I registered for a class called “The History of Women in Preaching” during my second semester at Beeson Divinity School.
I took the course out of sheer curiosity; at the age of 35, as a life-long Baptist, I had never heard a woman preach. Was there really a history of women in preaching?
If you had asked me directly, I would have told you that I did not believe that God parceled out spiritual gifts based on gender.
In my mind, women were just as qualified as men to be leaders in any profession.
After all, I had proudly purchased a T-shirt on my 9th grade class trip to D.C. featuring the words “A woman’s place is in the House” on the front and “in the Senate” on the back.
But the reality of my experience in the church stood in stark contrast to my beliefs.
Women’s roles were limited in the Baptist congregations where I worshipped as a child, a teenager and a young woman.
Looking back, it is not a surprise that I never considered ministry as a viable vocational path during my formative years.
My imagination was stunted, not only because I lacked female role models in the church, but also because no one had actively encouraged me to consider using my spiritual gifts in any capacity other than as a volunteer.
Because my journey to ministry has been long and arduous, I have sought ways to prepare the way for other women, to make smooth their paths.
I have been encouraged – and a bit envious – as I have watched younger women take a more direct route into vocational ministry.
How can the local church enliven the vocational imagination of girls and women?
As the saying goes, you can’t be what you can’t see. Certainly, there are exceptions to this rule, but the importance of role models cannot be underestimated.
If a church desires to empower girls to believe they can grow up to become ministers, then that congregation needs to be willing to hire and ordain women to serve as ministers.
Youth ministers should carefully examine the roster of leaders for youth camps and retreats.
Will their students see women proclaiming the gospel, leading worship and teaching Bible studies? More than 90 percent of the promotional materials that cross my desk feature all-male staff.
Clergy and lay leaders must learn to pay attention, actively calling out the gifts of young girls and women, helping them to recognize their leadership potential and providing them with avenues to use their gifts within the church and in the community.
The children and youth in my congregation, Immanuel Baptist Church in Nashville, regularly have opportunities to lead in worship and to serve side by side with adults in missions and ministry endeavors.
We seek to nurture the gifts of all of our children, teaching them they can do anything God calls them to do.
Attention should be focused on women in local colleges who show interest in or giftedness for ministry.
Baptist Women in Ministry hosts college discernment retreats for young women who are seeking to clarify their call.
Since 2007, Baptist Women in Ministry has encouraged Baptist churches to observe the Martha Stearns Marshall Month of Preaching by inviting a woman to preach during February.
While participation in this annual emphasis has grown steadily over the past decade, progress has been slower than many of us would like – especially in my home state of Tennessee.
Last year, only seven churches in my state were included in the published list of participating churches.
I believe that those of us who are among the ranks of women in ministry – whether we serve in a church setting, academia, chaplaincy, mission field or nonprofit sector – have an obligation to mentor others.
By sharing our stories, we can inspire other women who are pondering God’s call.
By sharing our experiences, we can empower women who are taking tentative first steps on the path to vocational ministry.
The confidence gap between women and men is real. Many richly gifted, highly competent women lack the confidence to believe they can succeed in ministry.
Local churches must strive to create an environment where the gifts of girls and women are affirmed and nurtured, where female role models lead by example, where all of God’s children are encouraged to follow God’s call.
Tambi Swiney is the associate pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church in Nashville, Tennessee. She has previously served on the Baptist Women in Ministry Leadership Team and currently serves on the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty board of directors. You can follow her on Twitter @tambi.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series on women in ministry. The previous article in the series is:
2 Women, Different Centuries, Aid Women Preachers by Pam Durso