By Bob Allen
Baptist Women in Ministry celebrated its 30th anniversary June 26 in a packed auditorium at First Baptist Church in Greensboro, N.C., in conjunction with the June 26-28 Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly.
“Tonight we have come here to give thanks to God for Baptist Women in Ministry,” said Pam Durso, the organization’s executive director. “Tonight we are especially grateful for those who 30 years ago founded this work.”
Thirty-three women gathered March 20-21, 1983, in Louisville, Ky., to form a new organization to encourage women to fuller ministry in churches of the Southern Baptist Convention. That June 75 people attended the first meeting of the group, initially called Women in Ministry, SBC.
The organization changed its name in 1986 to Southern Baptist Women in Ministry and in 1995 dropped the “Southern” designation, since by that time the nation’s second-largest faith group officially discouraged women from serving in pastoral roles.
Nancy Sehested, co-pastor of the Circle of Mercy Congregation and prison chaplain at Marion Correctional Institution in Asheville, N.C., was keynote preacher at the anniversary celebration.
Sehested, who at age 32 was an early catalyst in the movement, told of meeting a stranger on a plane who said he had never heard of or met a Baptist woman in ministry. She joked it was because they are all “in the witness-protection program.”
“I want to thank Baptist Women in Ministry for 30 years of protecting the witness of women in ministry,” she said.
Like most Baptist movements, Sehested said, BWIM “started with a sense of outrage.” Women who huddled at convention gatherings and talked in late-night phone calls about their exclusion from full participation in Baptist life didn’t discuss starting an organization for justice and equality for women in Baptist churches, she said. “We simply stood up and said, ‘I am … a daughter of God and the church.’”
In the early days, Sehested said, Southern Baptist women in ministry were “practiced in the art of ducking when three little words were spoken: ‘The Bible says …’ Duck! Run for your lives!”
“And there were even times when we tried to define ourselves by tossing Bible verses like grenades across enemy lines in hopes that it would explode in new conversions,” Sehested said. “It went back and forth like that for a while. Then we realized the Bible could be used to justify just about anything.”
“We soon learned to ask simply one question to our detractors: What are you afraid of?” she said. “Transforming of heart and mind for most of us does not come through a verse or two of Scripture, but the living letter of human beings who bear witness to this radical gospel of love.”
Elizabeth Flowers, assistant professor of American religious history at Texas Christian University, said the first known ordination of a Southern Baptist woman in 1964 gained little denominational attention.
The numbers of ordained women grew during the 1970s, she said, and by the 1980s women’s ordination was a full-blown controversy, with churches being disfellowshipped for calling women as pastors.
“I think the early women of BWIM understood the Baptist battles were as much about gender and their calling as about inerrancy,” Flowers said.
In 1984, the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution encouraging the service of women “in all aspects of church life and work other than pastoral functions and leadership roles entailing ordination.”
In 1990 the SBC amended the Baptist Faith and Message to specify, “While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.”
While conservatives in the SBC viewed both liberalism and feminism as enemies of the faith, Flowers said, others worked to develop “a uniquely Baptist theology of women in ministry.”
They re-imagined a calling shaped by GAs, Acteens, missions involvement and Baptist colleges and seminaries in light of the Baptist tradition of being “against the status quo” and to “create a place for the marginalized and oppressed.”
“They were dismissed as the prodigal daughters of Southern Baptist life and later as the red-headed stepsisters of the CBF,” Flowers said.
Flowers said many of the women she interviewed for her research left Baptist life, and some have died, but, “Their legacy has allowed us to stay.”
Suzii Paynter, the first woman to named executive coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, described Baptist Women in Ministry as “a chorus of Baptist women of call.”
“Be diligent to voice potential as much as you are to assess limitations,” she challenged the audience. “We are not in charge of the inspiration and the arc of our lives toward the Kingdom of God, but we are in charge of our obedience to Christ.”
BWIM marked the 30-year anniversary by establishing two new awards. The first recipient of the Baptist Women in Ministry Church of Excellence recognition is Watts Street Baptist Church in Durham, N.C., known as the first church to ordain a Southern Baptist woman, Addie Davis, to the gospel ministry in 1964.
The inaugural Frankie Huff Granger Distinguished Mentor Award went to Anne Thomas Neil, a retired missionary to Nigeria and Ghana who at age 60 was present for the founding of BWIM and served as the organization’s convener in 1984.
The award is named for the longtime minister of education at First Baptist Church in Berea, S.C., who was active in religious education organizations in denominational life and took time to mentor and serve as a role model for younger women discerning their own call to ministry.
Durso also announced a new fund-raising drive, BWIM 360, challenging supporters to give $30 a month for the next 12 months to help the organization expand its ministries.