Each week, Baptist Women in Ministry introduces an amazing minister. This week, we are delighted to introduce Sarah Shelton.
Sarah, tell us about the places and ways you have served in ministry.
I was on one of those youth choir tours. We were somewhere in Floridg’a at a cheap hotel. I had already been to the University of Alabama’s freshman orientation and enrolled in the College of Education so that I could teach kindergarten. Nothing, however, seemed settled in my spirit. I don’t recall ever having had that feeling of “not quite getting what is going on with me.” So I asked my chaperone if I could sit on the hotel steps that were just outside of our room. She agreed.
As I sat there, tears running down my face, I remember praying, “If you will just take this feeling away, O God! I will do anything even give my life to the church if you will just take this feeling away.” Immediately, I felt relief, and the feeling has never returned. Now, there have been plenty of times when I wondered about what I was doing! But always there has been this calm assurance that God was with me in the calling, in the doing, and in the serving. That sense of calling has gotten me through many times when there didn’t seem to be any apparent place of service. It would not let me go.
I went to seminary at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky, expecting to become a director of a church kindergarten. During my first semester, however, I had a sense that my calling was evolving. I made an appointment with Dr. Findley Edge. We met in his office which had as many books stacked on the floor as were on the bookshelves! We sat in a small carved out area just big enough for two chairs. We were so close our knees touched! I told Dr. Edge that I felt like my calling was changing, but I was hesitant to say what it was changing to because I had never seen a woman do it. When he nudged me to continue on, I said that I thought I was called to preach. At this point, he grabbed my hands and said, “Oh, Sarah! Wouldn’t it be more exciting to be a part of something new than to be part of something that has always been??” And everything inside of me said, “Yes!”
It took me awhile to really believe that I could preach. One day, in church history, Loyd Allen turned around to ask me what I was going to do with my seminary degree. I said, “I’m not going to tell you.” This went on for several conversations until after promising not to laugh at my answer, I told Loyd I wanted to preach. When I won The Francisco Preaching Award, it was Loyd who introduced me by saying, “Now we will all know!”
What are your greatest sources of joy in ministry?
No other profession is invited to stand with their people when they take sacred vows, lay their loved ones to eternal rest, or dedicate their children. No one else gets paid to study and read and struggle with holy writ to share in services inspired with prayer and presence. How do I compare the joy I feel when I can put a plate of hot food into the hands of the hungry or offer hope to the discouraged or bring calm to those afraid? Maybe it is because I had to wait a long time to become a senior pastor that “I count it all as joy.”
What are the greatest challenges you have faced in ministry?
I think that all female clergy have stories of being overlooked, dismissed, or downright rejected. My favorite one occurred during the first two weeks of being the pastor of Baptist Church of the Covenant in Birmingham, Alabama. When the media picked up the story, not only were we on the front page of The Birmingham News for a couple of weeks, but we had rocks thrown through the windows of the church. A couple who were at the International Mission Board to be certified as volunteer missionaries in Africa were suddenly refused appointment because their church had called a female to be pastor. These stories, however, are starting to be balanced by children who have experienced me as pastor and Valerie Burton as associate pastor. They are asking their parents, “Are girls the only ones who can be pastors, or can boys be pastors too!”
My greatest personal challenges are balancing family, work, the and play. Self-care is usually the first to be sacrificed!
Tell about some of your significant supporters.
Even in the hardest of times, I have been fortunate to have a family that has been supportive in every way. My parents were wonderful role models (my Dad was a pastor and my mother’s Sunday School exceeded 100 on role). They encouraged my educational pursuits and were mainstays of stability. My husband, Lloyd, has thrown himself into the role of “pastor’s wife.” He teaches a great Sunday school lesson and thrives when the church members use their pet name for him, “Big Mama.” Our children David and Dannelly are sources of great joy. They have also done their part to be involved in the churches where I served and have done this with happy hearts.
I would be remiss if I did not mention the congregation of Baptist Church of the Covenant as being significant supporters. They called me to be their pastor when I had never served in this capacity before. They called me to be their pastor when, at that time, there was not another female serving as the pastor of another Baptist church in our state. And they stayed the course when there was volatile criticism from outside “powers.” I will always be indebted to their vision and courage; their commitment to integrity; and their determination that we would be Baptists, in the best historical sense of that word, together.