May the work or our hands, our minds, and our hearts be pleasing unto you.
— Alicia Davis Porterfield
Each Friday, Baptist Women in Ministry introduces a Baptist woman serving in ministry, and today, we introduce you to Tambi Swiney, who is a new member of our BWIM Leadership Team.
I am approaching my fifth anniversary serving as the associate pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church in Nashville, Tennessee. I was ordained by this congregation in May 2010.
What have been some of your “bumps in the road” as a woman minister?
I am blessed to be serving in a setting where my gender really isn’t an issue. The bumps in the road that I have faced related to my gender were those speed bumps and roadblocks that slowed my journey as I sought to discern how I could faithfully live out my calling. Early on, the lack of female role models in pastoral ministry clouded my imagination. I had never encountered a female Baptist pastor until I began seminary in my mid-30s. Later, mixed messages from those who claimed to be advocates for women in ministry but whose actions didn’t match their words confused me. I am grateful that God continued to put people in my life who urged me to keep moving forward and detour around the roadblocks. In the words of the psalmist, God brought me out to a spacious place.
What is the best ministry advice you have ever received?
For the first five years after I graduated from Beeson Divinity School at Samford University, I was engaged in what I liked to call “freelance ministry.” I was heavily invested in the student ministry as a lay-leader at church, I served on a volunteer basis as the spiritual emphasis coordinator for The Next Door (a transitional housing community for women coming out of incarceration), and I wrote Bible studies, commentary, articles, and devotions for a variety of publications. However, during my son’s senior year of high school, I began to sense that God was preparing me for a vocational transition. I helpfully provided God with a short list of things I was not interested in doing—first and foremost, I had no desire to serve on a church staff. A conversation with my church’s youth minister proved to be a turning point. Josh was familiar with the excuse that I offered whenever someone asked me when I was going to seek a position in a church. “You can keep saying that you don’t want to serve on a church staff, but you have to stop saying that you aren’t gifted to do it,” he advised. Josh’s words bore the sting of truth. In subsequent days, I confessed to God that I was open—albeit reluctantly – to serving on a church staff. Shortly thereafter, the next stretch of my path became plain. To this day I am grateful to Josh for affirming my giftedness.
Who has inspired you in your ministry journey?
My grandmother, Hattie Lou Brown, has always been my primary source of inspiration as I have sought to faithfully live out my calling. In every season of her life, she has given generously, prayed fervently, worshiped faithfully, served enthusiastically, and loved deeply. As she approaches her 95th birthday, although her health is declining and her eyesight is failing, she continues to find ways to serve others in Christ’s name. She recognizes needs, identifies resources, enlists volunteers, and empowers others to serve in the community, even while she is essentially homebound. Whatever she does, whether in word or in deed, she does it all in the name of Jesus Christ, giving thanks to God the Father through him (Colossians 3:17).
Prissy was perhaps fated to a life of ministry. Both her grandmother and mother served as the president of the WMU of Georgia. If you go far enough back in Prissy’s family tree, you will find the hymn writer, Isaac Watts, who wrote “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” and “Joy to the World.” Seems that a ministry of missions and music was in Prissy’s DNA from the very beginning.
The energy and enthusiasm that Prissy brings to ministry has always been part of who she is. A few years ago Prissy’s mother was watching a documentary about ADHD and Ritalin. She called Prissy over to her, took Prissy’s face in her hands, and said, “Prissy Jones, if they had this when you were a child, you would have been on it!”
While she was a twenty-year-old college student at Stetson University working on her bachelor of music in voice and choral conducting, Prissy took her first ministry position. That was fifty years ago this month. She served as the associate minister of music at First Baptist Church, DeLand, Florida for two years and then became the minister of music at First Baptist Church, Indialantic, Florida.
After graduating from college, Prissy moved to Fort Worth, Texas, to attend Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where she earned a Master of Divinity with a focus on education. While in seminary, she worked in social ministry, first as the Baptist Center assistant director at Broadway Baptist Church and then as the director of weekday activities at Gambrell Street Baptist Church. While in Fort Worth, Prissy also gave birth to her son Mark, a “seminary baby.”
Upon graduation, Prissy was appointed as a Southern Baptist missionary to Vietnam, serving there from 1970 to 1975. She has more stories than you can believe from those years, including having a root canal with no pain medication and conducting the first, and as far as we know only, performance of Handel’s Messiah in that country. Her time in Vietnam ended with her family refugeeing out of the country as South Vietnam fell.
Prissy was next appointed as a missionary to Costa Rica and served there for a year before returning to the United States to work as a home missionary for the North American Mission Board. She was the assistant director of Refugee Resettlement, working with the boat people who were fleeing Vietnam. Prissy spoke the language and had experience in social ministry so she was a natural fit for the position. This ministry led to her family adopting three Vietnamese refugee children.
Although Prissy left the mission field, missions has never been far from her heart. Through the years, she has led mission teams to England, Spain, Jordan, Thailand, Czech Republic, Switzerland, Peru, Honduras, and Ecuador. Many of those trips involved coordinating mission teams that led a VBS-type camp for the children of missionaries. Those camps took place during the annual missionary meetings.
Prissy spent the 1980s as the minister of children and families at Second Ponce de Leon Baptist Church in Atlanta. From there she went to Franklin, North Carolina, where she served as the minister of music, senior adults, and children at First Baptist Church.
In 1997, Prissy was called as minister of faith development by First Baptist Church, Rome, Georgia. She served there for fourteen years, and in 2000, Prissy was finally ordained.
Prissy “retired” in 2011, but it did not take long for her to find her way to North Broad Baptist Church, where we put her to work, first as interim children’s minister, and then two years ago, we called her as our minister of music and children.
In addition to church ministry, Prissy has written children’s missions curriculum for the WMU and for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, served as a member of the coordinating council of CBF of Georgia, and mentored many ministers, including her work as a ministry coach for recent graduates of McAfee School of Theology. She is also co-author of Stories That Won’t Go Away: Women in Vietnam 1959-1975. In 2002, Baptist Women in Ministry of Georgia recognized Prissy as the Distinguished Church Woman of the Year. That same year she also received the Jack Naish Christian Educators Leadership Award from The Center for Christian Education.
This thumbnail sketch of churches and titles just scratches the surface. Behind the names of all of those churches are countless lives that have been touched by Prissy’s ministry. Individuals, children, and families who she has ministered to, counseled with, led in worship, and touched in countless ways. We give thanks to God for Prissy Tunnell and the way she has allowed God to work through her for the good of the kingdom.
Micah Pritchett is pastor of North Broad Baptist Church, Rome, Georgia.
We were both enjoying a playdate, chasing toddlers and trying to carry on a conversation while we kept one child from running with scissors and another child from eating every tiny piece of plastic. As we chatted with new friends about life and family, someone had asked, “So, you were like a preacher, and now what are you doing?”
My friend wasn’t just “like” a preacher, she is a preacher. And writer. And teacher and pastor. And a mom. The mom job fills most of her time these days.
The short answer is that my friend and I are both “stay-at-home moms.” We could use a better name for this gig, but no amount of language could cover the whole spectrum of my day.
Last year, when my husband and I decided to move to a new church where he would be the pastor, I stepped away from a congregational staff position. So now my answer to “what do you do?” goes something like this: I am an ordained Baptist woman who is a pastor’s wife and also writes, teaches, studies, and preaches . . . from time to time. I am a mom . . . all the time. That’s a lot to explain.
Don’t get me wrong. I love this mom job. All of it. The take-your-breath-away beautiful moments and the sticky, icky moments and the hectic list-crossing-off moments. This gig is something I wanted for a very long time and I cherish it.
But sometimes I think we need a new slogan. I wonder, though, what it would do for some of us facing the awkward questions if we said: “This is What a Minister Looks Like.”
I want to wrap up the “This is What a Minister Looks Like” idea and mail it to my friends who are ministers in places that don’t have pulpits or offices or classrooms—or salaries.
Ministry happens in those places, too.
Just because a minister is working in a way that isn’t listed in a seminary class, doesn’t mean that the work being done is not a tremendous offering that brings the kingdom of God near. I can count many seminary-trained, highly experienced reverends who step back from settings that look like ministry to jump into uncharted territory. Many gifted, risk-taking, Jesus-following ministers who once worked in churches now live out a calling from God that looks very different.
We all know that we are more than what we do. We know that a calling means more than doing. But those of us whose “doing” of life as a minister looks a little more patchwork quilt than careful needlepoint need the voices who remind us that vocational identity may not follow one, simple trajectory.
Sometimes it looks like my friend who used to be an associate pastor and now tutors struggling readers in an afterschool program. She is a minister. My friend who preached sermons ten years ago that still resonate with me today is now at home caring for her preschoolers, one who has special needs. She is a minister. My friend who resigned from her church staff to care for her aging mother is as much a minister today as my friend who was a stay at home mom and is now a senior pastor.
There are seasons of ministry.
For my friends who are trying to discern what in the world it means to understand a calling from God to ministry while they spend their work days balancing accounts or working as a barista or vacuuming floors, I am thankful for people who offer up an honest, beautiful picture of what ministry looks like. I am thankful for the witness of ministers who tell us how the messy, soul-stirring, heart-singing work of ministry can look different from day to day, season to season.
My patchwork quilt of ministry right now includes an Elmo picture book. It is laying on top of a Bible commentary and a book of Walter Brueggemann’s prayers, neither of which I will have time to touch for days. I see myself running after a toddler, thinking through projects shoved to the back burner; tired and yet deeply glad.
That is what a minister looks like . . . today.
Each Friday, Baptist Women in Ministry features its blog series, THIS IS WHAT A MINISTER LOOKS LIKE and introduces you to an amazing woman minister. This week we are proud to introduce Lynn Brinkley, who is a new member of Baptist Women in Ministry’s Leadership Team.
Lynn, tell us about your current places of service in ministry.
I have the blessed opportunity to serve in two diverse contexts: a National Baptist Inc. church, First Baptist Church in Clinton, North Carolina, and Cooperative Baptist Fellowship School of Divinity, Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina. At First Baptist Clinton, I serve as an associate minister and was recently ordained by that church. I have numerous opportunities there to preach, teach, and use my gifts for ministry! At CUDS, I serve as director of student services, and I also teach an undergraduate Introduction to Christianity Course for Campbell’s Religion Department. I work closely with our student leadership, our chapel planning team, and preach frequently at various churches associated with our students.
Where have you served in the past?
Prior to coming to Campbell Divinity School, I served as the lead case manager at Cumberland County Communicare, a non-profit agency that works with at-risk youth. I also served as a campus police officer at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.
What have been some of your “bumps in the road” as a woman minister?
Where do I begin? First, the road to ordination was a long journey, but I am so thankful that First Baptist Church Clinton affirmed me and my gifts. Second, I recently was invited to preach at a church and was told I needed to “preach from the floor” since the church had not “officially” affirmed women preaching from the pulpit. I preached a “tad angry” that night but it worked! The church voted the following Friday to affirm women to preach from the pulpit. Third, I have found that it is not easy being a woman (particularly an African-American woman) with ministry credentials. Where I am from, we talk about “haters!” No matter what you do, there will be people who will never celebrate with you, which is why it is always important to remember who calls you and who you serve. God gets the glory in all things, so never allow your “haters” to distract you from your purpose in life.
What advice would you give to a teenage girl who might be discerning a call to ministry?
Queen Esther fasted and prayed before she moved on her call from God. You have to place yourself in a position to worship God before you respond to the call. Listen to God’s still small voice for direction. When the call becomes clear say, “here I am send me,” and don’t allow anyone to block your divine assignment!
In the last few months I have watched as women ministers that I know and that I love have been called by churches, and I am so happy for them. But I am also so jealous of them. I love my current ministry position and don’t want to leave it, but I keep thinking… “That could have been me. I could do that job. I am as qualified as they are.”
I didn’t even put my name out for these church positions, and to be honest, I don’t really even want to have those positions, and yet I feel so angry and jealous. I hate feeling this way!
Green With Envy
Your honesty is refreshing. We Baptist women ministers too often do not admit, even to ourselves, that we are envious or that we struggle with anger, and even fewer of us will speak about those feelings. But I suspect that most every woman who serves in ministry has experienced such feelings. So what should we do with them?
Acknowledging the dilemma is a great place to start. Realize that we live in a competitive society. From childhood, we were taught that winning, achieving, and succeeding are valued. We learned and were often told that “beating out” others somehow made us better. Those lessons are not easily forgotten—even if we are now adults and are called to be ministers of the gospel who are expected to love everyone, to work for justice, and to treat all others with kindness.
Add to the already disturbing complexity of living in a competitive society is the reality that in our Baptist world positions available to women are more limited than they are for men. As women, we often compete against each other—sometimes against our closest friends—for the few spots that are available, and because of the smallness of our Baptist community, we generally know exactly which women are applying for the same positions for which we have applied. We know the names of the other women “on the short list.” Whether it is fair or not, whether it is healthy or not, we are pitted against each other to vie for those coveted places of service. While this reality is true for Baptist men as well, their opportunities tend to be wider and deeper than for Baptist women.
So some practical advice: Give voice to your feelings. Admitting to yourself and perhaps even confessing to a few close and trusted friends will help you begin to more readily recognize these feelings and be able to understand what is happening when jealousy creeps up unexpectedly on you.
Refocus your jealousy into positive thoughts and actions. Refocusing will help you slowly to move away from those feelings. Remind yourself that you are HAPPY, that you are CELEBRATING with your women friends who have been called to new positions. Tell your friends and colleagues the news. Say it out loud, “I am so thrilled for her. She is a gifted minister, and this church will be blessed by her leadership.” Send her a note, an email, a text—expressing your support.
Cultivate habits that preempt jealousy. Become a strong supporter of your sisters in ministry by encouraging their work. Be proactive in sharing good news about their accomplishments, their successes. Offer to be a reference for those seeking a position. Write letters of gratitude for your women minister friends to their supervisors or congregations. Speak out on their behalf when you hear critical words or jealous words from others.
Finally, hold on to the truth that to be the body of Christ in all its fullness, we need each other. We need our sisters in ministry. They are a vital component of our journey, and jealousy robs us of healthy relationships with them.
Blessings on you in your journey!
If you have a question for Dear Addie, please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
*The photo of Addie Davis is provided courtesy of Special Collections, Jack Tarver Library, Mercer University, Macon, Georgia.
Last spring when Wilcox County, Georgia, made the national news for hosting its first integrated high school prom. Folks around the country were flabbergasted that almost 60 years after “separate but equal” was deemed unconstitutional and schools were integrated, this kind of thing still happened. Thankfully, the story became news because four students decided it was time for a change. They led money-raising efforts, and the school sponsored a prom for all students for the first time in decades. It turned out to be a great success.
The headline about the Wilcox County prom caught my eye when it popped up on my computer screen. But unlike some of my friends who commented about it on Facebook, I wasn’t shocked at all. You see, Wilcox County borders my home county of Ben Hill, and it hadn’t been but fifteen years since I attended a segregated prom myself. In my county, as in Wilcox County until last year, the high school did not hold a prom. Proms, homecomings and other dances and social events were sponsored and planned by private groups. The white prom was on Friday night, and the black prom was on Saturday night. Occasionally a black student would show with a date to the white prom, but generally, the crowd at each event looked pretty homogenous. And nobody, myself included, really questioned it.
Now, I am embarrassed to confess this: I attended a segregated prom, and it didn’t even bother me.
Sometimes when we grow up in a place, particularly when it’s a place or people we love, we become so entrenched in the way of life there that it’s hard to see its shortcomings.
In my town, racial divisions were the norm.
My neighborhood and my church were white middle-class, exclusively.
White people voted for white candidates; black people voted for black
White people did business with white people, and black with black.
We weren’t cruel about it; we just accepted it as the way things were. I didn’t condone the inherent prejudice, but I didn’t speak up against it, either. So in 1998, I went to my senior prom with all of my white friends and had a great time without ever noticing what was wrong with this picture.
Is there anything about your own past life that makes you a little bit ashamed? I imagine that there are others of you who wrestle with parts of your own heritage, or even struggle with how those flaws still pop up from time to time in your own way of thinking and living.
What is it about you that needs to be changed? What part of your past lies deep within you and still shapes how you see the world?
Maybe it is something that haunts you every day.
Or maybe it is something that still lies unquestioned.
Maybe it is too uncomfortable for you to talk about.
Perhaps you are even scared of it, afraid that it might bubble to the surface if you don’t keep it suppressed.
Is it a prejudice that you were taught as a child? A stereotype about people of another race or ethnicity or religion or sexual orientation or class? Do you harbor resentment towards someone who hurt you? Is it greed? Are you quick to point out the faults of others without looking deep within to see your own?
How do we change those dark parts of ourselves?
Sometimes our lives are interrupted, even rudely interrupted, by people and events that awaken us to our own inadequacies. When that happens, don’t be stubborn about it. Pay attention. Sometimes those rude awakenings, while hard to endure, can become gifts to us. Change is not usually easy. But the growth that comes from it can be life-giving.
Or, you don’t have to wait to be rudely interrupted. You can take charge of your own growth. Take the time to read a book or watch a program about a culture you don’t understand. Reach out to make a friend who is different from you. Spend some time in prayer or meditation or therapy wrestling with some of the demons that lie deep within you, and ask God for healing.
Today, Baptist Women in Ministry is pleased to introduce a new blog series, one that we have titled THIS IS WHAT A MINISTER LOOKS LIKE. Each Friday, we will “interview” a woman serving in ministry, and going first in this fun series is Mary Alice Birdwhistell, a new member of the Baptist Women in Ministry’s Leadership Team.
Mary Alice, tell us about your current ministry position.
I serve as associate pastor at Calvary Baptist Church in Waco, Texas. Some days I spend my time at a hospital bedside, or a dinner table, or a baseball game, or a pulpit, or a local elementary school, or my purple office at church (yes, it’s purple!), or the corner table at my favorite coffee shop. The chance to share life with a beautiful congregation and community is a gift. Yes, it can be challenging, demanding, and messy work. Ministry is never 9-5. But it is an honor, and I consider each of these spaces of ministry to be incredibly sacred.
What have been some of your “bumps in the road” as a woman minister?
Most of the bumps in the road I have experienced related to my gender and my calling have been internal. It took me several years to work through the muck in my mind that was holding me back from living out who God was calling me to be.
I was afraid of what other people would think who might not understand my calling. I doubted whether a Baptist church would ever call me. I questioned what the Bible said about women, and what these texts mean for us today. I struggled to visualize myself in a role that, for the majority of my life, I had not seen women filling.
All of these thoughts and insecurities flooded my mind. However, I also began to receive the wisdom and affirmation of thoughtful professors. A beautiful congregation welcomed me into their fold, and although I could not see myself as a pastor, they saw me as one of their pastors. Over time, the whispers of the Spirit became stronger than the doubts of my mind, and I was given a strength that was greater than my own to pursue this calling God had planted within me.
What is the best ministry advice you have ever received?
Courtney Allen began one of our recent BWIM mentoring sessions with the following statement: “We have to let God do God’s work with God’s people. Our job is to faithfully and compassionately walk alongside them.” I jotted it down on a sticky note and have looked at it every day since.
It is easy to feel the need to carry the weight of our churches on our shoulders and to become overwhelmed by situations that are not ours to carry. Our calling is to keep pointing to God and to faithfully and compassionately come alongside people wherever they are in their journey.
When I was a junior in college, I heard Julie Pennington-Russell preach at an event in Atlanta. It was one of the first times I had heard a woman preach, and I was drawn to the way her warm personality so genuinely communicated the gospel message. Julie gave a name and a face to a calling I had always felt within my soul but had struggled for so long to visualize for myself. Little did I know that the same church that had called Julie as their pastor would call me as one of their pastors just a few years later.
I had the opportunity to mentor with Julie at First Baptist Church, Decatur, Georgia, during my time in seminary. Through watching her live our her calling in such beautiful ways, she instilled in me a hope and a courage that I could do this, too. It is a gift to call her a mentor and friend in this crazy, beautiful life of pastoring that we now share.
On Sunday, September 7, North Broad Baptist Church in Rome, Georgia threw a party to celebrate a 50th anniversary. Friends, family, and church members all showed up. There was a really big cake, handwritten cards, and lots of laughter.
The celebration was in honor of Prissy Tunnell. For the past fifty years, Prissy has served as a minister of the gospel–she has served in ten churches, four states, and three countries. She has ministered alongside church members with enthusiasm and joy. She has inspired, encouraged, and mentored younger ministers. And she has loved her family (as is evidenced by the fact that five grandchildren showed up for her party).
I am thankful, so thankful for Prissy’s fifty years of faithful service of God and God’s people. And I am thankful for the years ahead–as Prissy continues to serve with joy and enthusiasm at North Broad!
Blessings on you, Prissy Tunnell!
Pam Durso is executive director of Baptist Women in Ministry, Atlanta, Georgia.