At a neighborhood evangelism program in her hometown of Roanoke, Va., 9-year-old Cynthia Hale turned to an adult family friend and asked, “Is God like my father?”
“Yes,” the friend told her, “he is just like your father.”
Nearly 50 years after that day when she accepted Christ, Cynthia Hale is the founding pastor of 5,100-member megachurch in Decatur, Ga., with a budget of $4.5 million. A profound achievement for any pastor, it is virtually unheard of among African-American women in a world where race and gender remain challenges to leadership in and out of the churchThere were obstacles along the way, including skeptics who questioned her call. “Some people are just negative,” says Hale. “They’ll try to shut your dreams down. I’ve always believed that I, along with other people, could change the world for Christ.”
Hale began Ray of Hope Christian Church in 1986 with a small Bible study in her living room. Today, The Ray’s two Sunday morning services average 1,500 worshipers, many drawn by the charisma and widening reputation of its leader.
According to Mark Chaves, Duke professor of sociology, religion, and divinity and head of the National Congregations Study, those figures make Hale an exception on multiple levels.
Based on the 2006-07 survey of 1,506 U.S. congregations, Hale’s The Ray is among just 10 percent of American churches led by women. And the larger the church, the less likely a woman is in the pulpit. A 1998 survey of 1,234 U.S. congregations revealed that just 4 percent of churches with more than 350 regularly participating adults had a woman in charge.
While African-American women have had some success in getting their own churches, Chaves said many of these congregations are small and outside of mainstream denominations.
Such numbers mean little at The Ray. When members are asked whether a woman is able to preach the word, Hale says their response is short and sweet: “She does it every Sunday.”
Going Her Own Way
When Hale lost out on a job to lead a church of 25, she realized it was going to be difficult for a woman to get a pulpit no matter its size. So she started her own.