Despite Setbacks, Study Says Baptist Women Making Gains in Ministry


Despite the Southern Baptist Convention's declaration eight years ago that the Bible forbids women from serving as pastors, the ranks of ordained Baptist clergywomen in the South are growing faster than ever, according to a new report.A study commissioned by Baptist Women in Ministry says the number of women ordained in Baptist churches between 2005 and 2007 was between double and three times greater than those recorded in earlier years.

That recent rise, according to the most recent State of Women in Baptist Life report, adds up to a dramatic increase in the number of Baptist women ordained to the gospel ministry since 1964, when the late Addie Davis became the first woman known to be ordained by a church affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention.

The report, released just before this week's Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly in Memphis, Tenn., estimates the number of Baptist women in the South that have been ordained at more than 2,000.

Issued on BWIM's 25th anniversary, the report identifies five chapters of leadership to the organization described as "a catalyst in Baptist life" to "illuminate, advocate and nurture the gifts and grace of women."

"Baptist women have made modest gains in leadership and contributed to the renewal of Baptist life in many sectors," the study says. "Most notably, Baptist women (and men) committed to the equality of all God's people have helped reshape and re-envision the church generally and the Baptist churches in particular as more inclusive, more creative places of worship, spiritual formation and service."

Those contributions were not made without struggle. Southern Baptist women in the last quarter century have "faced opposition, difficulties and challenges," say authors Pamela Durso and Eileen Campbell-Reed, "both from detractors who do not share their vision for ministry and church and at times from within their own ranks."

The study labels three cohorts of women leading the organization as "Founding Midwives," "Freedom Fighters" and "Future-Focused Leaders." Those leaders, the authors say, have presided over five "seasons:"

--"A Season of Formation, 1964-78," marked the generation of women who grew up singing the hymn "Wherever He Leads, I'll Go," while intersecting with the women's movement. Many Southern Baptists viewed feminism in the 1960s and 1970s as a threat, the study says, but for young women growing up at that time it reinforced the belief that God could call anyone to Christian service.

--"A Season of Founding, 1973-83," describes national gatherings leading up to the organization now known as Baptist Women in Ministry in 1983. That included establishment of a Center for Women in Ministry in Louisville, Ky., to provide both a resume service and to publish a newsletter called Folio.

--"A Season of Fighting, 1984-95," began with a Southern Baptist Convention resolution declaring that "women are not in public worship to assume a role of authority over men." While probably intended to discourage Southern Baptist women from seeking ordination, the authors say, the effect was "many women and many churches became even more committed to their belief that God calls both women and men into ministry and that Southern Baptist churches, because of the historic Baptist doctrine of local church autonomy, could and should ordain those within its congregation whom God has called and gifted for ministry."

That chapter also included formation of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, an organization of disaffected Southern Baptists rallying around principles including more inclusion of women in ministry.

--"A Season of Formulating, 1996-2003," chronicles how Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., surrendered its historic status as a supporter of women in ministry and became a new emblem of change for the fundamentalist-dominated Southern Baptist Convention. In 1995 BWIM leaders voted to move their headquarters to Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Kan., and to employ full-time leadership. That did not work out well, and by the time of the organization's 20th anniversary in 2003, leaders turned to a re-envisioning process to rethink direction and purpose.

--"A Season of Flowering, 2003-2008," describes a move of the organization to the campus of Mercer University's McAfee School of Theology in Atlanta and emergence of a group of leaders who began their ministerial training after 1995. The majority of those women studied not at SBC seminaries but rather newer theological institutions affiliated with the CBF.

Most of these "Future-Focused Leaders," the study says, have little first-hand knowledge of the SBC schism or the beginnings of Baptist Women in Ministry, but they recognize "they are beneficiaries of advances by earlier women ministry."

Despite that, the study continues, "They continue to face a variety of challenges related to their vocations." Those challenges include career choices made "in light of a complicated Baptist legacy" and "resistance and stereotypes when seeking places in leadership in Baptist life."

In the years since 2000, the study says, these women "have become the leaders of BWIM, bringing fresh energy and new perspectives on supporting women in ministry."

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

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