East Spencer native led the way for female pastors

  • Posted: Saturday, June 29, 2013 11:08 a.m.
The Rev. Barbara Jean Barbour recently retired from the ministry.
The Rev. Barbara Jean Barbour recently retired from the ministry.

The Rev. Barbara Jean Barbour never intended to be a trailblazer, but that’s what she became.

The East Spencer native made history as the first female pastor of a church in Washington, DC.


But she didn’t stop there. She was the first woman pastor at more than half a dozen churches during her time in the ministry.

“In the ministry coming in as a woman you experience a lot of discrimination because that was not a popular thing for women to do back then,” she said.

Barbour’s family, friends, and even other pastors were initially against her decision to become a pastor, but she kept pushing forward, establishing differ=ent churches up and down the East Coast.

“I’ve always been very outspoken and I stand on what I believe and the Word of God, if it’s right it lines up with that, so I stand my ground,” she said.

While she traveled the country preaching the Gospel, Barbour wrote the book “Herstory as Woman, Pastor and Preacher” about the challenges she faced as a female pastor.

“I’ve always enjoyed writing and reading and the Lord just laid on my heart to write,” she said.

Barbour had to learn a balance in a male-dominated field.

“I still wanted to remain with my femininity, but to be able to do what God had called me to do,” she said.

Back to the beginning

Barbour was ordained in 1978. By 1981, she had earned the status of deacon and in 1983 she was an elder.

The decision to go into ministry came shortly after graduation from Dunbar High School. She had moved to Philadelphia to live with her great uncle and aunt when she got involved with the church.

She had grown up Baptist, but had started to drift from the church in her teenage years.

Later she went to Des Moines, Iowa and met a friend who invited her to come to become a leader in the African Methodist Episcopal church.

“I prayed about it and talked to the minister and I felt I had a call into the ministry, and I just felt the Lord wanted me to be there,” she said.

At the time, the church was emphasizing education and she eventually went back to school to earn her master’s in theological study.

Prior to that, Barbour had earned her bachelor’s degree from West Virginia University and worked as a medical technician.

“I continued to work as a med tech, primarily in hematology and chemistry, even after being accepted in the ministry,” she said.

It wasn’t until later, when Barbour moved back to Washington, DC that she left her profession.

She was working at the Washington, DC VA doing research with an oral surgeon when she had to bow out after being diagnosed with pulmonary sarcoidosis of the lungs. The chemicals used for the research were too toxic for her body.

“I just got to a point I could not function with staying in there,” she said. “Having sarcoidosis is very stressful. I lived in an apartment and it would take me a half hour to go up the steps ... I’d have to stop and rest.”

But Barbour never allowed her health issues stop her from doing what she felt called to do.

Two decades passed before Barbour had another bout of bad health. She was diagnosed with breast cancer while working as the pastor of Piney Grove AME Church in Raleigh.

She made it through and continued to preach, eventually landing at White Cross AME in Efland.

Barbour served as the first female pastor of White Cross in the church’s 130 year history.

She was there six years before being diagnosed with multiple myeloma.

“I’m 73, and the law in the AME church is you must retire at the age of 75,” she said. “But since I was diagnosed and started chemo and the bone treatment I was unable to really function the way that I should, so I decided to retire.

“I’ve always felt that if I cannot fulfill the responsibility that I was supposed to it would be injustice to me and the congregation to continue.”

Barbour said she retired from the church, but not from the Gospel. She received her official certificate of retirement during the Western North Carolina Annual Conference earlier this year.

A few months ago, Barbour moved back to Rowan County to be closer to her sister, Diane.

“She has been a lifesaver in just taking care of me,” she said.

Barbour said her greatest accomplishment in life has been paving the way for other women to go into the ministry.

“They consider me as the trailblazer in how I helped them to adjust and overcome a lot of discrimination,” she said. “I just wanted to see justice and equality.”

Barbour, a soft spoken and humble woman, stayed in the church despite the discrimination because of her devotion to the Lord.

“I just felt that because I have strong faith and believe that regardless of what you’re going through you should continue,” she said. “It’s not easy, I had to go through, but I’m so glad that trouble doesn’t last always.”

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