In the twelve years, I have been friends with LeAnn Gunter Johns, she has encouraged, advised, and nudged me a good bit. But this past month is the first time that she has ever given me a homework assignment. It went something like this:
Text conversation, Saturday, June 17
From LeAnn to Pam
“Cars 3 should be required viewing for ministers, especially BWIM folks. Go see it. I’m not kidding.”
From Pam to LeAnn
“Alex won’t go see it with me. She wants to know why you think I should go. She saw the preview. She also wants to know if you think I am being phased out by younger, hipper women.”
From LeAnn to Pam
“Haha! It’s about believing in yourself, mentors, confidence.”
From Pam to LeAnn
“I may need to borrow Parker and Patrick from you so I can go!”
From LeAnn to Pam
“They would go again.”
Phone conversation, Monday, July 3
LeAnn to Pam
“You HAVE to go see Cars 3, and you HAVE one week to complete this homework assignment.”
Text conversation, Sunday, July 9
From Pam to LeAnn with a photo of the Cars 3 movie poster
Spoiler alert: Some details of the movie are included in the following paragraphs so if you plan to see Cars 3 but haven’t yet, you might want to skip this blog.
A few things you might need to know to understand the conversations above. Alex is my twenty-year-old daughter, who likes most Disney movies. She, however, had a limited appreciation of the first two Cars movies, and she flat-out refused to go see this new one with me. My friend, LeAnn, has two sons: Parker is six, and Patrick will soon be four. They LOVE the Cars movies and have watched Cars and Cars 2 dozens and dozens of times. I would have loved to see the movie with them, but they live ninety miles away, and their mother gave me a tight deadline. So last Sunday afternoon I went alone to the movie theater, sat in the dark with eight other people (half of whom were under the age of ten), and completed my homework assignment.
Then the movie reviewing began—a new and very detailed text conversation ensued with LeAnn about Lightning McQueen, car racing, ministry, mentors, legacy, and calling. I promise not to give away too many of the movie’s details, but LeAnn is right. It is a movie that BWIM folks should see, but it had a different effect on me than she thought it would.
So here goes: the premise of the movie is that the famous and successful race car, Lightning McQueen, enters a new racing season with high hopes only to be beaten repeatedly by a rookie car named Jackson Storm. By the end of the season, Lightning’s fellow veteran friends begin retiring. Some are fired by their sponsors. They can’t keep up with the faster and technologically-improved newer generation of cars, but Lightning isn’t ready to retire. He wants to decide his own fate, so he trains hard over the off-season, working with a new coach, Cruz Ramirez. Cruz is a young dreamer, who has long wanted to be a racer, but she never thought she was good enough or fast enough, and she finally blurts out to Lightning, “No one ever told me I could.”
The rest of the movie introduces stories told about Lightning’s mentor, Doc, stories told by Doc’s friends. Beautiful, funny stories of days gone by. Stories of encouragement and support—stories highlighting the depth and richness of giving one’s self, sharing one’s wisdom and gifts with the next generation. By the end of the movie, Lightning realizes that he has much happiness ahead and great fulfillment—not as a racer but as a mentor.
This part of the movie is when LeAnn cried . . . she cried because she knows the stories. She remembers. LeAnn has been part of the BWIM family since her days in seminary. She joined the BWIM Leadership Team when she was in her mid-twenties, fresh out of seminary. She sat with early BWIM leaders. She listened to their stories. She learned about the value of mentoring the next generation, and she herself benefited from and had opportunities because many of those women mentored her.
But I didn’t cry during this part of the movie. Like LeAnn, I value the role of mentors in the BWIM world. I love hearing the stories of early founders, who gave life to this movement and nudged BWIM into being. But I didn’t cry.
I was too numb. I all but stopped paying close attention to the movie dialogue the minute that Cruz said, “No one ever told me I could.”
“No one ever told me I could.” That is my story. “No one ever told me I could.” Growing up I had this dream, one I was never brave enough to say out loud, one I couldn’t even confess to myself. I felt called to be a pastor. I was twelve-years-old when I first felt called, and I spent my teenage years struggling to understand that calling. Deep in my heart, I knew that someday I wanted to preach, to pastor, to minister in a church. But “no one ever told me I could.” In fact, a good number of people told me I couldn’t.
Because I am stubborn and resourceful, I found other more “acceptable” Baptist ways to serve. I concluded that teaching would be my ministry, so off to graduate school I went. I finished my Ph.D. in 1992, and crossed my fingers, hoping that someday I would find a college or seminary that would hire me. That is a long story for another day, but in 1999, I finally made my way to the classroom and began teaching. Yet buried deep within me was still this hope to pastor, a hope that I continued to be reluctant to speak out loud.
In 2005, I joined the BWIM Leadership Team, and that same year, I began work with Eileen Campbell-Reed on the first State of Women in Baptist Life report. In that report, we shared some history of Baptist women called to ministry, and we presented the numbers—the number of women ordained, the number women serving as pastors, the number of women students in seminaries. We shared and reviewed all the statistics we could gather. The next year, Eileen and I produced another report and updated all our numbers. We presented the new report during a workshop at the 2007 Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s General Assembly held in Washington, D.C.
At some point during that General Assembly, Baptist Women in Ministry hosted a reception. Eileen and I attended. We stood near the back of the room, chatting with a few other women. I have a clear memory of that day. I remember drinking syrupy punch, and I remember saying my truth out loud—“I feel called to be a pastor. I have always felt called to pastor.” And then, not knowing what my future would hold, I said, “I haven’t been able to live out that calling, and I doubt I ever will. But I have decided to do everything in my power to ensure that the next generation of called and gifted Baptist women will have the support and encouragement they need. I am going to give my life to this work–so that there will be more open doors, more opportunities for Baptist women to pastor.”
Two years later, almost to the day, I began my tenure as executive director of Baptist Women in Ministry. My commitment to mentoring—and to working for change in our Baptist world has been a ten-year journey, one that has brought much fulfillment and deep joy.
But much, much longer has been my journey with “No one ever told me I could.” For over forty years, I have lived “No one ever told me I could.”
So, LeAnn, my friend, sitting in that dark movie theater on Sunday, I didn’t see myself in Lightning McQueen. I was not moved to tears by the memories of those older race cars, telling stories about the gift of mentoring. On Sunday, I was Cruz. I was that young woman who desperately wanted to race but didn’t believe she was good enough or fast enough, because “No one ever told her she could.” That is when I cried.
Pam Durso is executive director of Baptist Women in Ministry, Atlanta, Georgia.