We gather today to recognize the working of God among us and to celebrate God’s working in the life of Libby Grammar Garrett. And on this special day, Libby, those of us gathered here affirm your call to ministry, we acknowledge that God has gifted and graced you for ministry, and we offer our gratitude to God for you and for your calling.
And today, you as a congregation, First Baptist Church, participate in a long-honored Baptist tradition. You as a church family today follow in the footsteps of Baptists around the world—who have for the four hundred years gathered to set apart—to bless—to ordain—one who has been called and gifted for ministry.
As Baptists, ordination is one of our traditions. It is part of our history—part of our Baptist way of doing and being church. And thus, today’s service is not a unique occurrence but rather is in keeping with our Baptist principles and practices.
As Baptists, we have long held to ideal of the autonomy of local congregations—that is, that each Baptist church is free and responsible to follow God’s leading, to hear God’s voice, to seek to understand the workings of the Spirit. And for you as a congregation that autonomy means that you together, as led by the Spirit, may decide how your church will be governed, how you will worship, and who you will have as leaders.
Today, your Baptist freedom as a church means you, as led by the Spirit, may set apart and ordain this one in whom you have seen gifts, this one whom you have prayed for and loved and nurtured. Today, your church walks in that Baptist tradition—of being faithful as the body of Christ to hear and follow God.
What you might think is out of the ordinary or unique about this service is that you as a church are ordaining a woman. You might think that we Baptists are not in the habit of ordaining women . . . that recognizing and affirming a woman’s gifts for ministry through ordination is outside the norm, is not part of our historic record, or is frowned upon by the good majority of Baptists. And so you might be thinking that your church is alone today – alone in hearing and following God’s Spirit in your decision to ordain a woman.
But this afternoon I want you to know that your church is not alone. Throughout our history as Baptists there have been thousands of other Baptist churches who have walked this same road—who have sought to listen to God’s voice and to be faithful in affirming and ordaining those whom God has called and gifted—without consideration of gender.
Truth be told—in the four hundred years that Baptists have been around women have been church leaders, workers, tithers, teachers, mission leaders, and yes, ministers. Yet, the reality is that during most of those four hundred years, women have not held formal leadership positions in Baptist churches, that is, they have not been given official titles or paid salaries. They have not been licensed or ordained.
And yes, ordination was slow in coming for Baptist women, but perhaps it came earlier than what you might think.
The earliest known ordination of a Baptist woman was that of M. A. Brennan, who in 1876 was ordained as a minister by the Bellevernon Freewill Baptist Church in Pennsylvania. The first ordination of a woman associated with what is now the American Baptist Churches, USA, took place in 1882. That year May Jones was ordained at a meeting of the Baptist Association of Puget Sound in Washington. Within Southern Baptists circles, the first woman to be ordained was Addie Davis, who was ordained on August 9, 1964 by Watts Street Baptist Church in Durham, North Carolina.
So among Baptists, we have a 134-year history of ordaining women. Your church is not alone. History tells us that you are not alone.
I can’t tell you exactly how many Baptist churches have ordained women. Offering an accurate estimate is challenging if not impossible, because Baptists are notoriously bad at record keeping and reporting.
But as a researcher, I do know that just for Baptists in the South since 1964—there have been about 2,500 ordinations. That is my best educated estimate.
Those Baptist women have served and are serving in all capacities of ministry—on church staff as pastors, children’s ministers, worship leaders . . . as chaplains in our hospitals, prisons, and military . . . some work with non-profit agencies, some serve as missionaries, some are in our seminary classrooms and are professors. Some serve in denominational roles.
Libby today joins a whole host of Baptist women ministers—called and blessed by God, affirmed by their Baptist churches, serving God’s people. And today we celebrate—celebrate Libby’s giftedness, her intellectual and ministerial abilities, and her willingness to follow, but we also celebrate the faithfulness of this church—and its openness to hear and to obey God’s vision. May God bless you as a congregation as you continue on this journey in faithfulness.
Libby Grammar Garrett was ordained on December 12, 2010, by First Baptist Church, Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia. Pam Durso is executive director of Baptist Women in Ministry.