Gender Discrimination Lawsuit Accuses Prominent Harlem Church of Bias in Pastor Search Process

New York City has a long history with the Abyssinian Baptist Church, considered a flagship of the Black church in America. Located in Harlem, this megachurch gained prominence under the leadership of Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., who served as pastor from 1937 to 1972 while also holding a seat in Congress for 26 years. Eboni Marshall Turman, a believer in Abyssinian, aspired to become its first female senior pastor and was ordained as the church’s youngest pastor in 2007.

Following the death of long-time senior pastor Calvin O. Butts III in 2022, Marshall Turman, then a professor at Yale Divinity School, applied to fill the vacant position. Despite her optimism, she was not selected as a finalist, leading her to file a lawsuit alleging gender discrimination against Abyssinian and its search committee. Marshall Turman specifically named Valerie S. Grant, the search committee chair, accusing her of inappropriate behavior and bias. The lawsuit seeks monetary damages and an injunction against gender discrimination in future hiring processes.

Both the church and Grant disputed the discrimination accusations, asserting that the selection process was fair and based on merit. Grant emphasized that Marshall Turman did not receive enough votes to advance to the next round, despite being considered a strong candidate by some committee members. The black church, in general, has posed challenges for women aspiring to pastoral leadership due to differing beliefs on gender roles.

Marshall Turman, who did not respond to requests for comment, is known for her research on gender politics in Black churches and related issues, which is also the focus of her upcoming book. The remaining finalists for the senior pastor position at Abyssinian are men. Grant defended the search process, stating that all candidates were treated equally and interviewed with tailored questions. The lawsuit’s accusations against Grant’s own interviewing of Marshall Turman were also refuted.

The issue of women’s treatment in churches, particularly within the Black community, has long been a subject of debate. Marshall Turman has critiqued the social gospel tradition at Morehouse and explored the role of Black women in the church. With the senior pastor selection ongoing, the lawsuit has shed light on the challenges faced by women seeking leadership roles in religious institutions.

In summary, Eboni Marshall Turman has filed a lawsuit alleging gender discrimination after being passed over for the role of senior pastor at Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City. The church and the search committee chair, Valerie S. Grant, have disputed the accusations. The black church has been a complex environment for women aspiring to pastoral leadership, and Marshall Turman’s case highlights the ongoing challenges faced by women in religious institutions.