In the fall of 2009, I moved away from everyone and everything I knew in Kentucky to begin studying for my Master of Divinity degree at Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas. Before moving, I had applied to be the children’s minister at Calvary Baptist Church, also in Waco. I actually assumed the church would want someone older and more experienced, so I didn’t seriously think that I would get the position. I moved to Waco on a Saturday, visited Calvary on Sunday, interviewed on Tuesday, and was offered the position on Thursday.
Obviously, I was blown away. Learning to navigate a completely new life at a brand new school and in a new part of the country was overwhelming, and now I was also going to add a new job at a new church, all within less than a week of moving to the hundred degree heat of Waco. The more I learned about the church, however, the more I felt God calling me there. I learned that Calvary was the one of the first Baptist churches in the state of Texas to have a female senior pastor. Although she was no longer serving there when I arrived, Julie Pennington-Russell had left quite a legacy at that church, and affirming women in ministry is still important to Calvary today. I also I learned that Calvary sees all of its ministerial staff as pastors who are involved in worship planning, preaching, leading the Lord’s Supper, and ministering in various areas of the life of the church. The idea both scared and thrilled me at the same time. By the next week, I had accepted the position.
On my first Sunday to preach at Calvary, the church was blown away when I told them that this would be my first time to officially “preach” in a Baptist church. But I was so relieved that that my desire to preach wasn’t something I would have to hide at Calvary; preaching was a part of my life that I could finally publically acknowledge and pursue. After that first sermon, I was moved to tears and so thankful and amazed that God had brought me into this incredible community of faith.
In the winter of 2010 I participated in the inaugural Festival of Young Preachers in Louisville, Kentucky, an initiative led by my mentor and professor Dwight Moody. I was one of nineteen women to preach at the festival out of the ninety-two 92 young preachers from different traditions and denominations participating in the event. A pastor came up to me one day during the festival and said, “Of all the sermons I’ve heard today, I will remember yours.” His words stuck with me. I realized that God was starting to use other people to affirm me as a preacher. Preaching wasn’t something hidden or secret about me anymore. In a sense, I was coming out of the closet as a preacher, a prissy preacher, and I liked it.
Currently, I’m in my fourth semester at Truett Seminary. I’m taking my first course in preaching, and as you can probably imagine, I love it. Each day, God speaks to me in new ways and encourages me in my calling. This preaching class has definitely led me into a season of discerning God’s calling on my life, and I’m so thankful for the ministers, professors, family members, and friends who are walking alongside me in this process.
At this point, I can say a few things with certainty: I’m open to God’s calling on my life and am fervently praying about it. I know that God could very well be calling me to be a preacher. When I preach, I’m reminded that I’m doing at least part of what God has created me to do. I also know that I love the Baptist tradition, and I’m committed to it. I am not willing to leave the Baptist church in order to preach.
I do believe with all my heart that God DOES call women to be preachers. And we don’t need to try to be like men in order to do that. Sometimes, God can even use a petite, red-headed girl who wears pearls and dresses to preach his Word. I feel called to preach with the unique voice that God has given me, and I believe the feminine voice is one that the church desperately needs to hear, along with a diversity of other beautiful voices from within the community of faith.
So I am continuing to pray, humbled to preach, and excited to see where God leads me on my journey as a “prissy” preacher.
Mary Alice Birdwhistell is a student at George W. Truett Theological Seminary and minister to children at Calvary Baptist Church, Waco, Texas.