“If God wants you in seminary, you’ll wash dishes, or whatever, to pay for it.” When I told my pastor God had called me to ministry and I needed help to prepare, his half-hearted response surprised me.
Double messages that blessed and cursed were the norm in my Baptist church in the post-World War II Deep South. God loves the whole world, but God loves black people in their place; God has no favorites, but whites are privileged; God calls everyone to Christ’s work, but females are different; God equips and empowers everyone, but women cannot be deacons or pastors; God gives children to women and men, but females are caregivers and home managers. When my male peers heard God’s call, each one was immediately asked to speak in worship. When I shared my unspecified call, our pastor left me on my own. My church had already applauded my ministering—singing; playing the piano; teaching adults, teens and children; and chairing youth committees. The pastor didn’t deny God’s calling me, but he also offered no support.
My call surprised me. In a 1961 state Baptist Student Union worship service, God spoke to me without notice and spoke so strongly that I felt compelled to respond. I said to my BSU director at the altar, “God is calling me and I don’t know what that means, but I will go anywhere, any time, and do anything.” That call in my sophomore year of college has never left me.
Without ordination, I served for years as a seminary-equipped church educational minister, wrote for the Baptist Sunday School Board, and trained church leaders for the Southern Baptist Convention. In 1981, my Florida pastor offered me ordination, but the power of double messages prevailed.
Born from a church split, my childhood church had emphasized the biblical concept of church unity. After any divided church vote, the pastor would say, “The chair will entertain a motion for unanimity,” implying that dissenters become supporters when God leads. I heard a double message that blessed and cursed. I heard unity matters at the expense of “loyal opposition,” “minority rights,” or oppressed and marginalized people. So not wanting to divide my Florida church, I declined ordination. Instead, I became an advocate for women pastors.
In the early 1980s, ordaining women became a “hot potato” SBC issue. In New Orleans in 1982, I added my voice at the Woman’s Missionary Union dinner when there was a call for support for women ministers. In Pittsburg in June 1983, I joined Women in Ministry, SBC (now Baptist Women in Ministry) in its first meeting and became a member of its steering committee. In 1984, a large urban church search committee withdrew its ministry invitation to my husband, because I said I would accept ordination if another church offered. No church ever did.
In 2006, I discovered two Baptist traditions to bless recipients of God’s initial calling. Some churches grant men preaching licenses before seminary and ordination afterward. Other churches expect men to graduate and then to ask to be ordained. I knew only the former, so had waited decades for a church to offer ordination. Upon learning our church practiced the latter, I requested ordination. On April 24, 2006, First Baptist Church of Augusta, Georgia, wholeheartedly affirmed my forty-five-year response to God’s call.
Since then I have ministered with a multi-cultural church in Hong Kong and automatically contest all double messages (James 3:9-10). I wait for God to surprise me again when the church-at-large finally hears God’s call to bless, not curse! May it be so.
Irene Vinyard Bennett is volunteer minister with university students at Kowloon International Baptist Church, Kowloon Tong, Kowloon, Hong Kong.