannon, who had come through so much to get where she was, and I learned an immeasurable amount from her.”

“What I love most about my work now,” she says, “is teaching. Teaching gives me hope for the world that change is possible, that change is happening. In the face of all that’s going on in the world today, it’s very easy to become cynical and to withdraw in despair. But in the classroom, I encounter students who are eager to explore, to engage, to challenge and be challenged — that is a source of great hope and energy for me. Non-violent change, being a responsible Christian in a pluralistic world, healing and wholeness for broken people — all these things are possible.”

Women of Color Scholars Program Still Has Work Ahead

The Women of Color Scholars Program has been a great success in helping to transform the church, said the Rev. Mary Ann Moman, associate general secretary of GBHEM’s Division of Ordained Ministry. But she said there is much work still ahead, adding that getting more women of color on seminary faculties is a tough issue.

“The United Methodist Church needs a diversity of leadership in theological education that reflects the diversity we are seeking in the whole church. This is essential if we, as a denomination, are going to address the multiple experiences of faith already in the church as well as reaching out to more diverse populations,” Moman said.

Angella Current-Felder, executive director of the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry’s Office of Loans and Scholarships adds, “One thing that is clear is the need for a dialogue in the larger arena of the wider church. The reality is that our seminaries have not responded to the creation of a pool of women of color scholars. Most of our graduates are not at United Methodist seminaries.” She also notes, “Seminaries are one of the last bastions of white male dominance. They don’t have a large number of white women, either. . . . Our United Methodist seminaries have a diverse population of students, and they need role models for all those students.”

The challenge of adequate funding for the program was addressed in 2007, when GBHEM’s directors approved the creation of a $500,000 endowment to ensure that money continues to be available for the program.

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