Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Seminary, has written an interesting assessment of the current state of women in Baptist ministry.
Citing a study titled The State of Women in Baptist Life, 2005 by Baptist Women in Ministry, Mohler says that though moderate Baptists publicly affirm the right of women in ministry, they are reluctant to actually call a woman to serve as pastor of their church.
Though I have not seen the data upon which Mohler bases his claims, my suspicion is that he is probably right. There are a lot of Baptist churches that I refer to as NIMPs–Not In My Pulpits.
These are the churches that affirm women in ministry abstractly but have a hard time walking the walk in any kind of concrete way. NIMP churches also have a hard time calling ministers outside the dominant racial and ethnic makeup of the congregation.
A personal anecdote serves well here. I am a white man married to a black woman. We were both raised in the South. After I graduated from divinity school we began looking for a church in which I could serve as either pastor or associate pastor.
Since most of our connections were in the South we naturally began looking for Baptist churches in that part of the country. In the process I was introduced to a woman who serves as the congregational contact person for one of the major moderate Baptist divinity schools in the country.
She told me that it may be a very long time before I would find a home in the South. She said even most moderate congregations, which perceive themselves as being open to all races, would trip over the stumbling stone of a white pastor and a black wife.
It was evident how painful it was for this kind woman to tell me that; but she wanted me to know the truth. “The search committee will look at your resume, and they will all agree you are a great candidate,” she said, “but they will say the community just isn’t ready for something like that.”
The problem, of course, is that our communities might never be ready. Communities tend toward remaining within parameters of what is comfortably familiar. We need more moderate Baptists, both clergy and laity, to help our congregations see how imperative it is to step out of the boat–ready or not.
I took the hint and began entertaining the idea of serving a church outside the South. We are now happily serving in an American Baptist church in Vermont–the second whitest state in the Union. How proud we are of our congregation for saying, “Yes, in our pulpit!”
Mohler may be giving moderate Baptists the same reality check that woman gave me. Rather than wrangling with Mohler about how substantive the differences between moderate Baptist life and hard-line fundamentalism is or is not, moderate Baptists should all agree that there needs to be greater tangible evidence that we are committed to women in ministry.
I think moderates should thank Mohler for this challenge, and then be about the business of conforming our lives to our convictional talk. I include myself in this challenge; and I plan to go to greater lengths to include lay women in worship and invite ordained women to proclaim the Word in our church.
The old refrain still echoes, “How long?” How long will it be before we moderate Baptists begin making conscious decisions to practice what we preach about women and people of color? The answer to that question matters, not only for the sake of our integrity as moderate Baptists, but also for the sake of the gospel we proclaim.