John Smyth. Thomas Helwys. Roger Williams. William Carey. Luther Rice. Billy Graham. Martin Luther King, Jr.
All these names are deeply embedded in our Baptist consciousness. But what about Catherine Scott? Sarah Wright? Mary Webb? M.A. Brannen? The small Baptist church in which I grew up and was nurtured in the faith did not have official, ordained women ministers. Anyone who was paying attention, though, knew that the women of the church made most events and gatherings possible. From Sunday school teachers to children’s church leaders; from the annual church fish fry to the annual churchwide camping trip; from church plays and cantatas to bereavement groups to casseroles and meals after a death; in all of these moments and so many more, the women of the church were bona fide leaders. It’s not that men didn’t work or were apathetic to the cause, because those guys certainly loved their church. It’s just that the women of the church were also true leaders in the life of the church. But the two places where women were not welcomed were in the pulpit to “preach” on Sunday mornings and Sunday nights, and in the Deacons’ meetings held once a month. Now, when one of my female friends in the youth group would share a testimony from a particularly moving week at youth camp, that wasn’t preaching. At least in the minds of most. But that proclamation of the Good News of God found in the life of Jesus of Nazareth and in the power of God’s Spirit was as authentic a sermon as any that had ever been preached at Mount Pleasant Baptist Church. And while women did a great deal of the work in the life of the church, they were certainly not welcomed to come to the Deacons’ meetings where the business and administration of the church were conducted. No, “real” sermons and by extension, “real” church leadership, were reserved for men. I know I am not alone in these experiences from my formative years. In fact, most of the congregations within the CBFGA and even the broader CBF family were probably run like this 40-something years ago. Thanks be to God, however, that’s no longer the case. Almost all of our congregational partners affirm women in church leadership and in Gospel ministry. There are a few of our partner churches that do not have women as deacons, but I suspect those numbers will continue to decline as more churches realize that women can and should be leading. Where we have much, much work to do, however, is in encouraging, promoting, and installing women as pastors of congregations. CBF and CBFGA like to pride ourselves on being open and encouraging to women in ministerial positions and leadership, but unfortunately, for all our cheerleading, there are only 3 women currently pastoring CBFGA partner congregations. We have about 90 congregational partners, so 3.33% is a fairly sad percentage for women pastors in Georgia. When I consult with congregations who are in the midst of pastoral transitions, one of my first questions for search committees is whether they will strongly consider a woman as their next pastor. While I sometimes receive an affirmative answer, too often I receive an answer that goes like this: “We support women in leadership, and we have women deacons. But, unfortunately at this point, we don’t think our church is ready for a woman pastor.” Another scenario that plays out far too often is that many medium-sized to larger congregations do not feel that a woman could be an effective pastoral leader, and so women who feel a deep and abiding call from God to pastor are relegated to smaller or even dying churches with the charge to help revitalize the congregation. Sadly, when that doesn’t happen – often because of factors beyond any pastor’s control – folks come away saying, “She was nice and all, but it’s apparent that she’s not ready to be a pastor yet.” As the Christian church, and especially our CBFGA partner churches, emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, there is much change afoot for a great number of churches. Now is the time for churches to reconsider their identity and their values. Now is the time for churches in transition strongly to consider calling a woman as pastor, for women’s presence in the pulpit and in leadership is vital to this next era of congregational life and well-being. Now is the time for us to live into our words of affirmation of women’s gifts and callings by allowing them to lead us with our full, unflinching support. This issue of Visions features an article by my friend and colleague, the Rev. Dr. Meredith Stone, Executive Director of Baptist Women in Ministry. The work of BWIM is still as needed and vital as it was nearly 40 years ago, when 33 women gathered in New Orleans, Louisiana, to begin advocating and supporting Southern Baptist women who felt a call by God to be ministers. Read and respond to Meredith’s call for action among our congregations to fully invest in and call women into pastoral leadership positions. Oh, one last thing: Catherine Scott persuaded Roger Williams to go public with his Baptist views in the 1630s, transforming Baptists in America and around the world; Sarah Wight was a sixteen-year-old Baptist whose visions and dreams of God calling her to preach were memorialized in a book in the 1640s; Mary Webb, a Baptist from Boston, formed the first women’s missionary society in 1800, which became a forerunner of the Triennial Convention which laid the groundwork for Baptist missions over the past two centuries; and, M.A. Brannen is regarded as the first Baptist woman ordained to the Gospel ministry, in 1876 in Pennsylvania. These saints, among so many other women, should be names that we keep in our Baptist minds, too.