Staci Bernard, the ambitious and beautiful jewel of the California church circuit began rising in the ranks since she was a teenager. She always had dreams of becoming a pastor one day despite the fact that she was a woman. Following the death of a beloved preacher in Watts, California, she was appointed the pastor of Center of Praise COGIC. The transition isn’t easy at first because most churchgoers still have a hard time believing that a woman is capable of filling the shoes of the late Bishop Mattison. However, her position as pastor is further overshadowed by her glaring single status. Staci wants to be married but, now that she is a pastor, she knows it would be much harder to find “the one.”
After a brief stint of Christian online dating, she meets Marcus an aspiring minister from Los Angeles. He’s tall, handsome, well-spoken and saved. After he sweeps her off her feet, Staci is sure that she found the man God sent to help her take on the task of her growing church. Unfortunately, Marcus isn’t as progressive-thinking as Staci thought and plans to shake up God’s house. Rumors, lies, and deception overshadow Staci’s term as an esteemed pastor. The man Staci thought was in love with her might be the only one standing in between her and pastoring the church she loves. Will Staci remain in the pulpit as the first female COGIC pastor in history or will she be misled by the trap the devil in disguise laid out for her?
Long Live the Queen
Bishop Fred Mattison died suddenly on a gray November evening right after Thanksgiving. His membership at Center of Praise Church of God in Christ boasted over two hundred people. Most of them had been there since the seventies and eighties. They were an aging crowd that had held on to the traditional preaching and praying of Bishop Mattison. Although the membership hadn’t grown, it had remained steady over the years. Deacons, Mothers, ushers, and musicians had praised God at Center of Praise since most of them could remember. Only the oldest members knew of a time when Bishop Mattison wasn’t pastor. However, it had been so long ago, that everyone was afraid of what the future would hold.
There would be a vote. The elders in the church would be allowed to heavily campaign to become the next in leadership. They knew it would be a long, messy process. So many churches had broken up because of it. Center of Praise had heard of fights breaking out in the middle of church after someone, who no one wanted, was voted in.
Unfortunately, they had a huge problem that no one would be able to overlook. None of the men in the church had received their “Elder’s License.” This meant that no one was eligible to put their hat in the ring. Bishop Mattison had no children that were interested in the ministry and he never appointed an assistant pastor. The only men with titles in the church were the deacons who would only be able to vote in someone else and not become the next pastor themselves.
Several weeks following Bishop Mattison’s funeral, several guest pastors came to show off their preaching talents but none of them resonated with the membership. Some of them were too boisterous while others required too many offerings. Some were too young and inexperienced while others seemed like they were old enough to have actually been one of Jesus’ disciples.
The church, still in the midst of grief, because their perfect pastor would never show up again in the body of a talented, young minister of virtue gave up their search. The deacon and mother’s board decided to put their fate in the hands of the Bishop of the Southern California Jurisdiction. He would be able to appoint someone from the ranks of hundreds of young elders across Los Angeles and beyond. They knew this would mean that they might get someone from another state who didn’t know anything about South Central Los Angeles, but most of the church decided it was worth it to take the risk.
Deacon Kingsley, a member of Center of Praise since 1985, received a letter from Bishop Timothy Abernathy head of the Southern California jurisdiction on a stifling, hot day in Los Angeles. Once he opened it, he thanked God that their prayers had been answered.
Dear Center of Praise,
I have located a lovely, young minister to be appointed to your church. Sunday, June 15th, will be their first day. Please welcome them with open arms and with the love of Christ our Lord and Savior. I will be making a visit to your location soon once they have been settled and installed. Bishop Mackenzie will be hosting the installation service that same day.
I look forward to meeting you all. Until then, may God bless and keep the Center of Praise Church of God in Christ.
Blessings from Our Savior,
Bishop Timothy J. Abernathy, Holiness Tabernacle Church of God in Christ
One of the other deacons caught him staring at the letter like he had won the lottery and asked what was wrong.
“We have found our pastor! Bishop Abernathy found one for us!”
“What if we don’t like them?”
“I put my full faith and trust into Abernathy. He’s always placed churches with that they were looking for. He wouldn’t do us wrong.”
“Let’s only hope,” the other deacon mumbled.
Word passed around the church that they would be getting their permanent pastor in two weeks. The common sentiment went from nervousness to excitement. Everyone tried to do their best to guess who it would be based on Bishop Abernathy’s previous picks for other churches. Quite a few of the ladies had already bought brand new suits and hats to show to the, potentially single, minister. They knew Abernathy liked to place younger, unmarried men in these positions so they could better grow with the church.
The entire membership worked together to give the church a facelift before the arrival of their new pastor. Carpets were steamed, the stained glass windows were polished, and the garden outside was manicured to look like the cover of Better Housekeeping.
On the day of the pastor’s arrival, members that hadn’t been to the church in years waited to catch a glimpse of the installment ceremony that would take up one hour of service. The balcony above the auditorium was so full, they needed extra usher coverage for that day.
Bishop Mackenzie, who would be conducting the ceremony arrived first with his entourage. Men in black suits and sunglasses followed him to the pulpit like the secret service.
Behind him, walked in a woman, who looked to be about forty years old, with shoulder length hair. She was brown skinned and wore a well-fitted suit that inched toward her knees. A brimmed hat tilted the side and partially shadowed her face. The purse she wore glided against her hips as she walked.
No one recognized her but she kept walking in the center of the aisle keeping her eye contact off everyone. Bishop Mackenzie walked down from his seat and lifted his arm so she could hold on as Staci walked up the small set of stairs to the pulpit.
“Is that his wife? I thought he was married to someone else? Did she die?” were the whispers that could be heard buzzing in the crowd.
She could hear them but gave the crowd a slight smile and stood next to the Bishop. She had a regal presence about her. Looking straight forward, she kept her gaze on Bishop Mackenzie as if waiting to be called into battle.
None of the members had ever seen a woman stand in the pulpit before. They had never witnessed a woman so confident around other men. It was like she was one of them but in a skirt.
“Let the church say, Amen!” Bishop Mackenzie began. “Now, I know everyone is waiting for the big reveal. Isn’t God good?”
“All the time! And all the time God is good!” The crowd echoed.
“Well, I won’t delay the surprise any longer. However, I would like to introduce this person as one of the loveliest people I’ve ever met. They have their mind and heart on the love of the Lord. They have preached all over the world. This person has ministered in Jamaica, Nigeria, Ghana, and Puerto Rico. They’re saved, sanctified, and filled with the Holy Ghost! They preach holiness or hell and aren’t afraid to tell some of the saints that they need to stop sinning.”
“Alright now!” A man in the crowd shouted.
“Center of Praise Church of God in Christ! I would like to introduce to you, your new shepherd, Pastor Staci Evangline Bernard! Let’s put our hands together! Amen!”
Staci grabbed the mic and saw a sea of open mouths and nervous claps. Husbands looked at their wives and mothers grabbed their children. The mother’s board was so still, the ushers wanted to check on them to make sure they weren’t having a medical emergency.
Staci then heard a child whisper to his mother. The boy was in the second row, so she clearly saw him try to get his mother’s attention while pointing.
“Mommy, it’s a lady! Look!”
The mother, clearly embarrassed, mouthed that she was sorry and diverted her line of sight somewhere else.
Staci knew the crowd wasn’t impressed but this had been expected. She was trying to become a pastor in one of the most traditional church organizations that existed. She was also the first to do it. Bishop Abernathy had appointed her as the first female pastor of her church organization. Previously, women had only been allowed to be missionaries, evangelists, mothers in the church, and Sunday school teachers. However, this was the first time anyone in the church had ever seen a woman stand in the pulpit and not the podium on the main floor.
“Good morning, Center of Praise!”
An unenthused “Good Morning” from the people followed.
“I am looking forward to being the pastor of this wonderful church. I have read and studied as much as I could about Bishop Mattison. God truly blessed that man to preach his word with such conviction. I know I have big shoes to fill but, with your help, I hope you will be willing to give me a chance to be the leader that you need me to be. I will preach the very same word this church had always treasured. I will make sure that the prayer line stays open. I want to maintain great relationships with all of you. I want to see the youth taking the church by storm. This is one of the greatest churches in Los Angeles. I grew up right here in Watts. I’m a local girl. I attended this church briefly as a teenager before I moved to Moreno Valley with my parents. However, there is no greater church than the grand ole’ Church of God in Christ! Can I get an amen!”
Staci knew she had gained a little bit more of her trust in just the few minutes she spoke to them. She saw shoulders start to relax and the mother’s board gave her slightly less of a side eye.
“You may be seated!”
She was a sweet faced, brown skinned woman with straightened hair that sat on her shoulders. Her high cheekbones raised effortlessly when she smiled. Her hair had always been thick but it was hard to manage when it was too long so she kept it at a shorter length. She wore minimal makeup but always kept a coral lipstick on. It always highlighted her skin tone well. Staci had always been petite but at five feet six inches, she was slightly taller than the average woman. Traditional suits and hats lined her closet so she knew she wouldn’t have trouble fitting in. Although, Staci enjoyed wearing sweat suits and jeans on a typical day, she knew that pants were not going to go over well with the traditionalists at Center of Praise.
Bishop Mackenzie led the installation service and said a long-winded prayer that sent a few of those in the membership into an unintended slumber. The holy oil that always sat on the altar was placed on Staci’s forehead in the shape of a cross. She then got on her knees and began to speak in tongues asking God to guide her as she took the position of pastor.
The praise service followed which increased the comfort level of the membership once again. However, most of those who had come just to see who the new pastor was, left during offering. When she got up to preach, she was left with the most faithful two hundred who had been of service to Bishop Mattison for as long as they could remember.
Staci got up to preach following offering. She knew that they weren’t looking for someone to be an exact copy of Bishop Mattison but she knew some of the key topics church members would want to hear.
Pastor Bernard preached about love and all the ways that people could show it unconditionally.
“Now saints, I know it may be hard to love those who may not love you. Jesus says that we should love our brothers and sisters. He meant everyone. He even means that one family member that cuts their eyes at you every time they see you. This doesn’t mean that you have to spend time together every day. Love is respect. It is knowing that this person was still created by God and deserved to have compassion. You never know why people don’t like you. A lot of times it’s because they have been hurt themselves. Pray for them. Just pray for people. God wants us to keep a prayer in our heart for others. Be genuine. God loves those that love him but, you better believe it, he still loves those who don’t quite care for him too.”
Staci knew she had wooed most of the crowd. She had dozens of people standing and hanging on to her every word. A few of the deacons were still visibly upset. A few had gone into the back of the church until service was over.
The church began singing a congregational song following her sermon.
I get joy when I think about what he’s done for me!
I get joy when I think about what he’s done for me!
You can’t tell it! Let me tell it!
What he’s done for me!
Staci joined the worship by grabbing the nearest tambourine and then taking the lead to the song for a couple minutes.
Soon, the mother’s board stood and all the deacons came out of hiding to witness what was going on. The entire church was on their feet. Staci came down from the pulpit and began to shout as the music changed to become faster paced.
A few joined her and she held hands with them to pray once the music stopped.
It was one of the most memorable services Center of Praise had ever seen. The oldest members of the church still couldn’t believe that it was a woman that had the church up and shouting for the first time since their revival last year. It was like she had lifted the church from a place of despair. Grief and anger began to dissipate from the minds of the membership. Some of them thought that they might truly learn to love Pastor Staci Bernard.
Offering came and then the benediction.
God be with you!
Until we meet again!
The church sang their signature closing song and then hundreds of parishioners lined up to shake Staci’s hand and welcome her to the church.
Bishop Mackenzie bid her “goodbye” and walked out with his fleet of security. A few of the deacons tried to get his attention so they could ask a few more questions about where she came from. His security made them step back so he could enter his silver Maserati without problems.
What did she do for a living? Where was her husband? How many children did she have?
These were the questions spinning around in the heads of anyone in her presence. They thought she was pretty, sweet natured, and smart. However, other than that, she had no other footprints in Watts that they could research.
After only a handful of members were still at the church, Staci decided to give her social media information to the Sunday School teacher. The teacher, named Martha, was still in college trying to earn her degree to become an elementary school teacher.
“Thank you, Pastor Bernard. I’ll send it to the older youth. I’m sure they’d like to connect with you!”
Staci shook her hand and promised to help her begin building an even larger youth program.
Just before Staci could lock the doors of the church two hours later and get in her car, she picked up her phone and saw that she had over one hundred notifications to befriend her on social media. She added them all but she couldn’t help but find it sweet that they were all trying to get to know her so quickly.
Hello All! Thank you for welcoming me to Center of Praise!
Staci said as a status message. Seventy-five likes followed within minutes.
“I think I’m going to like this church,” Staci whispered to herself while driving the long way home. She hoped she could buy a house in Watts one day to be closer to the people.
Until then, social media would have to suffice.
As the days went on, Staci became more comfortable with her position. It wasn’t the easiest transition and, due to her being a woman, she felt that the deacons were making it intentionally harder. They told her that she would need to make sure several tasks were done before the following Sunday such as making sure that the banking was done for the offering and that she opened the church on Wednesdays for prayer. Staci assured them several times that she knew what she was doing but there was still some mild tension between herself and the deacons. She figured they would get over it.
Her social media page had more followers than she had ever anticipated. People were already sending her private messages asking for prayer and if she would do some favors for them such as officiate a wedding or Christening.
Staci was somewhat overwhelmed by the attention but she had worked for years to head her own church and, so far, most of the membership treated her with respect.
One of the oldest women at the church, Mother Earnestine Holloway, called her on Thursday night.
Staci barely heard her cellphone ring but she answered it just in time.
The gravelly, weakened voice of an elderly woman began.
“Hello, Sister Bernard. This is Mother Earnestine.”
Staci didn’t feel like correcting a ninety-year old woman that she preferred to be called either Pastor Bernard or Pastor Staci. She just hoped the mistake wouldn’t catch on. It was important to her that everyone in the church was given their correct title.
“Yes, hello Mother Holloway. How are you?”
“I’m doing just fine, baby. Well on Sunday, the women told me we gonna have a dinner after church to celebrate you. They wanted everybody to get together. Now they said it was gonna be a surprise but I told them folks you can’t sit up here and surprise no pastor. You need to tell folks or they might leave and gone ‘bout they business.”
Mother Earnestine’s thick, southern accent comforted Staci. Her grandmother had passed away many years ago so this was the first time she had a close relationship with an older person since then.
“Well I’m so honored. I’ll definitely be there. I’m looking forward to fellowshipping with all of you.”
“Well that’s all I was gonna say. You sure did bring the message last Sunday.”
“Thank you, ma’am.”
“I’ll be praying for you, baby,” Mother Earnestine said weakly.
Staci ended the call and went to her closet to start organizing her church clothes. She was always conservatively dressed but she wanted to include even more suits into her wardrobe to mirror what most of the women wore at City of Praise.
It was a possibility that she would wear a pastoral robe during communion and ceremonies. However, she didn’t want to spring that on them quite yet. People were still getting used to having a woman as pastor and wouldn’t be ready to embrace a woman looking exactly like the male pastor some of them still wished they had.
Her days were full of work now. Although the church was smaller than most, it needed a lot of oversight. Many of the departments had shrunk over the years such as the youth department. In order for the church to grow, Staci would have to find a way to attract more young people. She had to find out how to do this with maintaining the integrity of the church.
By the time Sunday arrived, Staci was exhausted. She preached as she would every Sunday from now on but immediately after service, she went into the pastor’s office to rest on her lounge chair.
Within ten minutes of her nap, she heard a knock at her door. It was one of the women from the mother’s board.
Staci cracked the door open.
“Pastor, they’re ready for you?”
Staci put her heels back on and paced to the back of the church where the dining room was. She had removed her hat but took her purse with her. Although she was now a pastor, Staci was determined to always look as feminine as possible.
She wore a red suit with a shimmering lapel. A gold cross pin was close to her collar. She began shaking hands as soon as she stepped into the dining room. Her seat was reserved for her at the head of the main table. Staci prayed over the dinner and then allowed the membership to get the food that was laid out buffet style.
She smiled so much, her cheeks began to hurt.
The mother’s board kept a close eye on her like a hawk to its prey. The deacons finally came around to greet her once again but, this time, began to passive aggressively ask her questions in an attempt to quiz her about the Bible.
Staci had almost completed her Doctorate of Divinity so she knew the Bible more than most people. She could quote scriptures like children knew their ABCs. Eventually, the deacons would stop questioning whether or not she knew “the word” well enough to teach it.
The Director of Hospitality, Anne Keys, placed a pile of food on a plate in front of her. Staci wondered why they hadn’t asked her about her potential food restrictions and allergies but then she realized that this was Watts and large meals like this were scarce for many of her members.
Staci thanked her and began eating while talking to most of the older women. It wasn’t the most comfortable feeling but then a seat opened between two women for the Sunday School teacher to sit down. She and Staci began to talk since they knew they would have more in common. Martha was twenty-seven years old but very mature for her age.
“Pastor Bernard, you said that you wanted to improve the youth department. What were one of the things you were going to tackle first?” Martha began.
Suddenly, a hush fell on the table. Everyone’s ears were locked in on what Staci would say.
“Well, I spoke to a couple of the young people this morning and it looks like they would enjoy having a praise dance team.”
Staci watched the elderly Mother’s Board gasp in unison. The old pastor banned praise dancing because he felt that they were unnecessary and had people “dancing out of the spirit.”
“Oh, I don’t know if the young people would need that. We’ve never danced in church except under the guidance of the holy spirit.”
“Yes, I understand Mother Holloway. However, we have so much talent just sitting here at church and a praise dance team encourages team work, exercise, music education, and holiness all in one.”
“Now how is dancing out the spirit holy?” Mother Jackson murmured under her breath with a mouth full of food.
“I know many of you aren’t keen on change but I promise that this will be a wonderful way to introduce the church to the amazing talents of the youth. Most churches have a praise or flag team now. All they do is add beauty to worship. They won’t take away from the spiritual dancing. Besides, I’ve seen some praise dancers get engrossed in the spirit and then start shouting after a performance. You never know how this art form might touch somebody.”
Martha smiled at her answer and decided to talk about a few more church-related topics until the two began talking about their experiences in college. The Mothers’ Board eventually tuned them out.
Staci felt a tap on her shoulder a few minutes later. She looked in both directions until she saw a man, who appeared closer to her age, smile with his hand outstretched. Staci shook his hand. His handshake was firm and genuine. He had kind eyes and slightly receding hairline.
He introduced himself as Todd Jenkins. He had been the church organist and pianist for the past fifteen years. As soon as she stood to greet him, her five-inch heels allowed her to almost tower over his thin, five-feet-seven inch frame.
“I just wanted to personally welcome you Pastor Bernard. I hadn’t gotten the chance to say anything. I’ve really enjoyed the preaching these last two Sundays. If you ask me, Bishop Mattison would be proud.”
“Thank you so much, I truly appreciate it.”
“I’m one of the musicians. I’ve been here for about fifteen years.”
He wore gold rimmed glasses and his striped collared shirt was wrinkled. He reminded her of a slightly older Urkel from the T.V. show Family Matters. He had a patchy beard and had an overwhelming cologne scent that Staci was still able to smell long after he left her side.
“Well, you sure do know how to play. Thank you for backing me up these last two Sundays. Now, I’m not one of those preachers that needs A flat at the end of my message to end it but I have my own style.”
“No, pastor,” he laughed. “You’re doing a great job. I can’t wait to see what else is in store. I’ll be praying for you.”
Staci shook his hand once again and then sat down. She saw Martha try to hide rolling her eyes. A couple of the women she sat next to shook their heads.
“Well, he’s very nice. He’s very talented too,” Staci uttered.
“He is. He can just be a little irritating sometimes. He’s been trying to get the youth department off the ground for a while.” Martha said with her eyes still gazing down at her food.
“Why is that annoying? He sounds ambitious.”
Staci ended that conversation topic and picked up where they left off talking about college. She guessed that Todd was like that annoying nerd in high school that always asked you out to the school dances but you’d rather go with anyone else but him.
Following the dinner, Staci gave a “thank you” speech and led a prayer for everyone before they left.
She shook the hands of dozens more before she finally retired in her office for the next hour. Resting her eyes in an empty church was peaceful and relaxing to her. She always felt the glory of God around her whenever she was in his house of worship. Staci had always loved being in church for as long as she could remember. When other teenagers were trying to find any excuse to get out of going to church, Staci always found a way to participate more.
From being an usher to a youth missionary, Staci still loved putting in more work for the Lord. Now, she was able to do it full time. She had a job as a secretary for a shipping company to support her while she earned her degree but wouldn’t need it anymore. Never in her wildest dreams did she expect to be fully supported by her dream job as a pastor.
Following other pastors on social media and networking with them became another aspect of her job. She wanted to know more about what some of the most popular pastors in the nation did to grow their church. Her dream was to increase the membership roll by more than three-hundred in two years. Unfortunately, Watts had also begun to see an exodus of African Americans to the desert areas for cheaper housing. More Hispanics had moved in to replace them. To keep up, Staci was going to figure out how to create more inclusive services that were in English and Spanish. The youth department needed more outlets to attract more young people to a rapidly aging church. The church could use a guitarist and sound technician instead of relying on Todd for everything.
It was going to be a lot of work but Staci knew she was up for the challenge.
Her mother and father congratulated her on leading her own church. Her father, a former traveling minister, felt proud that his daughter had gotten to do what he had once imagined for himself.
“You know they’re going to try to mess with you because you’re a woman. You got to ignore those devils.”
“I know, Dad,” Staci answered while talking to him on the phone that Sunday evening.
“They think that just because you’re a woman, you’ll make decisions based on emotion.”
“And I know it’s not true but they can think what they want. I’ll just have to pray for them.”
“Although, I do wish my baby girl had some help.”
“As in what? I have a whole deacon’s board that won’t let me carry out any decision without putting it past them first.”
“No. I mean a family. You were always moving around so much that you must have forgotten that God wants us to be blessed with family too.”
Her father’s sickly yet deep voice trailed through the receiver of the phone like she was hearing bad news from the doctor’s office. She tried to keep a single tear from falling out of her eye. She always wanted a partnership but she knew that having a family would get in the way of her missionary work and education. She had been able to quickly rise in the ranks of an organization that shunned women as leaders. She was like the Hilary Clinton of the black church.
However, the first rule of the game was not admitting weakness. No one at church missed a “Mr. Bernard” so she assumed it wasn’t necessary. Besides, Staci thought that at forty-years-old, she wasn’t exactly the young flower men were running after. Although many people thought she was at least five to seven years younger than she really was, she could feel that men were intimidated by a woman that was a world traveling missionary, a minister, a youth pastor, an assistant pastor, and later the pastor of her own church. Staci was sure that men wanted a more docile woman that would make a beautiful first lady to sit in the front row. She was never the type of woman to sit and look pretty so finding a saved man that understood her aspirations might be difficult to find.
Her heart still longed for companionship but, at the moment, she was married to Jesus and hopefully the rest of the church would see and understand where her heart was.