When this tough, Texas woman meets a middle-aged, Baptist man named Paul, my guts twist, brows tighten and fingers get heavy on the trigger. Why on God’s green earth does the name Paul evoke such hostile effects? Even after years of good therapy and better theology my initial response as a female Baptist pastor to the announcement from the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship about its new executive coordinator was something akin to guns locked and loaded – metaphorically speaking, of course.
The new leader of my beloved Baptist community is a baby-faced, 49-year-old man who to me resembles a stereotypical, good ole Baptist preacher. Perhaps my reaction stems from the lingering grief over the retirement of his predecessor, a spirited, straight-shootin’, Texas woman named Suzii. After a few deep breaths and couple swigs of coffee, I decide to email this man named Paul.
I’m a young pastor, only thirty-one, who has led her church for the past three years out into the unknown waters of post-modern church work. My colleagues say, I’m overly honest and direct. With this abrupt warning, you need to know that you would not have been my first pick.
No, I did not end the email right then and there, but I’d be lying through my teeth if I said I didn’t want to. Deep down, I knew this moment of transition in CBF’s leadership was about something bigger, about a greater good that goes beyond me or anyone’s personal thoughts about Paul Baxley. After another cup of coffee and a two-mile run, I finish the email:
But as someone who was and is often never the first pick for positions of leadership in Baptist life, I’ve learned to trust the process, those called to discern and choose the best candidate for this time in CBF life. And, yes, I even trust the Holy Spirit. So please know this. I’m with you. My congregation is with you. We are with CBF in this holy, messy work of uniting all people together in the sacred, ordinary journey of following Christ.
Peace and grace for the journey ahead,
Yes, the Holy Spirit can and does work still, even in the prickly heart of a disappointed Baptist pastor. I press “send” and continue my day with the usual pastoral duties like wrestling with clogged commodes, brawling with budget issues and raising hell for racial reconciliation. Later that evening, I’m surprised to find an email response from Paul. As I click to open the email, my hand reflexively moves to the figurative holster on my hip, fearing I might have shot off my mouth without taking heed of potential kickback. I take a swig of something stronger than my morning brew and brace myself.
“I ask, ‘Will there be a place for folks like me in CBF life 10 years from now?’”
But his first words put me at ease, and immediately my respect for this man increases. He begins with “thank you,” two words the apostle Paul might not have said to this blazing saddles of a woman. Paul then invites me to coffee with the intent to listen to my hopes for and concerns about the current state of CBF. Maybe Paul is different, but I hold off further thought until the heat of high noon to see whether his words hold water.
A few weeks later, Paul and I sit down for coffee like partners at a poker game. With our cups and cards in hand, I shoot straight from the hip and ask, “What did you really think when you first read my email?”
Paul leans back in his chair and laughs like we’re old friends enjoying a friendly drink in our favorite saloon. He replies, “Well, to be very honest, I wasn’t my first pick either.” As I laugh along with him, I think to myself, “Perhaps Paul has some grit.”
The conversation continues for over an hour as we process the current realities of religious life in America, with some denominations on the verge of splitting and the largest Baptist convention bullying local congregations to conform to one way – its way. We also discuss strategy and vision for the CBF of the future. Paul seems like a sincere, no-bull kind of guy, willing to engage the tension and pressures of disagreement, financial strain and other challenges in the movement he has been asked to lead. At the end of our time a voice in my head is telling me that this good ole boy might just keep his promise to use his privilege and platform to reimagine and recreate a new way forward for our bunch of buckshot Baptists.
“Maybe Baptists can actually do the hard work of creating unity without deadly shootouts that demand conformity and dehumanize those who disagree.”
My final question is raw and vulnerable, knowing his answer might put a bullet in me. I ask, “Will there be a place for folks like me in CBF life 10 years from now?”
He fiddles with his coffee cup lid for moment before turning to face me. He words are heartfelt as he answers with an authentic kindness. “I don’t know. But what I do know is that we are Baptist. Disagreeing and disputing is part of our DNA, and I believe CBF is a place for dissenters.”
“Dissenters like me,” I think to myself.
Maybe, just maybe, Baptists can actually do the hard work of creating unity without deadly shootouts that demand conformity and dehumanize those who disagree. So, I’ll keep my rhetorical pistol holstered and pray for a new day for moderate and progressive Baptists.