By Bob Allen
After nearly 200 years and 34 pastors, First Baptist Church in Columbia, Mo., has called its first woman pastor.
The prominent congregation jointly aligned with American Baptist Churches USA, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and the Alliance of Baptists, voted May 20 by a margin of 87-3 to extend a call to Carol McEntyre, Buckner community minister at First Baptist Church in Knoxville, Tenn., as its 35th pastor.
At 35, McEntyre, who is married and the mother of a preschooler, is also one of the youngest pastors ever to lead the congregation organized in 1823. She preached her first sermon July 8.
“I feel very fortunate and privileged that such a historic and strong church would call me,” McEntyre said in an interview. “I think we’re a really good fit.”
It was a long road getting there, however, for the Sparta, Tenn., native and Carson-Newman alum who graduated magna cum laude with a dual degree master of social work from Baylor and master of divinity from Truett Theological Seminary in 2003.
McEntyre figures she dealt with about a dozen different search committees over the last couple of years, including some who told her she was clearly the best candidate but they just couldn’t bring themselves to recommend a woman.
She said she thought about turning to a different denomination, and even met with a Methodist superintendent, but in the end, “I just decided: I went to a Baptist college. I went to a Baptist seminary. I grew up Baptist. I’m a Baptist and can’t let them go.”
McEntyre said she owes a debt of gratitude to women like the founding generation of Baptist Women in Ministry, who discovered early on that it wasn’t likely they would be able to fulfill their dream of leading a church but resolved to do all in their power to make it possible for women in future generations to do so.
“It’s coming to pass today,” McEntyre said.
She said it also helped that First Baptist, well known as a moderate-to-progressive congregation, had a positive experience with a very competent female minister on the church staff as early as the 1980s.
Pam Durso, executive director of Baptist Women in Ministry, has long lamented that for all the talk of moderate Baptists in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship being more open to women in ministry than their counterparts in the Southern Baptist Convention, most of the ordained women she works with serve in ministry positions lower than senior pastor. Now, however, she thinks that may be starting to change.
“Especially in the last year I have been encouraged by the increasing number of Baptist churches that are calling women as pastors,” Durso said.
For the past seven years, Durso has been keeping an informal list of women pastors and co-pastors, mostly in the South. During that time the list has grown from 102 in 2005 to 148 in 2012. In the last five months alone she has added five names, two of them in Missouri, a state that in the past has not had many women in pastoral leadership.
“My sense is that we as Baptists are at a turning point, and that more and more churches will be open to call women gifted and graced for pastoral ministry,” Durso said.
McEntyre’s first days as a lead pastor weren’t much of a honeymoon. Her fourth day on the job she learned that one of her parishioners, a member of a family deeply loved by the church, had been killed in Afghanistan. To make matters worse, word came that members of Westboro Baptist Church, notorious for its anti-gay protests at military funerals, were coming to town.
McEntyre confessed to wondering if she was in over her head, but after seeking counsel from a couple of trusted mentors decided not to worry about the protesters but instead that “my job right now is to be pastor to this congregation.”
In fact it turned into a blessing, when on the day of the funeral she looked out of her office window to see not offensive protest signs but rather a crowd of an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 supporters gathered outside to block the Westboro protesters from view.
After seminary, McEntyre served as the education minister at Church of the Holy Comforter Episcopal Church in Augusta, Ga. While on staff at First Baptist in Knoxville she served on the board of a local nonprofit tasked with equipping the church to serve those in need in the community and on a faith-based task force part of Knoxville’s 10-year plan to end homelessness. With her dual study in both social work and theology, she hopes to connect her new church to those in need through mission outreach in the community.
Her predecessor at First Baptist, John Baker, stepped down after 13 years as pastor in 2010. He now works as executive director of the Community Foundation of Central Missouri. His wife, Judy, is a seminary graduate and former state legislator running for lieutenant governor.