A decade-old emphasis encouraging moderate Baptist churches to invite a woman to preach one Sunday in February has contributed to a shift in how people in the pew think about women in ministry, a longtime advocate for pulpit inclusiveness said in a newsletter promoting the Martha Stearns Marshall Month of Preaching for 2017.
Pam Durso, executive director of Baptist Women in Ministry, said last year 211 churches participated in the annual emphasis launched in 2007. That’s more than double the number of 104 in 2010 and four times as many as the inaugural year.
“As a result of the advocacy and support of Baptist pastors and leaders, we are seeing a shift in our Baptist culture,” Durso said. “In the past 10 years, as we have observed the Baptist landscape, we have seen greater numbers of women find ministry positions, live out their calling, and serve in this world, and we have seen more churches open their pulpits to women and call women to serve their congregations.”
Durso, a former career Baptist church historian named executive director of the support and advocacy group in 2009, described 2015 as “a banner year” for women in ministry in the most recent State of Women in Baptist Life report introduced in June at the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly in Greensboro, N.C.
While the proverbial “stained-glass ceiling” remains a reality for many women seeking to enter ministerial roles traditionally held by men, Durso said statistics show a slow but steady “greater openness to women ministers within the moderate-to-progressive Baptist churches, denominations and institutions.”
While most ordinations of Baptist women in the South have occurred since the 1980s, Durso, who has a Ph.D. in church history from Baylor University, says there is a forgotten heritage of women preaching alongside men in at least one of the streams of tradition that came together in the mid-19th century to form the Southern Baptist Convention.
Martha Stearns Marshall, namesake of the preaching month, was married to Daniel Marshall, a Baptist pastor and itinerant preacher generally considered the first great Baptist leader in Georgia.
While not as well-known as her famous spouse, Durso said, Martha proclaimed the gospel alongside her husband as well as her brother Shubal Stearns. Stearns was a Boston native who settled in the Piedmont region of North Carolina and in 1755 organized the Sandy Creek Separate Baptist Church, identified on a nearby state historic marker as the “Mother of Southern Baptist Churches.”
The modern Baptist women in ministry movement among churches either currently or formerly aligned with the SBC looks back to the ordination of Addie Davis by Watts Street Baptist Church in Durham, N.C., on Aug. 9, 1964.
Since then, Baptist Women in Ministry, organized in 1983, has counted 2,433 women’s ordinations by churches affiliated with the Alliance of Baptists, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship or Baptist state conventions in Virginia, Texas and the District of Columbia through the end of 2015.
The vast majority serve in ministry roles other than senior pastor. In 2015, BWIM counted 174 women who were serving as pastor or co-pastor of a church, a 71 percent increase over the last 10 years. Those numbers don’t count female ministers in American Baptist Churches, USA, because that denomination includes gender in its own record-keeping.
A common path to service for Baptist clergywomen is chaplaincy and pastoral counseling. In 2015 nearly a third of chaplains endorsed by the CBF, Alliance and BGCT were women.
Nearly half (44 percent) of students at CBF-partner seminaries and divinity schools are women, well ahead of the 33 percent average women student population in schools accredited by the Association of Theological Schools.
Durso says the original idea behind the Martha Stearns Marshall Month of Preaching was to find churches willing to allow young and starting-out Baptist women ministers to preach. Over time organizers came to see the focus as an opportunity to challenge churches “not yet ready” to consider calling a female pastor to at least take a step by inviting a woman to preach.
In ensuing years, Durso says organizers have come to realize that Martha Stearns Marshall Month of Preaching “serves as a change agent for our Baptist culture.”
BWIM asked churches making plans to participate in Martha Stearns Marshall Month 2017 to send their church and preacher’s name to Ashley Robinson, executive assistant for Baptist Women in Ministry, at [email protected].
For preacher recommendation, email Durso at [email protected].