I attend a good number of ordinations–my personal record is ten in 2015! I also am invited to a few installations every year, but this past Sunday was a new experience for me. On April 2, I sat in the sanctuary of Sardis Baptist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, and smiled to myself while that congregation commissioned Tillie Duncan as pastor emerita. There may be other Baptist women who have received this honor, but Tillie is the only one I know about. And the honor is well deserved!
Beginning her ministry journey a little later in life, after teaching school in North, Carolina, Ohio, and Kentucky and mothering three sons, Tillie enrolled at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and graduated in 1993. Following graduation, she served for nearly six years as missions minister at Pritchard Memorial Baptist Church in Charlotte, where among other things she did chaplaincy work in two mobile home parks.
In 1999, Sardis called Tillie as its associate pastor, and she began her years of service in June of that year. Two months ago, after eighteen years on the church’s staff, Tillie retired. Her colleague, Tim Moore, who served with Tillie most of those years at Sardis, wrote of her: “What has made her such a wonderful pastor is that she has always been willing to serve where she was needed. She has played with preschoolers at VBS; taught weekday Bible classes; sat and listened to the ill and dying; helped guide and direct committees; challenged Sardis children to bowling duels; worked in the heat of summer on mission trip construction projects; faithfully sang in the choir; touched grieving hearts preaching at funerals and praying at gravesites; whitewater rafted with the youth; pulled pork BBQ to be sold for a fundraiser – in short, she never backed away from any challenge, need, heartache, tough conversation, or moment for deep prayer. She kept working to be a better pastor, whether that was in the craft of preaching, collaborative leadership, youth ministry, or spiritual practices.”
On Sunday, as I sat and worshiped with Tillie’s congregation, friends, and family, I realized her retirement and commissioning tell us several important things. The first is that Baptist women have been ministering in churches now long enough to retire! Women have faithfully served churches for decades; they have stayed the course. Women ministers are no longer a novelty. And that is good news.
The second thing I realized is that a woman, an exceptionally gifted, dedicated woman named Tillie, has done such extraordinary ministry that her congregation bestowed upon her an honor that few, if any, other Baptist women have received. Pastor emerita! And that, my friends, is also good news and cause for much celebration.
As part of the service, those present laid hands upon Tillie, and when it was my turn, I whispered to her, “May God give you new opportunities to serve in ways that today you cannot even imagine!” Given her history, I am pretty certain Tillie will keep finding new and fun places of ministry and continue meeting the needs of those whom she encounters.
Blessings on you, our sister, Tillie! And congratulations to you, Pastor Emerita Tillie Duncan!
Pam Durso is executive director, Baptist Women in Ministry, Atlanta, Georgia.