PhD Student Gina Stewart Makes Preaching History
Rev. Dr. Gina Stewart, Senior Pastor of Christ Missionary Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee and student in CTS’ PhD in African American Preaching and Sacred Rhetoric Program, made preaching history on January 23, 2024 as the first woman to preach at the National Baptist Joint Board Session. The event is a joint meeting of the four major Black Baptist denominations in the United States.
Stewart is not new to making history. During her almost 30 years serving as a Pastor in the Baptist Church, she has broken numerous barriers, including:
- Becoming the first African American woman to be elected to serve as pastor at a Black Baptist congregation in Memphis in 1995 when she became pastor of Christ Missionary Baptist Church (where she continues to serve)
- Becoming the first female president elected to the highest post of a Black Baptist organization when she was named President of the Lott Carey Baptist Foreign Mission Society in 2021
- Receiving the President’s Volunteer Service Award from President Joseph R. Biden in 2021
Stewart has an impressive track record of following God’s calling as an advocate and trailblazer, paving the way for women and prophetically leading the church at large to revolutionary change and positive growth. “As a pastor and preacher, Dr. Stewart has long demonstrated her commitment to supporting women in ministry – that includes lifting up the women in the sacred text and women in the pews and pulpit. She has often stated that she may be the first, but does not want to be the last,” shares Rev. Dr. Courtney V. Buggs, Director of the PhD Program in African American Preaching and Sacred Rhetoric and Assistant Professor of Homiletics at CTS. Stewart’s community engagement is exemplary; beyond her pastoral duties and gifted ability to preach life-altering sermons, she also serves as a member of the National Board of the NAACP, Trustee for the Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Theology, Co-Convenor for the Women in Ministry Conference, and is the Founder of Greater Works, Inc., a non-profit organization devoted to philanthropy and ministry development.
In her historic sermon titled “What Will You Do With Jesus of Nazareth?” Stewart drew inspiration from the biblical narrative of Claudia, challenging her audience to speak up for Jesus in every aspect of their lives, even in the face of adversity and opposition. Her passionate delivery resonated with thousands of viewers and garnered widespread attention, with clips of her sermon quickly going viral on social media platforms.
“Speak up for Jesus… in your convention. Speak up for Jesus… in your churches. Speak up for Jesus… in your Board rooms. Speak up for Jesus… when it’s unpopular, when it’s uncommon, when it’s inconvenient, when they silence you, when they hate you… Will you speak up? When you’re in seats of power… when nobody’s looking… Will you speak up… for Jesus? I’m glad! ‘Cause Claudia spoke up for Jesus. Look at somebody and say Lord help me to be like Claudia! I know y’all ain’t gonna say that, but I’m gonna tell you to say it again… The camera is on you! Grab somebody’s hand, and say LORD, help me to be like Claudia.”
– Rev. Dr. Gina Stewart
Within days of its historic delivery at the National Baptist Joint Board Session, Stewart’s sermon had more than 270,000 views on her church’s Facebook page. Clips of her powerful message and the electric response of the thousands in attendance have been shared by news outlets and social media accounts across the country and around the world.
Despite the overwhelmingly positive response, Stewart’s preaching has also faced controversy in its aftermath. She acknowledged in her opening remarks that National Baptist Convention USA Inc. (NBCUSA) President Jerry Young was the only denominational president at the Joint Board Meeting Session absent from the stage during her message. After the session where Stewart preached concluded, the session recording including video of her preaching was temporarily removed from the Facebook page of the NBCUSA. The NBCUSA has clarified that they did not remove the video from their Facebook page and are investigating how it disappeared. It has since been restored.
Providing context for the diversity of responses to the message, Buggs shares, “The contention around Stewart’s preaching at the Joint Session is not surprising. Black Baptist congregations, in general, have not always been affirming of women preachers. In some instances, women experience blatant gender discrimination. Stewart’s presence at the Joint Session and her preaching challenge persistent gender injustice.”
Community response demonstrates that despite any contention, the message Stewart preaches and the representation she provides resonates with many and generates important reconciling conversations for all. This historic sermon serves as a testament to her unwavering commitment to advancing the gospel and advocating for marginalized voices within the church. Her courage, resilience, and dedication to her calling continue to inspire countless individuals and communities, reaffirming the transformative power of preaching in shaping hearts and minds.