A historic Baptist congregation in Kentucky called a gay man as co-pastor Aug. 14.
Jordan Conley will join Andrea Woolley as co-pastor of Crescent Hill Baptist Church in Louisville as Jason Crosby leaves the church staff for a position at his alma mater, Centre College.
Conley, 29, is a recent graduate of Baptist Seminary of Kentucky. He is a native of Knott County in deep Eastern Kentucky, earned a bachelor’s degree at Campbellsville University in Central Kentucky and worked as a funeral director before and during his seminary education. He and his husband, Patrick Allison, live in Louisville, and Conley most recently has served Crescent Hill as interim minister to students and young adults.
Ironically, Conley began his theological education as a student at Boyce College, the undergraduate division of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, which is located less than a mile from Crescent Hill. At Boyce College, Conley previously has written, he came to understand his sexual orientation and his need to find a different kind of school.
For decades, Crescent Hill Baptist Church was known as the “seminary church” in Louisville because of its close proximity to Southern Seminary and the number of faculty and students who attended there. A who’s who of Baptist leaders of days gone by passed through the pulpit and pews of the church.
All that changed, however, when conservatives gained control of the Southern Baptist Convention and elected a fundamentalist and Calvinist as president of the seminary. Al Mohler’s election in 1993 brought about a seismic shift in the seminary, with an exodus of faculty and the recruitment of a different kind of student body. That had huge ripple effects at Crescent Hill, as church members moved away and new seminary students shunned the close-by congregation for more conservative options in other parts of the city.
Mohler, for example, joined Highview Baptist Church on the south side of Louisville, a nearly half-hour drive from the seminary campus.
Faced with changing demographics, Crescent Hill reinvented itself as a multicultural congregation that became a model for others. In recent years, a large segment of the congregation was refugees from Myanmar, previously known as Burma. Baptists have a rich heritage in the Southeast Asian country. Some of those Karen people recently constituted their own church, which partners with Crescent Hill on various ministries. The Crescent Hill congregation still includes members who were born in Latin and South America, Europe, the Middle East and other parts of Asia.
In 2013 — two years before the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage — the church voted to grant ordination, hire and perform wedding ceremonies for LGBTQ persons. That same year, the church joined the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists. The church affiliates with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, the American Baptist Churches USA, and the Alliance of Baptists.
The church was founded in 1908 and in 2011 adopted a co-pastor model that continues to the present. Woolley, a graduate of Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas, and Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Ala., joined the staff in 2008. She became co-pastor in 2011.
According to a handout presented to congregants before the Aug. 14 vote, Conley and Woolley will share many pastoral duties while each carrying portfolios that match their gifts and interests. Wooley will preach about once a month, while Conley will preach more regularly, the document indicates.
The number of women serving as senior pastors or co-pastors of Baptist congregations in America — particularly those affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and the Alliance of Baptists — remains small, according to data recently updated by Baptist Women in Ministry. But the number of gay men and women serving in such leadership roles remains even smaller.
According to Brian Henderson, executive director of the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists, there are about three dozen known LGBTQ pastors serving within the American Baptist Churches of the USA and the Alliance of Baptists combined. However, Henderson said he cannot think of any other gay senior pastors serving in CBF life.
Thus, Crescent Hill Baptist Church now has become a model on at least three fronts: multiculturalism, hiring a female pastor, and hiring a gay pastor. That’s a trifecta that would draw long odds even at the Kentucky Derby.
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