By Eileen R. Campbell-Reed
This coming Sunday, Watts Street Baptist Church, Durham, N.C., will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first ordination of a woman in a Southern Baptist church. On Aug. 9, 1964, Watts Street ordained Addie Davis to the gospel ministry. A recent graduate of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Davis was ready to begin her first pastoral call at First Baptist Church, Readsboro, Vt.
On Sunday of this week, the preacher at Watts Street is Dorisanne Cooper, who began her ministry earlier this summer and is the first woman called as pastor by the congregation. After half a century of ordaining women, Baptists have come a long way in welcoming women’s pastoral leadership, but the gender gap remains woefully large.
A new book of sermons by Baptist women, The World is Waiting for You, published in June, celebrates the 50-year anniversary of Davis’s ordination. It includes two sermons by Davis and 25 sermons by winners of the Addie Davis Award for preaching and pastoral leadership, granted to Baptist seminarians over the last 16 years.
In a 1988 sermon Davis issued a gospel call to action still needed on this day 50 years after her ordination: “If you dedicate yourself to following God and allow yourself to be guided by the Spirit, you will be amazed what you can do. What takes place in the church, what is done for missions, what is accomplished in our world, I believe, is up to us. The choices we make help determine the outcome. God is waiting for us.”
As a practical theologian who studies ministry, and pays special attention to the roles played and contributions made by women in the church, I think churches need first to recall the changes brought by women in ministry. Then I think churches need to ask themselves: Are we the ones God and the world are waiting for?
Half a century
A lot has happened in the five decades since the ink dried on Davis’s ordination certificate. She served out her career in American Baptist and ecumenical congregations, but she hardly set a trend. Baptist historian Leon McBeth, in his 1979 book Women in Baptist Life, lists 58 women ordained between 1964 and 1978 by Southern Baptist churches, mostly after 1973.
Between 1979 and 2000, the Southern Baptist Convention fractured into multiple groups over various biblical and theological differences, including a disagreement over women’s ordination. Despite the schism in the nation’s largest Protestant group, individual churches continued sending women to seminary, ordaining them for ministry and calling them to serve as ministers and pastors.
In 1995, sociologist Sarah Frances Anders, who collected names and data about Southern Baptist women in ministry, estimated a total of 1,130 Southern Baptist clergywomen. Groups formed out of the schism in the SBC, like the Alliance of Baptists and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, attracted churches which support women in ministry, and the number of ordained women rose sharply through the 1990s and into the new century.
In 2006, Pamela Durso and I estimated over 1,800 ordained Baptist women. Today a modest estimate sets that number at more than 2,200 women ordained by Baptist churches currently or formerly affiliated with the SBC.
In marking this anniversary of women’s ordination, it is clear that Baptists have made measurable changes in welcoming the gifts and graces of women. However, Baptist churches are still a long way from a full embrace. Women pastor 5 percent of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s 1,800 churches, less than 10 percent of the 5,200 congregations of the American Baptist Churches and nearly 30 percent of the 150 Alliance of Baptists churches.
Davis preached in her 1988 sermon: “There is much work God still needs us to do. Not everything that has been done that needs to be accomplished in order to right the wrongs in our churches and in ourselves.” God is still waiting for Baptist churches to right the wrong of barring women from ordination and to embrace fully women’s pastoral leadership.
Women already make up more than half the membership of nearly all churches in America. They supply far more than half the volunteer labor force, which carries out the day-to-day ministries of those churches. In many moderate Baptist seminaries women make up between one third and one half of the student bodies, yet they remain less than 20 percent of the faculties.
What would it be like to imagine half the paid leadership roles, half the pastors, half the ordinations each year, half the endorsed chaplains and counselors, half the seminary faculty and presidents, half the elected boards as women? Are you the one for whom God is waiting to make this vision a reality?
I hear this concern regularly: “But our church may not be ready for a woman pastor.” Over the years I’ve made a consistent response: I think churches are ready for women to be their pastors. But it takes someone in the congregation with the courage to lead, the willingness to take a risk, the vision to see God’s call. Is your congregation the one that God and world are waiting for?
On this day, Davis deserves the final word: “Remember you are unique; God has made no two of you alike. And remember this is your day. Now is your turn. The world waits to see what you will do, and God waits expectantly for you.”