Baptist Women in Ministry lost a prophetic leader and a significant advocate on June 8 with the death of Dr. Sarah Frances Anders. She was ninety years old.
In the early 1980s, Sarah Frances called for the formation of a network of fellowship and support for Baptist women ministers and insisted that a mechanism be created and maintained for the collection of data about women in ministry. She made that challenge to her fellow Southern Baptists and then she answered her own call! Sarah Frances was instrumental in forming the organization that is now known as Baptist Women in Ministry. She also stepped in and became the record-keeper of this new movement, gathering ordination and employment information about Southern Baptist women ministers and providing analysis of that information. She continued in that work for twenty years and used her scholarly skills and strong passion to advance the ministry opportunities for Baptist women called and gifted by God.
As part of her work, Sarah Frances tracked the number of women serving as pastors in Southern Baptist life. In 1983, the year that Baptist Women in Ministry began, she discovered that there were fourteen women serving as Southern Baptist pastors. By 1993, that number had grown to fifty-one. Sarah Frances documented the slow but steady advancement of women into Baptist pulpits.
In 2005, I took over the role of record-keeper, picking up where Sarah Frances had left off. I gathered names that year of all the women pastors and co-pastors I could find in churches that affiliated with the Alliance of Baptists, the Baptist General Association of Virginia, the Baptist General Convention of Texas, and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, and I soon learned what Sarah Frances had known all along. Record-keeping for Baptists is hard work.
Because Baptists historically have maintained congregational polity and voluntary association among the churches of their conventions, societies, and conferences, few Baptist national bodies consistently collect, maintain, or publish reliable statistical information about their ministers. Thus assembling an accurate and coherent reporting about the state of women in Baptist life is a difficult task. So in my new role as a record-keeper I felt more like a detective than a statistician. I sent emails and made phone calls to denominational national and state leaders. I read Baptist newspapers and websites, and I cheered the advent of social media, when suddenly my job got a lot easier. Facebook became my friend!
Here are the numbers I have collected:
As of today, July 3, 2017, there are 188 names on my list. Since January 1, I have added twelve new names–twelve women have been called this year to pastor or co-pastor Baptist churches. Three of those women were called by churches on June 25. Sadly, I always have to delete some names as well. This year four women have retired, left their churches for other ministry positions, or passed away. So we have a net gain of eight in the last six months.
Women are being called. Baptist culture is changing. But if Sarah Frances were here today she would remind us that there is more work yet to be done. While the numbers are growing, the list is getting longer, the percentage of Baptist churches pastored by women is still low, too low. At BWIM’s annual gathering on June 28, we passed out small pins that read: 6.5%
6.5% is the percentage.of Cooperative Baptist churches that are led by women pastors. That percentage has been steadily increasing in the past ten years—there is much to celebrate!! But there is more work to be done. And that work needs to be done by us all–by clergywomen, clergymen, lay women, lay men, teenage girls, teenage boys, and even by girls and boys. We need everyone’s voice, everyone’s support as we work to move 6.5% to 10% and then to 20% and beyond. My friend, Tracy Hartman, acting vice president of academic affairs and dean at Baptist Theological Seminary in Richmond, suggested that what we really need to do is move the decimal over! Instead of 6.5%, we need 65%.
Our hope in sharing these pins was to stir up conversations. We hoped that curious people would ask about 6.5%, and our BWIM friends would tell them, tell them our shared commitment to greater equity in ministry, tell them that we can all be louder, stronger advocates for women pastors and women serving in ministry, and tell them that it is time to move forward together as allies and advocates for women called and gifted by God for ministry.
This week I have so wished that Sarah Frances was here with us to see the progress we have made. I know she would insist that we keep on working, that we do better! We owe much to her leadership! With strong passion and unfailing grace, Sarah Frances Anders served faithfully as our prophet, our pioneer and our advocate, and we give thanks to God for her life and her leadership.
Pam Durso is executive director of Baptist Women in Ministry, Atlanta, Georgia.