Women-Church-Leaders-meeting-18May2022 - 12.jpeg

An inaugural “Ecumenical Women Church Leaders Initiative Consultation” took place from 17-19 May as a dozen African women gathered in Geneva and online to exchange experiences and critical reflections. Rev. Dr Emily Onyango, Assistant Bishop, Anglican Diocese of Bondo, Kenya


When you were growing up, what drew you to the ministry?

Dr Onyango: I admired my Sunday School teacher, the way she handled herself. She was a missionary. I admired her kind of life, her kind of teaching. I also admired my Christian religion education teacher in secondary school, the way she brought up people from the Bible like Jeremiah, so that the lives of biblical people became very admirable. I must say, there was a lot of influence from my family. My parents were committed Christians, and the way I saw them ministering to people—especially young people—who I saw around me, greatly influenced me.

How does being a lecturer help strengthen you as a church leader?

Dr Onyango: Through teaching, I find its a way of conversation. I think we empower each other. We understand each other because theres discussion. I also like to understand the context of where people are coming from. It sets a ground for my work.

Where do you find support, as assistant bishop and as a lecturer?

Dr Onyango: I find support in my colleagues. As a lecturer and as a woman priest, we had formed a group where we share with each other. That group remains very key to me. I remember when I was being ordained as a priest, one of the things the bishop told us was: Never forget your colleagues, your friends, whom you knew, before you started climbing up the ladder—because they know who you are.” So Ive tried to keep friends who are not in the ministry— friends who can really hold me accountable. I try to find people who are not necessarily in the church hierarchy, friends I can just go and talk to, who can accompany me.

Have you encountered resistance because you are a woman?

Dr Onyango: Right from my appointment, there were people who were resisting. They used different tactics. Its interesting that some women in the church also wondered: How are you going to serve?” Theres one thing we used to say: First of all, smiling off” things helps for the moment. So I dont have to really react. I smile and say, Lets see how it will go.” I actually pray for grace so that my actions will really convince them. I think originally there was a lot of resistance.

When you were ordained, there was controversy because you were a single woman. Did you feel like you received support from the church?

Dr Onyango: Not so much. Interestingly, it was just a few colleagues who also felt women could minister who really supported me. But I think the worst discouragers were the people in the hierarchy of the church. The congregation I served became very supportive because for them, they saw somebody who was coming to serve. I got support from the congregation, from the Christians, and from friends. But the hierarchy of the church was not very supportive, in fact, there were times when I attended a meeting and when I was introduced as a reverend— there was laughter.

How much has changed?

Dr Onyango: So much has changed! When we started teaching, in the seminary most of the time, the church never sent women, but now there are scholarships, and we are in the seminary even if we are not all ordained and given positions. The numbers somehow changed, and so has the attitude.

What is your message to young people?

Dr Onyango: My message is that Christ has called us. We are made in His image. We are people of dignity, and I think many times young people are not sure of their identity. I can tell them the sky is the limit to pursue whatever God is calling them to do, especially their calls in the church. God cares for them. Many times young people in my diocese and the dioceses of Kenya feel left out. But I think the church is their place and God wants to meet all their needs. God is on their side.

African women church leaders: “Where is there justice today?”

Bishop Vicentia Kgabe: “It might sound cliché, but I had to learn to love God’s people”