By Bob Allen
Donna Forrester, the first ordained woman to serve as moderator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, died Dec. 31, more than 14 years after being diagnosed with terminal brain cancer.
Forrester, 66, served as minister of pastoral care and counseling at First Baptist Church in Greenville, S.C., from 1989 until disability retirement in 2006. She presided over the 2001 CBF General Assembly in Atlanta, an atypically contentious gathering where attendees turned back an attempt to rescind a policy against hiring employees who are openly gay by a vote of 701 to 502.
Less than six weeks before Forrester underwent brain surgery to remove a tumor the size of a tennis ball, she told her surgeon before the operation that she had to be in Atlanta June 29 to introduce former President Jimmy Carter.
Her husband, Jerry Kerns, said on Facebook that at the time of her diagnosis a few days before her operation the prognosis was for 18 to 24 months. After two surgeries, more than 60 chemo and radiation treatments and 39 MRIs, she spent the last seven months in a nursing home.
“She frequently said she loved baffling medical science,” Kerns posted at 10:40 a.m. on Dec. 31.
Forrester was 10th moderator of the moderate Baptist group founded in 1991. She was the fifth woman to hold the post, but the first female who was an ordained minister.
She was ordained into the ministry by Knollwood Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, N.C., in 1976 and served as chaplain at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest from 1984 until 1989.
She described moderating the 10th annual meeting of the CBF as an answer to prayer.
“I am realizing that I have had something so exciting to focus on in the past — trying to be at CBF and introducing President Carter,” Forrester wrote in a CaringBridge.org journal after the meeting was over.
“Now that is done, and the biggest thing ahead of me is treatment, which is not something I particularly want to focus on. That is why it is so important for me to trust in God and to focus on what really matters most. I know that God’s grace is sufficient for whatever I need. So I will trust and take each moment at a time.”
The meeting included intense debate over the only item of business not on the published agenda, a proposal to rescind a policy statement disallowing the “expenditure of funds for organizations or causes that condone, advocate or affirm homosexual practice” or “the purposeful hiring of a staff person or the sending of a missionary who is a practicing homosexual.”
Forrester asked participants to stand as she called out pro and con decisions on the motion but determined the vote to be too close to call from the platform. Unprepared for a ballot, Forrester directed voters to stand for and against the change, while ushers counted votes and reported to the platform.
“Today I moderated a rather tough business meeting,” she reflected on the experience on CaringBridge. “You know how testy Baptists can be sometime. I was a bit nervous and being nervous took some energy, but I think I managed it okay.”
She said she enjoyed giving her moderator’s report at the close of the business session, even though her mouth was dry from medication and nerves.
“All in all I think it was the best program we’ve ever had at the CBF,” she said. “Okay, I did serve on the steering committee and I am a tad biased, but I still think it’s true. We did have the largest registration ever with 5,100 who actually registered and an estimate of about 8,000 there Friday night.”
Kerns said Forrester died “very peacefully” at 1:30 a.m. on New Year’s Eve with him, her college roommate and a hospice nurse by her side.
“Say a prayer of celebration for a life well lived and a prayer for peace for me and all the members of our family,” he requested.