Every Friday, Baptist Women in Ministry features an interview with an amazing minister on this blog. Today, we are thrilled to interview, Ginny Ireland. Ginny IS what a minister looks like!
Ginny, tell us about your ministry journey and the places and ways you have served and are serving.
The first woman in ministry I ever witnessed was my mother, Virginia Dodson Bridges. She held no seminary degree. No certificate of ordination. No grueling, yearlong residency of Clinical Pastoral Education. My mother simply knew innately and instinctively how to minister to friends and church members in their homes and at the Pineview General Hospital in Valdosta, Georgia, almost on a weekly basis. I sat beside her in the homes of those who had lost limbs to diabetes and in one home where her friend later completed suicide. She exposed me to the underside of life without any sense of repulsion, horror, rejection, or judgment. She kindly and gently brought the compassion, understanding, and light of God into the darkest reality others endured.
As a very young child, I sensed God’s hand on my shoulder. Several women in my hometown church affirmed that and later were supportive when I declared God’s call to a career as a minister. But as a young adult woman, I experienced an abrupt halt in support from my denomination. One church hired me as a summer youth minister, then refused to pay me because I was a woman. (The gift of a small crystal vase served as a “thank you.”) Others were appalled that I would even consider ordination. Didn’t I know, hadn’t they taught me, that I should marry and be a complement to my husband in the home, not the pulpit? When, at last, a Baptist church did ask me to preach, I was stunned when the pastor placed an envelope in my hands that held a check.
As I matured, there were few role models of women in ministry. Maybe two or three. Then the hideous civil war in the Southern Baptist Convention that led to the massive split broke out. This tragic event occurred during the most formative years of my ministerial life, compounding my sense of abandonment.
My immense theological questions and a serious bout with depression overshadowed my three years in seminary, a place that subtly discouraged where I believed I should head. On the positive side, such discouragement propelled me to spend a year researching various interpretations of scripture regarding women in ministry. At the conclusion of that year, the one aspect I could not shake was the divine hand on my shoulder and fire in my bones. I began to rest in that inner affirmation and passion, even if those around me could not.
During my first year in my career after seminary, a male minister approached me, asserting, “Ginny, if you overstep your boundaries as a woman in ministry, God will not bless your ministry.” My response? After the rugged road I journeyed, I calmly replied, “You just overstepped yours.”
Over the years I have held several positions including director of campus ministries at Samford University, director of admissions and student services at Wake Forest University School of Divinity, and director of a non-profit serving those in need, all awakening me to thirst for the “much more” of faith. Completing the 2-year program with the Academy for Spiritual Formation and the one-year clinical pastoral residency at Erlanger Medical Center, I discovered my next step was actually returning to my first step: entering homes and hospitals to bring compassion, understanding and the light of God into the darkest reality others endured. I am now a hospice chaplain for Covenant Health in Knoxville, Tennessee. Conversations of faith with those facing death quickly become genuine and delve into one’s deepest concerns, a divine encounter. Surely God’s fingerprints coat the past six decades of my life. All of the positions I have held over the years never required ordination. Yet I felt a bit “illegal” serving communion, assisting in weddings, and conducting funerals. First Baptist Church of Chattanooga, a place of deep healing for my family following trauma, ordained me last September, an event that completes my life’s trinity of high, holy days: marriage to my beloved Bill, the birth of our delightful daughter Mary Virginia, and this blessed ordination day. Ordination did not change me or my ministry. I am not more spiritual or gifted, more effective than any other Christian who seeks to fulfil God’s call. But ordination has been a gift and honor beyond words. I continue to pray that day be an inspiration to others, both men and women, who need to recognize, affirm, and declare openly God’s call on their own lives, a privilege that came late in life for me
What have been your greatest sources of joy in ministry?
My greatest joys in ministry have been those moments when the proverbial light bulb turns on inside of another person during a conversation about spiritual matters. To see a student experience an “aha moment,” a family in need find relief for their rent, or a terminally ill patient physically, emotionally, and spiritually relax in our conversation reminds me daily of the absolute, tangible power of God’s love. No doctrine, no denomination, no degree can compete with the simple, loving presence of God.
What is the best ministry advice you have received?
The best ministry advice I have received? I continue receiving great ministry advice because I continue to thirst for the “much more” of faith. I read, discuss, wrestle, doubt, awaken, and find there is always more to learn and experience with God, which often occurs in my visits with patients who have much to teach me. Bottom line? The best ministry advice is being our truest selves, something we often may not be willing to observe. It is in being ourselves that we relate most fully to others and ensure a horizontal relationship built on being equal with others, not service oriented from on high to the person below nor imitating traits we admire in popular ministers — just being who God created us to be from the moment of our conception, even when others attempt to erect boundaries around us.
May my life serve as scaffolding for other women to rise higher and more easily as they declare God’s call. I certainly stand on the shoulders of women before me, including my beloved late mother.