On June 14, 1976, Carolyn Weatherford, executive director of the Woman’s Missionary Union, addressed more than 2,500 Baptist women in Birmingham, Alabama, calling on them to use the influence of WMU to advocate for women in Southern Baptist churches.
On June 9, 1985, a standing-room-only crowd of 500 met for Sunday morning worship at the Adolphus Hotel during the Southern Baptist Women in Ministry’s annual gathering. The morning preacher was Molly Marshall, assistant professor of theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
“Abundant Grace, Much Thanksgiving” was the worship theme of Southern Baptist Women in Ministry’s gathering on June 8, 1986 in Atlanta, Georgia. Barbara Dean, professor at Mercer University in Atlanta, provided special music.
Southern Baptist Women in Ministry elected new officers during its fifth annual gathering on June 13-14, 1987, in St. Louis, Missouri. Pictured from left: Anne P. Rosser, pastor of Bainbridge South Hampton Baptist Church, Richmond, Virginia, vice president; Elizabeth S. Bellinger, inner city ministry chaplain, Waco Texas, president; Diane E. Hill of Elizabeth City, North Carolina, recording secretary; and Marilyn Prickett, director of Christian social ministries for the District of Columbia Baptist Convention, program chairperson. Not pictured is Deborah Whisnand Stinson, chaplain at Houston (Texas) Baptist hospital, treasure; and Pat Bailey, professor of social work at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, membership coordinator.
Baptist Women in Ministry: A History of the Organization
Excerpted from The State of Women in Baptist Life, 2007, by Eileen Campbell-Reed and Pamela R. Durso
In the 1970s, several national gatherings were sponsored by Southern Baptists with the purpose of focusing on women’s role in the church. In 1974, the Southern Baptist Christian Life Commission (CLC) sponsored a conference, “Christian Liberation for Women,” at Glorieta Conference Center. A book on the topic soon followed. The editors of the Review and Expositor and Baptist History and Heritage both dedicated an entire volume of their journals to the topic of women. In 1978, the “Consultation on Women in Church-Related Vocations”called together Baptist scholars, clergywomen, denominational bureaucrats, and the media. These preludes to the founding of an organization laid important groundwork for the beginnings of Women in Ministry, Southern Baptist Convention, but ultimately the group had to form outside the official structures of the denomination.
In June 1982, the Woman’s Missionary Union (WMU), in response to the growing needs of Southern Baptist women serving in all areas of ministry, sponsored a “Women in Ministry Dinner.” The dinner was held in New Orleans, Louisiana, just prior to the SBC annual meeting. Anders presented a paper on the status of women in ministry, and she concluded her remarks by calling for the formation of a network of fellowship and support for Baptist women ministers. Leaders of the WMU responded to her challenge and pledged to provide assistance in this new venture. Four months later, in October 1982, at a conference on “Issues Affecting Women” in Charlotte, North Carolina, nine Southern Baptist women gathered to discuss the need for a formal organization for women ministers. Following the discussion, Sehested presented a report that called for national and regional conferences to be planned for Southern Baptist women ministers and for a newsletter to be produced and disseminated.
After this meeting, Sehested conferred with numerous Southern Baptist women and consulted with influential Southern Baptist leaders. Her work resulted in nine women and men meeting in December at the offices of the SBC’s CLC. As a result of the meeting, the CLC agreed to initiate a new program that would encourage and support women ministers, and the commission gave the responsibility for this new work to staff member Lela Hendrix. Those gathered also concluded that a gathering for Baptist women ministers should be held prior to the June 1983 SBC meeting in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. To organize that gathering, Anders, Cobb, Neil, Sehested, and Weatherford called for a planning meeting on March 20-21, 1983, in Louisville, Kentucky.
Thirty-three women attended that March meeting: Becky Albritton (OH); Pat Ayres (TN); Pat Bailey (KY); Linda McKinnish Bridges (KY); Harriett Clay (NY); Reba Sloan Cobb (KY); Jeni Cook (TX); Anne Davis (KY); Pearl DuVall (GA); Velma Farrell (NC); Nancy Foil (KY); Lela Hendrix (TN); Cindy Harp Johnson (KY); Molly Marshall-Green (KY); June McEwen (KY); Barbara McNeir (VA); Karen Conn Mitcham (KY); Anne Thomas Neil (NC); Carol Noffsinger (KY); Brenda Paddleford (NC); Betty McGary Pearce (KY); Nina T. Pollard (KY); Verna Quirin (IA); Inez Register (SC); Nancy Hastings Sehested (GA); Linda Stack (NC); Evelyn Stagg (MS); Susan Taylor (GA); Lynda Weaver-Williams (KY); Carolyn Weatherford (AL); and Jenny Graves Weisz (NC).
At the meeting, the women participated in times of fellowship and worship, and they listened to an address by Sehested titled “Southern Baptist Women in Ministry: Vision, Goal, Strategy, and Tactics.” In her remarks, Sehested suggested that the new organization encourage women to fuller ministries in churches and in the denomination; provide an avenue for sharing “the joys and struggles as disciples of Christ;” instill in women courage, insight, and strength; explore, discuss, and form new paradigms of leadership, paradigms that encourage empowerment rather than control. During a business session, Cobb and McGary presented a proposal that called for the creation of a Center for Women in Ministry, which would provide a newsletter, counseling, and resume services. At that same business meeting, a taskforce was formed to plan for the June meeting. This taskforce, which included Anders, Cobb, Davis, Hendrix, Neil, Sehested, Weatherford, and Weisz, met in Birmingham, Alabama, on May 5, 1983 at the WMU building. Davis was elected moderator, and Cobb was elected recorder. Together the group composed a purpose statement and planned the June meeting.
Seventy-five people attended the first meeting of WIM, SBC, as the organization would be called. Davis convened the two-day meeting, announcing that this organization should be independent and should speak to its own needs and not be tied to an agency of the SBC. The theme of the meeting was “We Have This Treasure,” based on 2 Corinthians 4:7-12. Speakers included Griffis-Woodberry, Neil, Sehested, and Christine Gregory. In her presentation, Griffis-Woodberry asserted that “Cultural mores, attitudes, and expectations about who women are constitute the greatest obstacle blocking women from actualizing their calls to vocational ministry. Confusion abounds when women express calling to a culture that has not the ears to hear it.” During the business session, the participants adopted a purpose statement that noted that the organization should “provide support for the women whose call from God defines her vocation as that of minister . . . and to encourage and affirm her call to be a servant of God.” Participants unanimously agreed to meet again prior to the 1984 SBC meeting in Kansas City, and they selected a sixteen-member steering committee that was charged with planning that 1984 gathering.
The same month in which this first gathering took place, the Center for Women in Ministry, located at Crescent Hill Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, published the first issue of Folio: A Newsletter for Southern Baptist Women in Ministry. Cobb and McGary served as the editors. The articles and information included in the newsletter centered on the June 1983 meeting and on the subsequent developments, including the formation of state groups for women in ministry. Soon after the June 1983 meeting, Southern Baptist women ministers began to organize on the state level. Women in Ministry, North Carolina was formed in the fall of 1983. Similar groups were soon meeting in Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Texas.
The national group’s steering committee met at Dogwood Hill Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, on October 21, 1983. During a five-hour meeting, they elected Neil, chair; Weaver-Williams, secretary; and Griffis-Woodbery, treasurer. These leaders along with the other nine women present suggested that the membership of the new organization include (1) women with ministerial identity who were engaged in ministry in the SBC; (2) women who had been ordained by Southern Baptist churches; and (3) friends who are supportive of women in ministry. The steering committee also planned the 1984 meeting that would take place in Kansas City, Missouri.
On June 9-10, 1984, at the second gathering of Southern Baptist women ministers, 250 women and men of all ages and all areas of ministry attended. The meeting was convened by Neil, and the speakers, Weaver-Williams, co-pastor, Goshen Baptist Church, Goshen, Kentucky, and Elizabeth Barnes, a recent Ph.D. graduate in theology from Duke University, focused on the theme “Exercising Our Gifts.” In her address, Barnes proclaimed, “As women who engage the needs of our time with God, we need to keep ourselves mindful that our gifts belong not just to us personally, or even to us as women, but to our church and our age. We are inspirited by the God who includes us fully, to engage fully, in the work.” The meeting’s preacher was Susan Lockwood Wright, pastor, Cornell Avenue Baptist Church, Chicago, Illinois. In addition to large group sessions, the participants attended a dinner and a business meeting, and they took part in small group times. New steering committee members were elected at the business meeting to replace the previous members who had served their two-year terms.
In the days immediately following this second gathering, messengers at the SBC meeting voted to adopt a resolution titled “On Ordination and the Role of Women in Ministry.” The resolution, in part, stated: WHEREAS, The Scriptures teach that women are not in public worship to assume a role of authority over men lest confusion reign in the local church; and WHEREAS, While Paul commends women and men alike in other roles of ministry and service, he excludes women from pastoral leadership to preserve a submission God requires because man was first in creation and woman was first in the Edenic fall. . . . Therefore, be it RESOLVED, That we not decide concerns of Christian doctrine and practice by modern culture, sociological and ecclesiastical trends or by emotional factors; that we remind ourselves of the dearly bought Baptist principle of the final authority of Scripture in matters of faith and conduct; and that we encourage the service of women in all aspects of church life and work other than pastoral functions and leadership roles entailing ordination.”
Most likely, the intent of the resolution was to discourage Southern Baptist women from pursuing ordination and to pressure Southern Baptist churches into refusing ordination to women. The effect of the resolution, however, was that many women and many churches became even more committed to their belief that God calls both women and men into ministry and that Southern Baptist churches, because of the historic Baptist doctrine of local church autonomy, could and should ordain those within its congregation whom God had called and gifted for ministry. The resolution, which for Baptists is supposed to be non-binding, also had an impact on agency policies. The Home Mission Board, for example, took the resolution into consideration as it revisited policies regarding chaplaincy endorsement and missionary appointment.
At the fourth gathering, in June 1986 meeting, participants voted to rename the organization, changing the name from WIM, SBC to Southern Baptist Women in Ministry. They also adopted a constitution; began using a designation of officers, including president, vice president, recorder, treasurer, and program coordinator; and expanded the steering committee to eighteen members who would serve three-year terms. At a 1987 SBWIM meeting, Sarah Frances Anders presented a statistical report, which confirmed at least 460 clergywomen in the SBC, including 18 pastors, more than 36 associate pastors, 4 associational missionaries, and more than 20 campus ministers. Almost half of the women were ordained and were serving in Virginia, North Carolina, and Kentucky. Two years later, just prior to the 1990 SBC meeting in New Orleans, more than 500 people attended the SBWIM annual gathering. During the business session, participants approved a merger of SBWIM with the Center for Women in Ministry in Louisville.
The 1995 SBWIM annual meeting was highlighted by the historic vote to change the name of the organization from SBWIM to Baptist Women in Ministry. The vote was 63-1 in favor of the name change. At a revisioning retreat held in Little Rock, Arkansas, in November of 1995, the BWIM board of directors discussed an offer from Central Baptist Theological Seminary to move the offices and archives of BWIM to Kansas City, Kansas. In 1996, the organization, after expressing much gratitude to Crescent Hill Baptist Church for so generously housing and supporting BWIM, moved the offices to Kansas City.
The attempts between 1999 and 2002 to move the organization to a new level by employing paid leadership proved to be a challenge for BWIM. From the beginning, leaders of the organization had envisioned embodying new models of leadership, models of collaborative, shared, and less hierarchical organization. They had also struggled to gather enough funding to support a full-time staff. All the early employees of BWIM were part-time, over-qualified, and underpaid. The four-year attempt to make the vision of shared, full-time leadership a reality included support from the BWIM board. With the leadership of BWIM president, Raye Nell Dyer and past-president, Becca Gurney, a special “Reimaging Retreat” was held in Nashville, Tennessee, in August 2000. New and previous BWIM leaders were invited to lend their wisdom to the effort. One of the lasting outcomes of the retreat was the crafting of a vision statement: “Baptist Women in Ministry will be a catalyst in Baptist life drawing together women and men, in partnership with God to illuminate, advocated and nurture the gifts and graces of women.”
The first ever full-time executive director, Susan Miller was hired in November of 2001. Kim Snyder was employed as the office manager. Despite the planning and the vision, several factors converged, which did not allow the attempt to produce a sustainable model for the time and place. The following factors contributed to failed experiment: a down-turn in the economy following September 11, which caused most non-profits to scramble for financial support; internal and perennial differences of vision about how the elected board and the paid staff should relate; several public relations challenges; the illness of Snyder; and the geographical distance from the main constituency of BWIM. Another significant difficulty faced by BWIM leadership was the continued criticism of the organization by its own constituency. Some members of the organization expressed dissatisfaction because BWIM was perceived to be too liberal. Others contended that BWIM was too conservative, and still others asserted that the organization focused too much attention on women pastors and ordained women. All of these challenges were exacerbated by changing Baptist identity and denominational landscape during these years.
By 2003, the twentieth anniversary of BWIM, the attempt to support full-time paid leadership had come to a close. It was time again to rethink the direction and purpose of the organization. In 2003, several events converged, and the BWIM board, led by its president, Karen Massey, decided to appoint a Transition Team to help rethink the purpose, direction, and geographical location of BWIM. That year marked the twentieth anniversary of the organization. The attempt to have a full-time executive director was not working financially. Central Seminary was making financial cut-backs and was considering a move to a new location. The Transition Team met with the BWIM board, surveyed the constituency of the organization, and revisited every aspect of BWIM’s work and purpose, including the organization’s name and the newsletter. Team members included Raye Nell Dyer, Eileen Campbell-Reed, Linda Hicks, David Olive, Karrie Oertli, Suzanah Raffield, Rachel Gunter Shapard, and the BWIM board officers Karen Massey, Terry-Thomas Primer, and Carolyn Weatherford Crumpler.
The results of the Transition Team’s survey demonstrated continuing needs for advocacy, networking and connection for women in ministry. The number one concern of all those surveyed was helping the women graduating from seminary (and all women called to ministry) to find ministry positions. The work of the organization was clearly not complete, although the modes for doing that work stood in need of revision. The changes that came out of the Transition Team’s eighteen months of work included a move of the organization to the campus of Mercer University’s McAfee’s School of Theology in Atlanta, Georgia, and a change in board structure reducing the number of elected board members to a Leadership Team of eight members. The decision was also made to restructure the organization from a membership-based group to a donor-supported organization. Finally, a new name for the newsletter was adopted: Vocare: A Voice for Women in Baptist Life.
The Leadership Team from 2004 to 2009 followed through on many of the recommendations of the Transition Team. They commissioned a “State of Women in Baptist Life” report in 2005 that was researched and written by Eileen Campbell-Reed and Pam Durso. Four other reports have since been commissioned and published (2006, 2007, 2010, 2015). They adopted Vocare as the name of the organization’s newsletter.
In 2007, the Leadership Team envisioned a Sunday in which churches would stand together in their support of women in the pulpit and invite women to preach. On the first Sunday of February that year, fifty-five churches celebrated the first annual “Martha Stearns Marshall Day of Preaching.” The next year the Leadership Team, realizing that limiting the celebration of women’s voices to a specific Sunday in February presented challenges for some churches, expanded the focus and renamed the emphasis: “Martha Stearns Marshall Month of Preaching.” Hundreds of churches have participated over the years, and in 2017, on the tenth anniversary of MSM, two hundred churches participated and together celebrated the gifts and graces of women.
By 2009, the Leadership Team’s vision for Baptist Women in Ministry had outgrown the time constraints of its volunteer leaders, and they dreamed together of a new way forward. In April 2009, in a grand leap of faith in the organization’s potential, they elected Pam Durso as full-time executive director. She began her ministry with BWIM on July 1, 2009.
In October 2013, Ashley Robinson joined the BWIM staff as executive assistant, and in July 2017, former BWIM intern, Meagan Smith, took on the position as project manager.