“As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:27-28).
As I approach a birthday this week, I have been thinking about a number of family, personal, and professional milestones. Some were very positive experiences, some were bittersweet, and some were disappointing.
One of the things that I am disappointed about was my failure to stand up for women in ministry early in my ministry. Although I always encouraged everyone—male and female—to discover and exercise their gifts and abilities through the church and campus ministry, there were some times when I faltered. One was in discouraging women to take the top leadership roles in our campus organization.
Of course, during that time, I did not know any women who were ordained or who were pastors of congregations. I did not know any women who were seminary professors except in areas such as music ministry or religious education. I was immersed in my culture and was trying to preserve what I knew.
This began to change about 1980. We joined a church with women deacons. Several women I knew through campus ministry were seeking ordination. Others were taking “non-traditional” leadership roles in seminaries and other institutions. I also came to realize that denying women their rightful place in the church was one of the agenda items of those leading the “conservative resurgence” in the Southern Baptist Convention.
While working on a Baptist college campus from 1980 to 1984, I actively encouraged young women leaders to be open to pursuing their ministry goals in spite of conservative opposition. We were able to bring several women who were leaders in ministry to speak in chapel services before the entire student body. We even saw a woman elected as president of the campus ministerial association for the first time.
During my time working with a state Baptist convention, I actively sought out gifted women leaders to work on college campuses. None of these were ordained, but the very fact that they were involved in leading collegiate programs that included both men and women was threatening to some in administrative positions. One of the primary reasons I knew that my time with the state convention was drawing to a close was an awareness that the young women who had been nurtured in our collegiate ministry and who were then seeking ordination would be never have the opportunity to be employed by convention.
Some argued with me that ordination was not important, but I was fully aware that convention and location advisory boards were always pleased to hear that a candidate for a position was ordained—but only if that person was male.
Through my work with the Tennessee Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, Pinnacle Leadership Associates, and Central Baptist Theological Seminary, I have had the opportunity to work with and learn from a number of gifted women. Although some affirm that the roles that women now play in such organizations show how far we have come, I encourage them to face reality—we have not turned the corner yet. Until women are considered for all places of leadership in the local congregation as well as denominational agencies and institutions, we still have much to do.
I finally woke up and saw the reality. I hope others will as well.