Historic Abyssinian Baptist Church Faces Gender Discrimination Lawsuit Over Pastor Selection

Photo: Twitter Screenshot - New Black Man

In a report by the Associated Press Religion, the Abyssinian Baptist Church, with a rich 215-year history as a flagship of the Black church in America, is now facing a gender discrimination lawsuit filed by Eboni Marshall Turman. 


The suit, filed on December 29, 2023, accuses the church and its search committee, specifically naming committee chair Valerie S. Grant, of discriminating against Marshall Turman in the selection of the senior pastor following the death of longtime pastor Calvin O. Butts III in 2022.

Marshall Turman, ordained in 2007 as the youngest pastor in Abyssinian’s history, was optimistic about being chosen as the senior pastor after Butts’ passing. However, to her dismay, she was not even selected as a finalist. Convinced that sexism played a significant role, Marshall Turman alleges that discussions within the committee openly acknowledged gender discrimination as a deciding factor.

The lawsuit seeks unspecified monetary damages for lost wages, benefits, and emotional distress, along with an injunction against gender discrimination in hiring. Abyssinian and Grant, a board member of Morehouse College, deny the discrimination accusations, asserting that Marshall Turman fell short of key requirements.

Grant defended the search process, stating that Marshall Turman was one of 11 candidates who advanced from a pool of 47 applicants. Grant contends that Marshall Turman did not receive enough votes to move forward, despite some committee members viewing her as a strong candidate.

The issue of women in pastoral leadership is not unique to Abyssinian, reflecting broader challenges within the Black church. Marshall Turman’s lawsuit sheds light on the ongoing debate over whether women can hold authoritative roles within these congregations.

In her research on gender politics in Black churches, Marshall Turman explores issues of theological erasure and violence against Black women. Her forthcoming book, “Black Women’s Burden: Male Power, Gender Violence, and the Scandal of African American Social Christianity,” delves into these critical concerns.

The lawsuit alleges that inappropriate behavior by Grant during the interview process contributed to the discrimination. Grant responds by stating that the process was fair and consistent for all candidates, with tailored questions for each individual. She asserts that Marshall Turman was asked unique questions because she was the only female candidate.

Despite Marshall Turman’s qualifications, including a Master of Divinity and a doctorate from Union Theological Seminary, her application did not progress to the final round. In a Facebook post in September 2023, she claimed that the hiring process was tainted by secrecy and gender bias.

Abyssinian Baptist Church now faces a legal battle over these allegations, while the search for a new senior pastor continues. The remaining finalists are men, including the Rev. Dr. Kevin Johnson and Derrick Harkins. 

The lawsuit brings attention to the broader issue of gender bias in the Black church, as the congregation faces the issue of future leadership and the implications of the legal challenge.

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