Newswise — As women enter the ministry, they will find that “there will be voices inside and outside telling you, ‘You’re divine’ or ‘You’re demonic.’ But both are telling you a lie,” Julie Pennington-Russell, lead pastor of the First Baptist Church of Decatur, Ga., told an audience of primarily women at a recent Baylor University conference.
She spoke to nearly 200 people at Sacred Voices, the 2012 Women in Ministry Conference, sponsored by George W. Truett Theological Seminary at Baylor and Texas Baptist churches through the Cooperative Program of the Baptist General Convention of Texas.
Pennington-Russell recalled the note she got at one point early in her ministry: “Everything God is doing right now is because of you . . . You’re the best pastor this church has ever had,” the writer said.
But on the same day, she received an anonymous letter informing her that “you’re the worst pastor this church has ever had . . . I pray every day for your hasty departure.”
“One of those is harsh; the other leads to pride, which in my mind is the worse of the two,” Pennington-Russell said. “God is the only one who tells you the whole truth about yourself.”
One New Testament account is a marvelous example of how to handle conflicting messages — in that case given to men, the apostles Paul and Barnabas, as they healed a lame man, she said.
“The people who saw it started hollering, ‘The gods are here!’” she said. Paul and Barnabas, horrified, protested that they were merely humans.
The mood shifted when the apostles’ enemies showed up to incite the crowd. People stoned Paul until they thought he was dead, then hauled him out of town.
“In one moment they’re worshiped; in the next, they’re walloped,” Pennington-Russell said. “But when they get beat up, they shake it off. Why? Because they’re secure in their identity as God’s children and their commitment to their mission. They know who they are, and they know whose they are.
“There’s always going to be someone who wants to put you out of town. Then there are our own up-and-down opinions of ourselves. But when you let Jesus show you who you are, no one’s flattery will puff you up — and no one’s criticism will throw you down.”
During panel discussions, topics ranged from discerning a call to the ministry to pastoral time management to ways that lay leaders can encourage women pastors.
More than a third of students in Baptist seminaries are women, and the number of women pastors is small but increasing, according to a report by the Atlanta-based Baptist Women in Ministry.
Among nearly 7,500 Baptist churches with ties to four Baptist organizations, the number of women pastors grew from 102 (68 lead pastors and 34 co-pastors) in 2005 to 145 in 2012 (103 senior pastors and 42 co-pastors), said Pam Durso, executive director of Baptist Women in Ministry.
Texas has 23 women pastors —19 senior pastors and four co-pastors. The numbers reflect churches aligned with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, the Alliance of Baptists, the BGCT (Texas Baptists) and the Baptist General Association of Virginia. Baptist churches are autonomous, so gathering numbers is a challenge, Durso said.
Some Baptist churches grapple with whether women should be pastors, seeking to reconcile biblical texts about women’s significant roles in the ministries of Jesus and Paul with Scriptures about how women are to participate in worship, said Todd Still, Ph.D., professor of Christian Scriptures at Truett.
The BGCT supports women to serve God in whatever capacity they feel called. Meanwhile, the Southern Baptist Convention’s stance is that the office of pastor is limited to men, but the convention does not prohibit women from leading a church if a congregation chooses.
Van Christian, chair of the executive board of Texas Baptists, said churches “don’t know what they’re supposed to believe about women in ministry. They want to do what’s right, what’s godly. . . It’s going to be a matter of education.”
The BGCT hired Meredith Stone as Women in Ministry Specialist a year ago to be a resource for churches and is exploring other ways to aid, said Bill Tillman, director of theological education for Texas Baptists.
In many small rural churches, “we’re running out of men (pastors),” Christian said. “If the churches are going to survive, they’re going to have to turn to women as leaders.”
Some longtime women pastors at the conference looked back at the early days of their ministry and rejoiced as they spoke of the progress that has been made.
Debra Bell, a minister, life coach and former staffer at The Church Without Walls in Houston, recalled several years ago, when she was not allowed to stand in a raised pulpit but had to preach from a podium on the floor.
“A great joy is coming to a place in your ministry where you know who you are and what God has called you to be, where you’re comfortable, even if you’re not always confident,” Bell said. “It’s all part of the journey.”
ABOUT BAYLOR UNIVERSITY
Baylor University is a private Christian university and a nationally ranked research institution, characterized as having “high research activity” by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The university provides a vibrant campus community for approximately 15,000 students by blending interdisciplinary research with an international reputation for educational excellence and a faculty commitment to teaching and scholarship. Chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas through the efforts of Baptist pioneers, Baylor is the oldest continually operating university in Texas. Located in Waco, Baylor welcomes students from all 50 states and more than 80 countries to study a broad range of degrees among its 11 nationally recognized academic divisions.
ABOUT GEORGE W. TRUETT THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY
George W. Truett Theological Seminary’s purpose is to provide theological education leading to the Master of Divinity, the Doctor of Ministry or the Master of Theological Studies degree that is centered in the gospel of Jesus Christ and consistent with historic Baptist commitments to prepare persons to carry this gospel to the churches and the world. Within the M.Div. degree program, students can choose concentrations in Biblical Studies and Theology, Christian Education, Ministry Leadership, Missions and World Christianity, Worship Leadership and Youth/Family/Student Ministry. Truett also offers two Dual Degree programs (Master of Divinity/MSW and Master of Theological Studies/MSW) through a partnership with Baylor's School of Social Work and (Master of Divinity/Master of Music) through a partnership with the Baylor University School of Music.