My new book, Strength for the Journey: Feminist Theology and Baptist Women Pastors, focuses on women who continue to preach and serve as pastors and who have remained Baptists in the South but are no longer Southern Baptists. I became curious about these women. They continue to face opposition to their role as pastors, and I wanted to know the sources of their strength and determination. Specifically, how did feminism and feminist theology influence their decision to be pastors and to continue in ministry?
In gathering information about them, I interviewed twenty woman pastors in five different states representing two generations of pastors. These women are among the very few who grew up in Southern Baptist churches and are now Baptist pastors, since the Southern Baptist denomination has officially denounced women in the pulpit in 1984. I found that these women’s experience of call was nurtured in the church and their calls to ministry were encouraged until their plans was to pastor a church. Faced with opposition, the women claimed their calling, joined networks of support, and turned to feminist theology for alternative biblical interpretations, validation of their role as ecclesial leaders, and inspiration for non-hierarchical models of theology and ministry.
Following are excerpts from Strength for the Journey:
Jessica turned to feminist theology while in high school. She did not grow up in the church, but after becoming active as a teenager, she soon sensed a call to ministry. She shared this thought with her youth group. When one of her male friends said, “You can’t do that, you are a girl. Girls can’t be ministers,” Jessica looked at him and replied, “Well, you can take it up with God.” But his comment prompted her to begin researching the role of women in the Bible. Without any adult help, save for a Sunday school teacher who taught her class to consider the Bible in historical context, Jessica came to the conclusion that her friend was wrong. She majored in religion in college, studying Greek and Hebrew, and with the help of several books on feminist theology, Jessica wrote her senior thesis on feminine images of God. She asserts that feminist theology “gives us strength for the journey.”
In her experiences as youth minister and as pastor, Jessica has had challenges not only because of her youth, but because she is a woman. As a youth minister, she was not allowed to preach when the pastor was away, and as a pastor, she has had people walk out of the church building when they learned that a woman pastor was going to preach. She sighs, “It just wears on you.” She sees young male ministers who are not especially capable but are offered large churches and the senior pastor role right out of seminary, an opportunity that women rarely have. She concludes, “And so it is very frustrating. What feminist theology does is that it reminds you that no matter what, you are doing it. You are doing the right thing; you are doing what God calls you to do. And it helps give you strength to walk a sometimes irritating and lonely, sad path.” (151-152)
Cynthia, a second career pastor, says that feminist theology is an “outside voice that says, “Yeah, what you are being called to do makes sense. It is an outside affirmation, and probably the first place that we can see that voice strongly . . . and recognize that our voices matter.”
Called to be Pastors
Susan was a student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in the late 1970s, preparing to be an associate pastor or minister of education. However, she began to have doubts. She made an appointment with one of her professors and told him that her sense of calling was changing. He asked, “Well, what do you think it is?” She said, “I think that God is calling me to preach.” He responded, “Well, why does that bother you? What are you afraid of?” Susan replied, “Because I’ve never seen anybody do that before.” Then she said, “He grabbed my hands and got right in my face and said, ‘Wouldn’t you rather be a part of something new and exciting than a part of something that has always been?’” And Susan remembers, “And everything inside of me went–‘Yes!’” (131)
Elaine grew up in churches in which her farther served as pastor. She developed leadership and speaking skills in the youth group. She preached her first sermon when a senior in high school, but she did not understand it to be a sermon. When she heard a woman preach for the first time Elaine thought it was “weird,” but at the end of the preaching series she was “totally hooked and thought it was really cool.”
Still unsure of her own future, Elaine entered seminary thinking that she would write curriculum or do some kind of educational work. But during the first day of orientation at a worship service, her plans changed. She said, “I felt very clear at that point that I was there to learn how to be a pastor, and that was the thing that surfaced. . . . . I started seeing everything through pastoral eyes, and it was great. In the meantime, Elaine’s father was part of the fundamentalist group that opposed women pastors. When she told him of her decision to be a pastor, he said, “Well, you know how this makes me look. I can’t have this happening in my own house.” She remembers, “It was pretty much a terrible moment in my family.” When she was later ordained, her parents came to the service, but her father refused to bless her. (132-133)
Southern Baptist piety and feminist theology coalesce in the lives of these pastors. They are grateful for the spiritual and cultural formation of the churches of their youth, but they have added to their primary culture a new spiritual and ethical understanding of Christianity informed by feminism and feminist theology. They do not believe in a God who would condemn women, regardless of abilities and situation in life, to secondary status.
My book introduces their stories but also explores Southern resistance to evangelicalism, the gendered and racial dynamics in the formation of the Southern Baptist Convention, and the post World War II changes wrought by the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, and the women’s ordination movements. My book also documents the ways in which Baptist women employed feminist theory and theology to counter the backlash and Southern Baptist controversy of the 1980s and relates these women pastors’ narratives of call, ordination, and ministry.
Judith Bledsoe Bailey is author of Strength for the Journey, which may be ordered from her website. Judy will be signing books on June 17 during the annual Baptist Women in Ministry lunch in Dallas, Texas.