Each Friday, Baptist Women in Ministry introduces a fabulous minister. This week, we’re thrilled to introduce Merianna Harrelson
Merianna, tell us about your ministry journey, the places and ways you have been serving and are serving.
I was raised Southern Baptist. I didn’t know women could serve as ministers, be ordained, and preach. When I voiced a call to ministry, it was not welcomed with open arms, but rather I was advised to seek “discernment.” I was met with questions about whether I was sure I had heard my call correctly.
Even with the admonishments, I pursued Divinity School at Gardner-Webb University. I was told that while there were Baptists who would welcome and affirm women in ministry, there simply weren’t that many congregations who were willing to call a woman to preach and serve as pastor. I was advised to look into options of ordination in different denominations or consider associate minister positions first and work my way up to a senior pastor position. But, my call was to preach and to serve a Baptist congregation.
I began to serve as a pulpit supply preacher for any and every congregation who would take a chance on me as I continued my education. When I moved to Columbia, South Carolina, there was a small church start, Emmanuel Baptist Fellowship, who asked me to fill their pulpit and then asked if I would serve as their interim pastor. I was astonished. There was a Baptist congregation who wanted me to preach AND pastor! I asked if they would be willing to call an interim pastor who was still a student and they explained that many of them had done the same thing when they were students in seminary. The congregation believed in helping young ministers find their way. Over the course of my last year of divinity school, I learned alongside them as we journeyed together to find God’s voice and God’s leading. After I was ordained at Emmanuel and graduated from Divinity School, I felt our journey was not over and applied for the permanent pastor position. I entered in the pastor search process with excitement and hope that they would be led to the same conclusion. I was honored to be called as their first female pastor in June 2014. I served Emmanuel for two years before I felt called to move on, knowing that there were other young ministers who would be welcomed, affirmed, and healed by this congregation.
In 2016, after months of rejection letters from pastor search committees, I stumbled upon another Cooperative Baptist Fellowship church start in West Columbia, South Carolina, New Hope Christian Fellowship. New Hope was exactly what I needed after so much rejection. Our journey began with pulpit supply and then they asked if I would be interested in an interim pastor position. “Would you be interested in me?” I asked, shocked again that I was being asked to preach AND pastor another congregation. After two months of conversations, New Hope called me to serve as their permanent pastor before my interim was even completed. I am happy to serve as the pastor of New Hope Christian Fellowship, the oldest CBF church start in South Carolina.
What have been your greatest sources of joy in ministry?
There have certainly been times when I wondered and questioned whether I was called or whether I was not called. The truth is there aren’t many congregations who are willing to call a woman as pastor. Only 6.5% of CBF pastors and co-pastors are female. My greatest source of joy is being able to share my story about the way God specifically called me and how God worked in mysterious ways to bring me to two different congregations who called me as their pastor. These whispers of the Divine invite us and encourage us to believe in something much bigger than ourselves. The work we are called to do as ministers is not about numbers of people in worship or Sunday School or budgets. We are called to holy work that transforms lives and offers hope in the midst of hopeless.
What have been the greatest challenges you have encountered in ministry?
My story of answering a call to preach and pastor is not one devoid of pain. I had to start Divinity school without scholarships. My call to ministry strained relationships with family and friends. My call created a theological crisis for people who weren’t searching or questioning what they believed. In the midst of exploring and answering my call to ministry, I have had to recognize and name spiritual abuse I experienced. The greatest challenge for me has been to experience that pain and not allow that pain to turn into bitterness. It would be so easy to blame and shame individuals and institutions who rejected and tried to suppress my call to ministry. However, if I believe all are welcome into the kingdom of God, this means including people in God’s love who have hurt me. I can’t preach about wholeness and healing and be someone who condemns and belittles.
Although it is difficult, it has allowed me the grace to respond lovingly to people who question my identity as a Baptist woman in ministry. This happens quite often in my community of South Carolina. It can make you feel like you are an exotic animal in a zoo, but it can also give you hope that by answering your call to ministry, you are enlarging the imaginations of people you meet to help them understand that God calls all kinds of people regardless of gender, sexual identity, or race.
What advice would you give to a teenage girl who is discerning a call to ministry?
Recently, one of our youth who happens to be a female was preaching. I asked her on Sunday morning if she was ready and she responded: “I couldn’t eat anything. My stomach is in knots.” I smiled at her and said the same thing my preaching professor said to me, “Welcome to the life of preaching. As soon as you aren’t nervous about standing before God’s people and delivering a word of God to the people of God, stop preaching because you are sharing your words and not God’s.”
If in the midst of the changing dynamics of church attendance, giving, and membership, you feel called to ministry, come on! We need your voice and your call lived out so we can continue to offer hope and healing to a world so desperately in need of both.