When a South Georgia congregation hired me in 1973 as their first full-time minister of music, Baptist women ministers were extremely rare.
I had almost no female peers, anywhere. Needing community, I joined an all-male group of Baptist music ministers who gathered monthly for inspiration and support.
Usually I was the only female in the room – someone’s wife or a female accompanist would join us occasionally – but they accepted me as a sister in music ministry.
We enjoyed being together. They listened to my presentations and comments and accepted my choirs equally at festivals and other church music events.
They became my friends and co-ministers, helping shape my early years in music ministry.
By the mid-1980s, the women in ministry movement was gathering steam, receiving lots of press in Baptist publications.
There were still very few female music ministers among Georgia Baptists, but, overall, the ranks of women ministers – especially youth or education ministers – were starting to swell.
Several of us met in Decatur and officially formed a Georgia Baptist Women in Ministry group.
I enjoyed helping launch this organization, even though I soon moved away and couldn’t participate in its development, but it signaled that women ministers were here to stay.
As I began writing about women in ministry issues, I heard female ministers tell stories of both frustration and fulfillment in their ministry settings.
We all supported each other but knew that sharing only with female peers was not enough.
In order to facilitate change within congregations, we needed a larger forum and we needed outspoken men to support us.
Powerful male pastors and congregations who adamantly oppose women in church leadership roles only listen seriously to other men, never women.
Prior to drafting my first article, I surveyed Baptist women ministers throughout Georgia, requesting anecdotal responses to questions regarding calling, ordination, salaries, roles and relationships with pastors, congregations and staff members.
They had plenty to say, writing in the margins and on the backs of the survey pages.
When asked about obstacles, they noted that getting hired was the biggest challenge because of women’s uniqueness in this field.
Once employed, some reported being perceived more as secretaries than ministers. They were expected to do their own clerical work, for instance, and received lower salaries than comparable male ministers.
One was constantly asked, “Where is your husband ministering?” He was an architect, not a minister. Another told of being patted on the head by a male minister.
One music minister was told she could lead the choir, but not the congregational music.
Another was told she could lead the youth and children’s choirs but not the adult choir because there were men in it.
Others were told to sing but not speak, to stand to the side of the pulpit when leading hymns and to refrain from wearing slacks when on the podium.
Another respondent shared that one Sunday morning visitors assumed the woman minister leading the music was a substitute for the “real” (male) minister. They returned the next Sunday, exclaiming, “You’re still here!?”
Despite misperceptions and imposed limitations, these women remained certain of their calling.
In the face of “Bible thumpers” or well-meaning but unenlightened congregations, they acknowledged God’s claim upon their hearts and lives as ministers.
Constant affirmations from those to whom they ministered helped validate their call to ministry.
For instance, after his son conducted his first Christmas cantata as a minister of music, one man told his female music minister, “I would not be here tonight except for your influence on my son.”
They also delighted in the changing perceptions of women ministers. One memorable example was the reaction of a female music minister’s son to a male guest music evangelist.
After the service, he said, “Wow, Mommy, I didn’t know men did that!”
In the 21st century, the women in ministry movement, like the civil rights movement and the war on poverty, has taken great strides, but it still has miles to go.
As the saying goes: “Everything changes, yet everything remains the same.”
Qualified, called women ministers permeate every area of Baptist life, yet many still enjoy far fewer opportunities than their male counterparts.
Congregational attitudes are slowly evolving, but many women ministers continue to have difficulty getting hired – especially for “platform positions,” such as pastor or music minister – and they struggle with opposition or misperceptions about their ministerial roles.
Women ministers are building on the efforts of those who have gone before them and looking toward a promising future.
One thing is clear: Women in ministry need supportive relationships with their peers – both female and male – to help shape their lives and ministries.
In order to thrive, female ministers need community with others who are divinely called to professional ministry.
Naomi K. Walker is music/worship pastor at Immanuel Baptist Church in Frankfort, Ky. A longer version of this column first appeared on her blog, Notations: Journeying with a Woman Music Minister, and is used with permission. You can follow her on Twitter @NaomiKingWalker.