Several years ago while I was working for a state Baptist convention, I received a phone call from a woman who had been recently accepted the call as pastor of a church that participated in the convention. She was about to attend her first annual meeting of the convention. After receiving a less than hospitable welcome from the local Baptist association, she was concerned about her messenger credentials being challenged on the floor of the convention. Someone had suggested that I might walk her through the constitution and by-laws and identify any mine fields. We had a pleasant conversation, and she thanked me for my guidance. My response was, “Don’t mention it. In fact, please don’t let anyone know that we talked.” Not my finest hour and certainly not a “profile in courage.”
The results, at least, were positive. She did attend the convention, was introduced as a new pastor, and experienced no problems to the best of my knowledge.
About five years ago, I was visiting with a friend who was associate pastor of an African-American church in our area. She was actively seeking ordination and the opportunity to pastor a church. Her national denomination would soon be meeting in her city, and I asked if she planned to attend. She responded very quickly, “I don’t go where I am not accepted and respected.”
She did become a senior pastor shortly afterward, but she had to move to another denomination first.
Juxtaposing these two conversations, separated by about twenty years, helps me to reflect on how women who are called to ministry respond to their circumstances and what it means to the denominations that birthed them.
In the first instance, I believe that the pastor who went to the state Baptist convention was acting out of hope (perhaps with her church’s encouragement) that the system could change and that women would be welcomed as pastors in a traditional Baptist convention. Eventually, this woman found that this was not going to happen and she left to join another Baptist group. But she tried.
My friend of recent years had invested herself in a traditional Baptist denomination, pushing the edges of acceptance, and had finally come to the same conclusion. She moved on.
What does this say to us about the possibilities for women in ministry today? First, I believe it says that we still have a long way to go. Even moderate Baptist churches who voice support for women ministers are slow to consider them as “senior” pastors—that is, the person who preaches from the pulpit and is head of staff. Second, the lesson is that there are alternatives of women called to preach. They may have to leave and join a more progressive Baptist group or another denomination in order to fulfill their calling but the option is available.
Both of these observations create some frustration on my part. On one hand, moderate Baptists are making progress, but it is painfully slow. On the other hand, moderate Baptists lose out when our gifted women must leave the churches that nurtured them in order to live out their call.
At least I am grateful that both of the women cited in my stories have gone on to fruitful ministries but I am sad for those they left behind.