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The Secret’s Out #1: Pastor Search Committees and Women

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I’ve heard from so many women who have experienced something similar to what I have experienced in response to sharing my story in the recent Baptist News Global article, “Switching Denominations: Why Some Baptist Ministers Are Leaving.”

While this is reassuring that I am not alone, it is also disheartening. As I listened to these stories, I realized there is a behind-the-scenes story to the pastor search process in the Baptist world.

I have heard again and again from denominational leaders affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship that there is nothing they can do when it comes to congregations actually calling women to be pastors or churches affirming LGTBQIA+ persons.

Even when I heard these statements, I challenged and pushed. There was something about these statements that were not only defensive but also passive, allowing leaders the option to not take action or responsibility for what was happening in parish ministry.

And then I received an unexpected phone call. It was the head of a pastor search committee. The pastor position was not yet listed, but I had been recommended for consideration.

At first, I felt extreme affirmation. A surge of pride overwhelmed me that instead of carefully crafting an interest letter and yet again changing the format of my resume, I was having a direct conversation with the head of the pastor search committee.

These are the conversations I had been trying to have for five years. Resume after resume, email after email, phone call after phone call, just to try to get in front of a pastor search committee.

I have written so many interest letters and sent so many resumes without ever hearing anything at all and now I was in a very important conversation.

As the surge of pride ebbed, another realization washed over me. My heart sank as I understood. This is how it works.

Over and over again, I had been told I was a strong candidate for full-time pastor positions.

Conversation after conversation with mentors and denominational leaders led me to reformat my resume, refine my writing and push myself again and again only to find that I was not being considered for the pastor positions I applied for.

Coaching training was suggested. Intentional interim training was suggested. All of these not a financial possibility as a bivocational minister.

I was on the phone as it dawned on me that the one thing no one was willing to admit to me as I searched and searched is the behind-the-scenes phone calls that take place. The insider baseball recommendations.

No one was willing to say there are candidates that are recommended when a church contacts denominational leaders and mentors for suggestions and there are candidates that aren’t.

Even as I was engaged in one of those behind-the-scenes conversations, I was struck by how much harm this not-talked-about, never-discussed part of the search process is harming very talented, very earnest ministers, especially women and LGBTQIA+ ministers.

If you don’t know these conversations take place and you don’t know that it actually really matters a lot who you know, you begin to think it is you as a person and as a minister.

You begin to believe you don’t have enough experience or passion. That you don’t have what it takes to pastor because you aren’t being considered anywhere. That you aren’t worth a conversation, an email or a letter in response to your submission for consideration.

This is not true.

I know too many very talented, highly educated and extremely gifted female ministers who simply aren’t being considered or once they are called to pastor have their pastorates end abruptly.

The reality is that women candidates and women pastors in the Baptist world are held to impossible standards.

As a woman pastor, you are expected to solve the financial crisis that many churches find themselves in (from male pastors who have mismanaged funds and not adapted with the changing economy).

As a woman pastor, you cannot be a good preacher, you must be an exceptional preacher.

As a woman pastor, the administrative tasks and expectations are often increased. I know numerous woman pastors who format and print and fold their own bulletins every week. In many cases, an associate pastor and senior pastor position are combined.

While balancing all of these expectations, women pastors know if they misstep and if they are asked to resign or their contract is not renewed, the congregation will be more likely not to call a female again.

On top of that, women ministers are also still experiencing sexual harassment and sexist comments as they are trying to minister.

This is not a problem of individual candidates. This is a systemic problem. This is a denominational problem. This is sexism. This is brokenness. This is spiritual abuse being covered up and denied.

I finished the phone call explaining to the person that based on what I saw on their website, they were not ready for a woman minister. “But we would like to have some resumes of women,” was the response I received.

This was not the first time I had personally heard this statement. Three years ago, I would have submitted my resume saying that considering women candidates was the first step in calling a woman pastor.

Maybe it is, but for the first time since I was called to pastor and to preach seven years ago, I didn’t have to “put in my time” and “be patient.”

For the first time, I could say no. No to the behind-the-scenes phone calls. No to the systemic problems that allow for Baptist churches in 2019 to act as if they are welcoming and affirming when there is no intention to actually call a woman pastor.

I could say no to the unrealistic expectations placed on Baptist woman pastors. And no to the denominational denial that all of this exists as part of the pastor search process for women and LGBTQIA+ persons.

Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series. Part 2 will appear tomorrow. A version of this article first appeared on Harrelson’s website. It is used with permission.

Merianna Harrelson

Merianna Harrelson is pastor of Garden of Grace United Church of Christ in Columbia, South Carolina, editor-in-chief of Harrelson Press Publishing, and an EthicsDaily.com / Baptist Center for Ethics board member.