By Jeff Brumley
Opportunities to lead churches are increasing for women in Cooperative Baptist life, but not fast enough to stop the loss of qualified female ministers from the Fellowship, a panel of ministers said during the 2014 General Assembly in Atlanta Thursday night.
Dorisanne Cooper, Pam Durso and Mary Beth Foust comprised the panel during the ABPnews/Herald Annual Fund Dinner. Their discussion, “Shattering the Glass Ceiling,” was moderated by the news organization’s editor-in-chief, Robert Dilday.
Durso, executive director of Atlanta-based Baptist Women in Ministry, said the number of women in Baptist pulpits has increased from just over 100 in 2005 to 160 today. About 100 of those are in CBF churches.
But that represents only 5 percent of Fellowship churches with a woman lead or co-pastor, Durso said, while increasing numbers of women are coming out of seminaries ready to preach.
And while those women have strong desires to remain Baptist, many continue to leave for Methodist, United Church of Christ, Disciples of Christ and other denominations where there is a much greater openness to the callings of women in ministry, she said.
“The ceiling is still there,” Durso said. “It is cracked in some places, but not shattered.”
Cooper, who is transitioning from the pastorate at Lake Shore Baptist Church in Waco, Texas, to Watts Street Baptist in Durham, N.C., said she’s witnessed a noticeable improvement in how women are treated in pastor search processes.
Before her calling to Lake Shore in 2002, the climate in Baptist life was much more cautious. The decision to call a woman back then came with a lot of hand wringing, she said.
But her more recent experience was free of all that and Cooper said it felt like the search committee was focused exclusively on her skills. It was as if being a woman helped.
“This time I felt it was an advantage to be a woman,” Cooper said.
But there are still plenty of obstacles out there, added Foust, networking coordinator for CBF of Virginia.
Foust said she’s often invited to preach at Virginia churches, but is listed on the program as a “guest speaker” instead of preacher. The language used to describe women in ministry is one place where improvements need to be made.
“That irks me,” Foust said.
It’s also problematic that women in ministry continues to be a separate category of discussion in today’s Baptist churches.
“I’m tired of the topic,” Foust said. “Haven’t we gotten farther than this? No, we are not past that.”
The good news is that that there are networks developing that can help promote a woman’s path to becoming a senior pastor, Cooper said.
BWIM serves as one of those networks, she said. Seminaries can do more to help, but they also are beginning to do a better job promoting their female graduates.
And many male pastors are starting to recommend women to congregations in need of leadership, Cooper said.
“Men recommended me” for her new position at Watts Street Baptist. “They opened some doors for me.”
Foust said women usually do well with search committees if they can get past the initial stage where resumes are being discarded.
“People are willing to change their minds after they interview you,” she said. They quickly see it’s about qualifications instead of gender.
Durso said progress depends on the visibility of women in ministry. She encourages those pastors and their churches to post images on Facebook and in newsletters of women serving communion, preaching and baptizing.
“Seeing is believing,” she said.