Finding someone in the congregation of Calvary Baptist Church in Waco, Texas who is grateful for the ministry of Mary Alice Birdwhistell will not take long. Just ask someone, just ask anyone, at any time, on any day. The congregation loves her as a person, as a pastor, as a spiritual leader, as a woman in pastoral ministry, and the list goes on. Am I exaggerating? Never. I have been around Baptist (un)holy wars long enough to practice a good dose of healthy cynicism, but not this time. The excitement is genuine. Mary Alice’s ministry is an ongoing inspiration of hope and joy, a daily demonstration of faithfulness to God and to her congregation. Her love of being a minister, of doing ministry is palpable, ever so obvious. Do you need hope? Watch Mary Alice love her congregation as an expression of her love of God.
Mary Alice is a graduate of Georgetown College in Kentucky and Truett Seminary. Her story is every woman minister’s story and her own unique story. She overcame the typical Southern Baptist message to young women that they could not be pastors. She listened to God’s call, not man’s rejection or restrictions. She has also overcome physical challenges and still deals with those mountains with grace.
I had Mary Alice as a student in a Baptist history class and knew then how intellectually gifted she was. I have seen her as Calvary’s children’s minister, associate pastor, and now senior pastor. The pastor search committee (on which I served) held her to a higher standard. They wanted to hear a new vision, not just an affirmation of the good (!) they had already seen. Her interaction with the committee was visionary, contagious in hope, and we have been saying “yes” to the energy and passion of her calling these last two years. In whatever ministerial situation she encounters, her wisdom is beyond her years. And her preaching? Deep and creative interaction with the biblical text, woven together with compelling storytelling. We say “yes” to Spirit-led preaching that feeds us with hope and gratitude and passion to serve.
Mary Alice knows I cannot tell her “no.” My answer to her is always yes! So, what is the next committee assignment? I never tire of saying that to her as we drive to Houston. In the last few years, I had to take multiple road trips to MD Anderson Cancer Hospital in Houston, and Mary Alice never said “no” to me when I needed her. She has been the pastor, the gifted ear of compassion and hope that a parishioner needs in times of anxiety. Along with a few other friends, Mary Alice took a turn to drive the three-plus hour trip to Houston when I was doing treatments. Pastoral care in overdrive for that confessional booth.
To use an image of another Calvary member, I am a big “fan” of Mary Alice. She is what a woman minister looks like, talks like, preaches like, pastors like. Our community of faith believes God calls women and men to minister—yes we feel blessed to say “yes” to women as pastors. I cannot imagine missing out on the divine opportunity to have a woman pastor named Mary Alice. “For all that has been, thanks; for all that is to come, yes!”
Doug Weaver is professor of Baptist studies at Baylor University and a member of Calvary Baptist Church, Waco, Texas.