Each Friday Baptist Women in Ministry introduces an amazing minister, and this week we are pleased to introduce Eileen Campbell-Reed. 

Eileen, tell us about your ministry journey.
As a girl growing up in a Baptist church, I was not only baptized at the age of seven, but also saturated in a Baptist world … showing up for Sunday school, memorizing scripture in Bible Drill, singing in children’s choir and attending missions education on Wednesday nights. I was a member of GA (Girls in Action), what historian Bill Leonard likes to call Baptist Girl Scouts. I earned my GA badges, and when I hit middle school, I became an Acteen. Now Acteens is one part geography lesson, two parts achievement program, three parts teenage girlish angst, with a healthy dose of missionary zeal thrown in for good measure. I worked through the Acteens’ achievement program and became a Queen Regent in service … crown, scepter, cape and pin. That made me as close to a Baptist debutante as one can get without the actual social manners lessons or debutante ball. Instead we held a worship service on a Sunday night once a year in the spring. We walked down the aisle to a trumpet playing “God of our Fathers” and received our regalia. Most years we gave short speeches about what we had learned. Not sermons, mind you. Then we ate cookies and drank punch in the fellowship hall. Definitely no dancing.

When I look back, I suppose I spent a lot of my early life working through Baptist achievement programs. And yet I wanted so much more out of my church and spiritual life. The youth ministry program at my church helped me on this quest for more. It was on one of many summer mission trips that I realized I could continue doing what I loved – teaching, leading, organizing for the sake of loving my neighbors as Jesus taught. Such work might even become my career! My sense of vocation and calling emerged out of the work of teaching children, working collaboratively with other youth, and participating in God’s love and mercy. What I would have said at the time was that I felt called to keep sharing that love and to make that the focus of my life and work.

I decided on my seminary before I even got to college. What I didn’t know was how much going to Southern Seminary in Louisville would shape the rest of my journey into ministry…

What challenges have you encountered along the way?
I often say that my entire ministry formation – beginning in 1984 with my senior year in high school – took place in a “crucible of conflict.” That year Southern Baptists passed the now infamous “Kansas City resolution,” condemning the ordination of women to pastoral ministries. I remember vividly sitting on the back row in the sanctuary of my childhood church. It was summer – just after my graduation. I heard my pastor, Hershel Chevallier, reporting on his trip to the SBC and the passage of that resolution. That moment presented me with a lasting epiphany: I was crystal clear that Baptists had raised me and called me to ministry, and yet on some large scale they were telling me that I couldn’t pursue that calling. I felt sure this could not be right. I was determined even more to fulfill my calling no matter what the resolution said. The call was not only from Baptists but also from God. That took priority over anything Baptists might do or try to hinder my call.

And try they did. In college my professors suffered the indignities of having their classes recorded and their jobs threatened. In seminary the whole school was under siege as Southern Baptists took over the board of trust and ousted our president Roy Honeycutt. Professors were fleeing at an alarming rate. Nearly twenty of them left in the years I was a student. Eventually many professors became the leaders in the new schools that stepped into the educational gap that opened up for those of us who departed the SBC, those who believed women were called to ministry. I graduated in the last class at Southern Seminary with leadership from Dr. Honeycutt.

It took me nearly two years to find my first place of service in ministry. Those were really challenging months. I interviewed at twelve different churches and agencies. In those days of the early 1990s, there was so much transition with churches leaving the SBC and trying to figure out where they belonged. Calling women to serve was a part of the politics of the day, and finding a church that really wanted me and my gifts – getting the right fit (and not just the politics) was so important to me. I did land at just such a place. And I served Heritage Baptist Church in Cartersville, Georgia, for over five years. I learned so much while immersed in that new kind of Baptist place – a church begun out of conflict and choosing to affiliate only with the newer Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and Alliance of Baptists. They let me get my feet wet in all kinds of ministry and really try on the pastoral role fully … preaching and teaching, marrying and burying, baptizing and presiding. All the while I also led youth ministry and Christian education for the church.

My childhood church ordained me soon after seminary, and when I had begun my work at Heritage. It was another five years before my home congregation ordained some women as deacons for the first time. I’ll likely be the only woman ever ordained by that church for congregational ministry.

I understand my ministry now to be teaching, supporting, and encouraging new ministers. I do this with my seminary classes, my research and writing, and through relationships with young (and older) men and women who are pursuing their call to ministry. In the Learning Pastoral Imagination Project we are following along fifty women and men as they move from seminary to ministry. This is the first genuinely national, ecumenical and longitudinal study of ministry. We are seven years into the work and learning so much through witnessing the unfolding practice of ministry in the lives of these ministers.

Tell us about your book Anatomy of a Schism. What did you learn from the research and writing about Baptist women ministers?
Wow. I have learned so much. The project really began when I went to graduate school at Vanderbilt. I wanted to know how it was that Baptist clergywomen seemed to thrive when all the odds were stacked against them. What were their resources and strengths? How were they so resilient even when jobs for women were scarce, churches were kicked out of Baptist groups for ordaining and calling women, and women’s work in ministry often ended abruptly over church conflicts? I thought about the conflict and fracturing of the SBC as important background to understanding their lives and the pressures they were facing. After interviewing a number of women and really working on their stories, I had pivotal conversation with one of my history advisors, Kathleen Flake. She helped me turn the project around and ask not just how the women had thrived, but: how did the clergywomen’s stories help me understand the culture and conflicts of Baptists in a different way?

This shift really let the project accelerate into a new kind of interpretation – one that is psychological, theological, and pays attention to the function of gender – of the SBC schism. The women’s stories are valuable totally on their own. They teach us many important things about ministry, about the part that our unconscious understandings of gender play in church life and theological understandings. They show vividly some of the embodied and relational learning required for good ministry practice. Yet the clergywomen’s lives are also like windows into the living history of Baptist identity and social conflict in the late twentieth century. Each woman’s story works like a case study for the gifts and challenges of learning ministry over time, and also like a rich well of insights about what was at stake in the SBC during the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s.

For instance, Baptist clergywomen and their supporters weren’t simply trying to “prove a point” or “win their rights” as ministers. Nor were they merely symbols of a fight between men – tossed around like a football. Women were acting as agents – lead characters if you will – in their own stories. They struggled to live their callings in a new way, to see themselves and be seen by others as fully human – not second class ministers or people. In the process they imagined – and more importantly lived – their callings in ways that reached for authenticity and redemption. And along the way they were helping to reshape the meaning of being a Baptist and being a minister in the twenty-first century.

What advice would you give to a teenage girl who is discerning a call to ministry?
Pay attention. That is the spiritual work of this life. No matter what you might (or might not) be called to do, paying attention is at the heart of your calling. God’s wake up calls are everywhere around us: the yellow-green of the leaves for just that one week in April …. the five perfect bluebird eggs … the whispered encouragement from your grandmother … that urgency to read more and preach better. But if we’re not paying attention, we are likely to miss these wake up calls. One of the best ways to learn the quality of careful attention is to pray. Not so much with words and talk but with silence and breathing.

Find someone who will walk with you and talk with you and help you pay attention to your life and your calling. None of us has all the wisdom or all the learning. We really need each other and our best learning comes in community. Look for peers, mentors and teachers who really get the game of ministry and can help you learn to play it. Like other games (playing the guitar or cooking or parenting) rules are important and necessary. But rules alone don’t give you all you need for the improvisation required for such complex and rewarding games. Find folks who can give you loving support and honest feedback. A challenging combination, but people who can do this are the very best for supporting the long journey into learning the practice of ministry. In our times we need all the support, feedback and companionship we can get!