Finding Her Niche
Shannon E. Polk developed an eclectic religious worldview as a child growing up in Flint, Michigan. Polk’s parents divorced when she was 6, and her mother, Glorious Cummings-Tolbert, took her to a Christian Methodist Episcopal church. But on the Sundays her mom worked as a hospital phlebotomist, Shannon went to church with her grandparents — either Baptist or Church of God in Christ (COGIC) services.
“People in my life loved Jesus and showed that love in so many ways,” recalls Polk. “Women around me modeled faith.”
That especially held true for her mother, who consistently served God in a quiet way. Polk remembers seeing her many nights kneeling in prayer by her bed.
“She was a strong, stabilizing force in my life,” Polk says.
Polk sensed a call to ministry as a teenager, but her mother discouraged her from attending a Christian college, figuring the extended family had enough preachers already. Instead, Polk set her sights on politics, and graduated from Michigan State University in Lansing with a Bachelor of Arts in International Relations.
A loss in a county commissioner election dispelled Polk’s notions of a political career. She switched to studying law at the Western Michigan University Lansing campus. Polk, an only child, took time off to be her mother’s caregiver as Cummings-Tolbert struggled with breast cancer. Cummings-Tolbert died in 2000 at the age of 53.
Despite obtaining her Juris Doctorate specializing in litigation, Polk — who had been filled with the Holy Spirit at a charismatic prayer meeting as a teenager — still felt a call to ministry. She married her Presbyterian husband, Jon, in 2007, and he initially told her he didn’t believe in women ministers — until he heard her preach. Jon, who is an attorney, suggested she needed even more education. So Polk enrolled at Assemblies of God Theological Seminary in Springfield, Missouri, where she earned a Doctor of Ministry in Missional Leadership.
Although COGIC is the largest Pentecostal denomination in the U.S., the predominantly African-American group doesn’t ordain women. Polk says she gravitated toward the AG because of the sense of structure and holding leaders accountable. Sam Huddleston, assistant superintendent of the AG’s Northern California & Nevada District, is among her mentors.
“Shannon is a lady who speaks with anointed clarity for today,” says Huddleston, who also is an AG executive presbyter. “She is a voice that is needed in the Church and in society. She is a woman on a mission, whom both men and women would do well to listen to.”
Over the past 15 years, Polk has developed a career in the nonprofit and government sectors. She has extensive experience as a philanthropic grant maker, program director, and consultant. Her research has examined the laws, policies, and practices of public and charitable organizations that impact diversity and inclusion of marginalized people. Her current work focuses on leadership development for women and people of color.
Johan Mostert, one of Polk’s professors at AGTS, also is an admirer.
“Shannon represents a growing number of cross-disciplinary specialists who can professionally draw from more than one field of expertise to enrich the work of the Church,” says Mostert, who now is CompaCare director at COMPACT Family Services in Hot Springs, Arkansas. “The creativity and interdisciplinary work of these specialists is essential for the future growth of the kingdom of God.”
The Polks, who have a 6-year-old daughter, Lara, eventually wound up at Riverside Tabernacle in downtown Flint, her hometown. Last year, Tom Mattiuzzo invited her to become associate pastor at the 90-year-old church.
“We needed her to be sitting at the table with us,” says Mattiuzzo, who has been pastor at the largely Anglo church for 27 years. “We needed her voice as a young person, as a woman, and as an African American.”
Mattiuzzo says Polk brings a wealth of experience and wisdom to her role.
“She knows a world that I am unfamiliar with,” says Mattiuzzo, 63.
“In my entire life, I’ve had very few leadership experiences where I’ve had this kind of support,” Polk says. “Pastor Mattiuzzo has never not allowed me to do something because of my gender or ethnicity.”
She appreciates Mattiuzzo’s commitment to the economically struggling Flint, where the population has dwindled to 96,000, less than half its peak 60 years ago.
Polk has been grateful for being embraced by the AG’s National Black Fellowship, where she has been a speaker and panelist at the organization’s biennial Reach conferences. Breaking down racial barriers remains a priority for her. She recently co-authored a chapter of the book Race, Work, and Leadership: New Perspectives on the Black Experience.
While embracing the mutually inclusive callings of marriage, ministry, and motherhood, Polk is pleased that leadership in the Assemblies of God is looking more like the 3.1 million adherents overall, 43 percent of whom are ethnic minorities. One-third of the AG’s 21-member Executive Presbytery is nonwhite.
“The demographics of who is in our pews is changing to match who our neighbors are,” Polk says.
Meanwhile, Riverside Tabernacle has grown as diverse — ethnically and generationally — as it’s ever been since Mattiuzzo and his wife, Rhonda, arrived in 1992. Back then, no one else under age 50 attended the church.
Riverside Tabernacle has been holding monthly joint services with a predominantly African-American nondenominational church. A merger may been in the offing between the two like-minded congregations. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Flint is 54 percent black and 40 percent white.
“Maybe we can accomplish more together than we could individually,” Mattiuzzo says. “And we need to make a statement in one of the most historically segregated cities in the nation.”