1st female Baptist leader to focus on community ties

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

When the Council of Baptist Pastors of Detroit and Vicinity voted in 2000 to allow women to join for the first time since launching more than three decades earlier, the approval was so divisive, some members left.

Flash forward to 2017, and the tide in the group has turned to yield another milestone. Later this month, the Rev. DeeDee Coleman, longtime pastor at Detroit’s Russell Street Missionary Baptist Church, officially becomes its 18th president — and first female one.

Her recent election to head an influential panel whose 170-plus leaders represent thousands of church-goers across the region was uncontested. The fact one of few female council-members rose through the ranks to win the three-year term is a sign, she says, that trust in a dedicated leader transcends gender when considering pastoral roles.

“I wasn’t asked to serve because I was a female but that I can do the job,” Coleman said recently. “I am in a sacred place that I do not take for granted that God has called me to for such a time as this. … It is my job to make sure I represent the council in the most respectful and positive way that I can. Can I speak the truth to power — that’s what they were looking at.”

Formed in 1965 as a way to nurture, train and connect local pastors as well as address social issues in the community, the council has emerged to become an important force in Metro Detroit, especially the Motor City. Mayoral, city council and school board candidates have flocked to them for endorsements; members weigh in on alleged discrimination, education shifts and other issues. The group’s committees — including those such as economic development, social and political action, health/human services — also pursue initiatives aimed at reaching residents far beyond the pews, Coleman said.

The council rules did not allow women, but that changed under the leadership of the Rev. E.L. Branch, who was president from 1999-2001. Opening the membership had long been discussed previously, he said, and female ministers sought inclusion.

“It was a highly controversial issue, and even to this day still remains an issue of controversy in the Baptist church,” said Branch, senior pastor at Third New Hope Baptist in Detroit, who has degrees in religious and biblical studies. “But at that time, we did have a vast majority of members who felt that women should be included among the membership. Many of those who are opposed actually turned to pages of Scripture, where it is said that women were not permitted to preach or teach in certain settings. Those who feel that way believed that those scriptures hold true today in our current setting.”

Installed as Russell Street’s first female pastor in 2000, Coleman joined the council not long after the vote and went on to fill many roles, including financial secretary and second vice president, while working with groups such as the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.

Members warmed to the Louisiana native’s organizational skills, community-centered focus and teamwork.

“She knows how to find her spot in the team and play her role,” said Rev. Lawrence Glass Jr., the council’s departing president and pastor at El Bethel Baptist Church in Redford Township. “However, whenever there’s a void or a need for strong leadership, she has no problem stepping up. That has come across time and time again when she has partnered up with other pastors and other clergy. Whenever she’s given the baton to offer leadership, she makes that transition almost seamless, which you admire in a good leader.”

In her tenure, Coleman plans to bolster the council committees to continue efforts that address issues such as finding support for the formerly incarcerated and connecting residents with jobs as Detroit’s growth continues. Among her first orders of business: a planned community meeting on city water bills.

“This council will be about the community,” she said.

Another goal: extending links with elected officials and leaders. “At any given time, you have a number of pastors in pulpits on a Sunday. We can put out mass information in one given Sunday all across this city that would have the city talking,” Coleman said. “Our mission and theme for this tenure is that we go back to our original intent: those things that made us strong in the beginning.

“We want to go back and look at how the relationships are built with our Police Department, for instance, and schools and school boards. And those individuals who are making major decisions on behalf of the community, the council wants to have a role in that. We want to sit with them as they make decisions and look at what they’re doing.”

Coleman’s approach and experience make her a natural fit for the council presidency, said the Rev. Oscar King, another former council head and pastor at Northwest Unity Baptist Church in Detroit. “She is just the most well-prepared, perfect person to move into this position of anybody I know, male, female or otherwise. She’s the right person for this time and for this age. She has the ability to speak at the highest level of policy. She has the ability to manage meetings and to arbitrate differences of opinion. She’s a great preacher, and she’s a reconciler, which means she works well in the middle of the dispute.”

Though some might highlight her new role as a trailblazer, Coleman prefers to focus on the future. “I think what is most important is what am I going to do with the time that God has accounted me to while I’m here. So I know that it won’t be easy, I know that there will be challenges, but I am looking forward to this year and the work God has called me to do with the council.”