Methodist pastor Lea Joyner, the only ordained woman in the Methodist Church in mid-twentieth century Louisiana, was one of the most popular pastors in the state.
Methodist pastor Lea Joyner, the only ordained woman in the Methodist Church in mid-twentieth century Louisiana, was one of the most popular pastors in the state. In the 1950s, she founded Southside United Methodist Church in a particularly impoverished section of Monroe. By the time of her death, the church included more than two thousand members, making it the largest Methodist church pastored by a woman in the United States. Joyner overcame discrimination against women ministers and helped open the door for female leaders in mainline Protestantism.
Travis Lea Joyner was born on June 17, 1917, and lived in a tent near Gilbert in Franklin Parish with her parents, Vilula McKeithen and Owens Travis Joyner. When she was ten, the family moved to Grayson in Caldwell Parish, where her cousin, future Louisiana governor John McKeithen, lived nearby. Joyner, who had wanted to preach since early childhood, attended Westminster College in Texas and graduated from High Point College in North Carolina. Instead of attending seminary, however, she returned home to help support her parents.
In early 1939, Joyner was ordained in the Methodist Protestant Church, months before it merged with the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. Though the newly created church, known as the Methodist Church, did not allow women to be ordained, its leaders accepted her ministerial credentials. She was, in effect, “grandmothered” into the ministry, though no other Methodist woman was ordained in Louisiana until 1967.
Joyner’s first assignment was the Columbia circuit, which included the Sardis, Hebert, Walnut Grove, and Pine Grove churches, along with a church she founded, Columbia Heights. Circuits are composed of small churches that cannot afford a minister of their own; the pastor travels to the various churches to preach on a regular basis. The salary was only $5 a year, so Joyner made her living teaching school. After five years, she went to Monroe’s First Methodist Church, where she served as the pastor’s assistant for about eight years. Had she been a male, Joyner would have had the title “associate pastor.” Further, she was rarely allowed to preach. Convinced that God had called her to preach, Joyner persevered despite discouragement from the church hierarchy.
In 1952, she established missions between the levee and the Ouachita River, serving very poor residents there, and founded Southside Methodist Church. Joyner worked day and night to assist those in need, and Southside grew to include more than 2,200 members. She put a strong emphasis on evangelism and was well known for faithfulness in visitation, especially to patients in area hospitals.
Later in life, Joyner received many awards, including honorary doctorates from Centenary College and Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky. On March 12, 1985, an emotionally disturbed young man, whom she had tried to help, murdered her. Some four thousand mourners attended her funeral. The city of Monroe named a street after her, as well as bridge spanning the Ouachita River, on whose banks she once ministered. Following her death, her congregation moved to northern Monroe and renamed itself Lea Joyner United Methodist Church.