Every Friday, Baptist Women in Ministry introduces an amazing minister, and today we are pleased to introduce Irene Bennett.

Irene, tell us about your ministry journey.
My service during youth weeks in Woodland Park Baptist Church, Hammond Louisiana, and a caring family of faith who loved me to adulthood led to sixteen-year-old me showing up for a preschool Vacation Bible School planning meeting to hear four senior adult ladies say, “Welcome! You’re the director, and we’re the helpers.” After that, I became a GA counselor. Soon after my call to ministry at age nineteen, I became pianist for a men’s quartet at university and for a mission church. For three summers as a university student missionary, I served churches in New Mexico, Illinois, and British Columbia, Canada.

From 1969-2006, I served seven churches and one association in four states as a salaried educational minister with titles like director of the church school (kindergarten and day care), minister of preschool and children (two times), director of outreach ministries, associational education consultant, minister of education and youth and administration (when the church was without a pastor). In New Mexico and now in Hong Kong for almost ten years, I have served as a volunteer minister of students. I led numerous educational projects for association, state, and Southern Baptist events and was also humbled and privileged to be a part the early 1980s steering committees led by Carolyn Weatherford, Anne Thomas Neil, and Ashli Cartwright Peak that formed the Southern Baptist Women in Ministry (now BWIM) and to be the second woman president and chair of the board of directors of the Southern Baptist Religious Association (now Baptist Association of Christian Educators). Because Lucien Coleman, for whom I was a teaching fellow at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, affirmed me as a writer, I have also enjoyed a diverse writing ministry. My personal ministry since college days has been making friends with immigrants and refugees and teaching English as a second language, an on-going soul-satisfying experience.

What challenges have you encountered along the way?
Rejection of my call to minister hurt. I have heard remarks like “this church isn’t ready for a woman to preach—or baptize or serve the Lord’s Supper or officiate at weddings and funerals” or “how can a wife and husband be staff members for the same church,” or conversely, “how can you serve in different churches at the same time,” or “we are afraid your wife might have a ministry of her own or she might want to be ordained.” One time a pastor introduced me by saying, “Our workshop leader will speak, not preach, so deacons, don’t get your liver in a quiver!” Another time after I preached, the chairman of the committee that had recommended me to the church said, “Well, you finally got what you wanted.” Another person said the same on the occasion of my ordination. A personal favorite makes me laugh still is “Who is Irene Bennett?”

I had to stand up for myself more than once–sometimes on salary benefits because I was married and it was assumed that I did not need the same as a male minister. Sometimes I have stood up for myself about the pay scale, because a committee assumed I would take less than a man. One church proposed that I work under contract because they did not have a pastor. Two of my favorite memories are the time a national task force attacked me with every conceivable question about being a woman minister, and afterward the leader asked me to write a book proposal on women in ministry for the Baptist Sunday School Board (now Lifeway Christian Resources), and then, the time a search committee interacted with me as a “real” minister and then gave my husband the spousal interview after dessert (Fun!).

Parenting was an issue sometimes. One pastor told me, “You can serve different churches and practice equal parenting until it interferes with Phil’s work.” Church members often questioned our daughter’s attending Phil’s church more than mine. Happily, every church I served has worked with me on all such issues.

For years the incomplete teaching from childhood that God is not the author of disunity restricted my activism on my own behalf. I was accepted as a minister in every way except for officiating ordinances, weddings or funerals. So when a church would have ordained me in the 1980s, I declined because I didn’t want the church divided or excluded by the association nor did I want the pastor to be labeled as a liberal—all common occurrences at the time. However, on April 24, 2006, when First Baptist Church of Augusta, Georgia, who had already commissioned women for missions, ordained me to the gospel ministry, the loving ceremony became an affirmation of my decades of service that still warms my heart immeasurably.

The fact that my husband had been divorced caused five of the six Southern Baptist seminaries not to accept us as students, several churches to back away from their interest in us as prospective ministers, and the Foreign Mission Board SBC (now IMB) to reject us twice as missionary candidates. Fortunately, Southern Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, other churches, and the Baptist Sunday School Board embraced us. Interestingly when Kowloon International Baptist Church invited us to serve with them in Hong Kong, Paul’s referring to obstacles that prevented his going to Rome in Romans 1 gave us a new appreciation of our challenges. And living in a cosmopolitan megacity of China in an international congregation revealed that my life was preparation for this ministry that has broadened me and my faith beyond all expectations.

Who has inspired you along the way as you have lived out your calling?
Every time someone decides to follow Christ or has an “A-ha!” moment of understanding God and the Christian journey because of my relating with them, they affirm me as a minister. I experience feelings of shalom, satisfaction that I am becoming whole as God wants me to be.

Influential people in my life are too numerous to cite, so I’ll be selective. My husband, Phillip Neyland Bennett, proposed marriage knowing I was a feminist called to ministry who expected us to be life partners (He calls me wife mate, and I call him husband mate). Never once has he questioned my call but has always encouraged my ministry and learned willingly when I point out male privilege at work. My Baptist Student Union director, Don Hammonds, never wavered in his life-long support of me. The first woman I knew in a professional ministry position, Beth Haywood, director of the Women’s Department of the Baptist World Alliance, showed me possibilities beyond being a nurse or missionary. Frank and Evelyn Stagg and his Book of Acts and their book on Women in the World of Jesus and Ralph Elliott and his Message of Genesis introduced me to academic biblical scholarship, making me believe I could be a part of the established church. Molly T. Marshall and other women peers have lived as exemplary ministers before me. Larry and Malissa Haslam, life-long friends, have traveled the road with me, giving unfailing support.

Many other faithful guides parade through my mind. I will never forget the encouraging support of my family and friends. Several senior adults inspired me to minister abroad after retirement, especially Virginia Turner, Bessie and Harold Malone, and Charlotte and Jack Robinson. And I have a list of books that have directed me at critical moments.

Allowing God to change me as I journeyed was my biggest challenge. I am an idea person and a project person who learned that I cannot do every idea or project and that my call was to share in and equip others for the work of Christ. Two difficult lessons were seeking balance of work and other parts of life, because the work of Christ is always unfinished business, and discovering people often relate to you in your position, not because you actually become friends. Also I am a talker who had to learn strategic silence in groups and giving quiet people who are often deep thinkers a chance to speak.

What advice would you give to a teenage girl who is sensing a call to ministry?
Record your call experience and write down the affirmations people give you as a minister so you can read them in your dark moments. A few of mine are “Irene, start your own church. I will join it;” “You are my minister;” “You are the pastor (said by a small girl during a children’s sermon).” And my forever favorites, “When we (a young ordained couple) co-pastor, will you two come do educational ministry with us?” “I’ve always thought you were ordained,” and best of all, “You have been Jesus to me.”

Accept the opportunity to serve as it comes for if you are not a minister “here now”, you won’t be a minister “there later” (advice from Nathan Porter, missionary.) At the same time, balance life by learning to say no.

Prepare for ministry in all ways possible—volunteer service, seminary, continuing education—and build your own library and have a personal ministry apart from your professional one.

Never forget the church or agency you minister with is not yours. It belongs to Christ. Your ministry is to understand how that part of the family of faith is being Christ and equip them for that work (Ephesians 4)—whether you pastor, direct, or lead only part of the work.

The two greatest commandments are significant. If you marry, your marriage is to model them. Your life is a sermon, you are a blessing, and you serve the God of Joy and Surprise.