As Baptist Women in Ministry kicked off its 40th anniversary celebration, we were reminded by Executive Director Meredith Stone that “40 is a significant number in the biblical text.” The Israelites wandered in the wilderness for 40 years, Jesus was tempted in the wilderness for 40 days, and after his resurrection Jesus appeared to the disciples for a period of 40 days before ascending into heaven.
“Wilderness” feels like an appropriate theme for BWIM’s first 40 years. Our history is one of wilderness wanderings.
The wilderness is a dangerous place. As we say in godly play with our kids, “People don’t go into the (wilderness) unless they must.” It is full of threats and obstacles. It can make you question your worth and doubt God’s presence.
But danger is not all we find in the wilderness. In the wilderness we find miraculous surprises we never could imagine: water from a rock, manna from heaven, angels who attend to our weary souls, the risen Christ who serves breakfast on a beach when we are at the ends of our ropes.
In March 1983, 33 women met in Louisville, Ky., to consider their pending journey through the wilderness. For them it was a must, a necessary excursion so women after them could be free to faithfully live out their callings in places where they could thrive.
It has been a tough road, but there have been surprises along the way, too: hope in community, an increasing number of women ordained and serving in ministry positions, scholarships and programs to help women learn and thrive.
“I was not yet a twinkle in my parents’ eyes when these courageous women began normalizing and publicizing the work of women in full-time Christian vocation.”
I am a child of the wilderness. I was born three years after these women first gathered in solidarity and support for “professionally employed women in ministry.” I was not yet a twinkle in my parents’ eyes when these courageous women began normalizing and publicizing the work of women in full-time Christian vocation.
Even though I was not yet among them, I was one of them. While they were giving voice to their own present reality, they also were paving the way for those who would come after them. I would not be where I am today were it not for those 33 women and countless others (men, too) who have stood up to the powers that be, using the voices God gave them, taking their rightful place at the table and creating space for others to live into their identity as gifted and called children of God.
I am a child of the wilderness. I have not walked the full 40 years in the wilderness with these brave women, but I joined them on the way; a child born in a strange place between what was and what could be.
I never had to flee oppressive ideology but instead was raised in a time caught between a robust theology of women in ministry and a practical reality that suggested something different. I knew deep in my soul that God is a God of women, too, calling us to all aspects of ministry throughout Scripture and beyond.
Yet, examples of what this looked like and opportunities to practice and explore my calling were few and far between. Female ministers were a mirage in the desert — something I could imagine but could not yet see. My ability to dream God’s dream was limited by the memory of what has always been.
I am a child of the wilderness. I was born along the way, but in Scripture “40” isn’t just a marker to describe an eternal wilderness. Forty marks a turning point. Something has ended and something new is beginning.
“My ability to dream God’s dream was limited by the memory of what has always been.”
Last month, I stood at the crossroads at Baptist Women in Ministry’s 40th anniversary with women and men of all ages and stages of ministry — and I knew deep in my soul something was ending even as something new was beginning. We needed to gather; to remember how far we have come, to lament the struggle and to celebrate the successes.
We are entering a new landscape. More women are leading and being affirmed for what they bring for the table. Little girls and young women have a beautifully unique and diverse group of female mentors and examples, and they are getting a chance to explore their callings at a younger age. More men are joining us on the journey, too: stepping back so women can step up, showing up for events and conferences that do not center their male experience, listening and believing the stories of their female colleagues.
Baptist Women in Ministry is expanding and committed to ensuring women in all avenues of ministry feel cared for and supported.
We have traded in our snail-mail printed newsletter for a vast digital network that reaches farther than we could have imagined 40 years ago. We are investing in programs and initiatives that are intentional about changing the culture within the local church so women not only survive but thrive in their ministry contexts. We are mentoring, educating and celebrating women across Baptist life so they might have what they need to live into their unique callings.
But we are not done. This next 40 years is calling us to something deeper and even more expansive. While there are many beautiful exceptions, the journey this far tended to center cisgender white women with a Southern Baptist heritage. As we begin this next chapter, it is time to look for new ways to value and support the voices of our Black and brown sisters. It is time to make even more safe spaces for our queer sisters, for women who lead in critical roles beyond the senior pastorate, for women of all ages discerning their call. It is time to continue stretching across the United States and beyond and to reach across Baptist denominational affiliations, so no woman is left alone and struggling in her call.
I am a child of the wilderness, and while I am eager to get to the Promised Land, I refuse to rush to a place that includes and affirms some but not all. We may not make it in my lifetime, but I am committed to the journey as we seek to make space for all to lead.
Just like our foremothers, I don’t yet know all the people for whom I’m advocating. Even so, I am excited to see what young children or even those not yet born will teach us as we continue to dream God’s dream and walk together toward the Promised Land.
Brittany Stillwell serves at Second Baptist-Downtown Little Rock as associate pastor with students and families and is a graduate of Baptist Seminary of Kentucky.
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