When the Southern Baptist Convention voted last week to reaffirm its expulsion of churches with women pastors on staff and to begin the process of amending its constitution to make sure any member congregation “does not affirm, appoint or employ a woman as a pastor of any kind,” it drove another knife into the hearts of ordained Baptist women like me.
I was ordained 30 years ago this summer by Shalom Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky. Shalom was a small, inner-city congregation that formed to be a witness for racial justice. I joined Shalom while I was a doctoral student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Across my master’s work at the seminary, my conviction had grown that I no longer could be part of an all-white congregation. If the gospel’s liberating call could not reconcile us in church, what hope was there? Shalom became the place where my newfound embrace of liberation theologies and an actual faith community could come together.
Little did I know at the time that my own struggles toward liberation would bring me back to Shalom almost a decade after finishing my degree to be ordained by the same people who had nurtured the fire of social justice in me.
Called to ordination
I went to Southern Seminary in January 1982 from a fundamentalist Southern Baptist church in Rome, Ga. I’d always had a niggling sense that something was wrong with the ways girls and women were treated within fundamentalism. At Southern, for the first time, I found a place I could ask my questions out loud and find encouragement to come up with my own answers.
“I could not imagine why God wouldn’t want someone that talented to use her gifts.”
One of the most important things that happened that first year in Louisville was that I heard a woman preach for the first time. Linda McKinnish-Bridges won a Clyde Francisco preaching award and preached in chapel. I was transfixed. She was better than most of the men I’d ever heard preach, and I could not imagine why God wouldn’t want someone that talented to use her gifts.
I also had the opportunity to research biblical and theological understandings of women in ministry for my classes and, very soon after arriving at Southern Seminary, I came to the conclusion that God does indeed call women to preach.
I never felt the call to be a pastor. I don’t think I’d be very good at pastoral care anyway. That’s definitely not my gift. I felt called to teach and write.
When I took my first teaching job in 1987 at what was California Baptist College at the time, I could not even consider ordination. I was in enough trouble there simply by being a woman teaching religion. In fact, before I even taught my first class, a young man stopped me to tell me he’d never take one of my classes because women shouldn’t teach men the Bible. Pastors and parents frequently called my dean and president to complain about me. I often feared I would lose my job.
At one point, my church in Riverside did consider licensing me for ministry, but the pushback was too great, and the pastor had to drop the process.
I left Cal Baptist after four tumultuous years to teach at an evangelical Quaker school in Oregon. Yes, you read that right. Evangelical Quaker. I’ll leave that explanation for another day.
My colleagues in the religion department (all men) were recorded (Quakers don’t ordain. They “record”). I had begun to feel a call to ordination while I was still in California, and now I was at a place where I could do something about it.
I was attending the only moderate Southern Baptist church in Oregon, and I knew they couldn’t ordain me. Many employees of the state Baptist convention attended there, and they’d have to choose between job and church if the church ordained a woman, and the church likely would be kicked out of the state convention anyway.
So I went back to my seminary church in Louisville. They graciously and joyfully agreed to ordain me.
I think for Baptist women who are ordained, ordination is especially sacred and precious. Baptist men, I think, assume ordination as a right, an entitlement, when they answer a call to ministry. Of course, they’ll be ordained. We Baptist women, especially those of us ordained in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, know the cost to ourselves and the women who came before us to answer our calling. We know how easily we might have been denied ordination, and so, when we are ordained, we are aware of the gift of affirmation that ordination is.
“When we are ordained, we are aware of the gift of affirmation that ordination is.”
When I arrived at Shalom Baptist Church that day for my ordination service, I was aware of those women who had paved the way for me — Addie Davis, Nancy Sehested, Molly Marshall, Linda McKinnish-Bridges, and so many others — that great cloud of witnesses who surrounded me, my mothers and sisters and fellow strugglers in the faith against misogyny and sexism.
One of my co-pastors, Jane Lites, gave the charge. We sang “Be Thou My Vision,” and then everyone there was invited to come forward to lay hands on me — not just other ordained folks but all of God’s people. I knelt as they came by, one by one, with words of encouragement or a prayer.
Then came Maryanna Bernard. Maryanna was probably in her early 80s by then, a founding member of the church, a proud Black woman who had faced down the oppressions of segregation and racism in Louisville throughout her life. Maryanna bent over and put her hands on my shoulders. She whispered in my ear, “If I was as young as you, if I’d been born in times like these, I might have been a preacher too.”
Her words seared into my memory, the loss and the hope, the struggle before me and the responsibility for me to live into the struggle and carry it on.
Baptist in exile
Three years after my ordination, I left Southern Baptists when they changed their constitution to exclude congregations that affirmed queer folks and I found a church home in Ainsworth United Church of Christ in Portland.
I started the process to change my ordination to the United Church of Christ. I’d completed all of the steps except the last — writing a short essay about my desire to become a minister in the UCC. For the life of me, I couldn’t get that essay written. Normally, I can churn out three to four pages in an hour or two, but I simply could not write this essay.
Finally, it dawned on me why not. I’m a Baptist preacher. As much as I love the UCC, who I am and what I do is shaped by my Baptist identity. And my sense of myself as a minister is shaped by the high price I paid to be ordained in the midst of the fundamentalist takeover of the SBC.
“My sense of myself as a minister is shaped by the high price I paid to be ordained in the midst of the fundamentalist takeover of the SBC.”
I stopped the process to change my ordination, and I started referring to myself as a “Baptist in exile in the UCC.”
For a long time, I was really angry with Southern Baptists. I wanted nothing to do with Baptists of any kind. I quit teaching religion. I got a master’s degree in women’s studies, and I took a job at a public university teaching in women’s studies.
But being Baptist wouldn’t leave me alone. So I did what academics do. I wrote a book about Southern Baptist women. When Paul Raushenbush visited Oregon State University, the faculty member who invited him thought I should join them for dinner because of our Baptist connection (Walter Rauschenbusch was his great-grandfather). That dinner led to my first public scholarship opportunity writing for the religion section of Huffington Post. That gig ended after a couple of years, and then I became a regular contributor for Ms. magazine online and a senior columnist for Baptist News Global.
An interesting life
Being an ordained Southern Baptist minister teaching women, gender and sexuality studies at a public university in the Northwest has put me in an interesting position. Colleagues often send students with religious questions my way.
A now-retired colleague used to introduce me as “Susan. She’s a professor of women studies, an ordained Southern Baptist minister and a lesbian.”
“Lani,” I would always say, “don’t tell them I was Southern Baptist!”
I’m very careful to keep the bright red line between church and state clear in my work. I never seek to proselytize or favor one religion over another or over non-religion.
Still, the fact of my ordination speaks loudly, and students approach me with their questions, often coming from the places churches and other Christians have harmed them. They sometimes want me to perform their weddings, or they want to come hear me preach because they’ve never heard a woman preach or even been in a church where that would have been allowed.
When I stand to preach, I feel my calling, feel the sacramental (though most Baptists wouldn’t use that word) nature of preaching, feel the preciousness of my ordination. And I’m terrified that I dare to stand and speak as if I know what God wants. The awesomeness of this responsibility weighs heavily on me, even as I recognize the power of the words I say to help or harm. Yet when I see those words lift someone’s burdens or strengthen someone’s resolve, I feel God’s love moving through me.
“Ordination is a precious gift that allows me to minister to people in ways I could not otherwise do.”
These words don’t really do my experience of ordination justice. So I’ll leave it here. Suffice it to say, ordination is a precious gift that allows me to minister to people in ways I could not otherwise do.
What the men in the SBC don’t get is that the calling to ministry, ordination, preaching and serving as a pastor is not about conferring authority. It’s not about power over others. It is an affirmation of someone’s gifts to care for God’s people, to announce the good news of God’s love and proclaim the inbreaking of God’s community of liberation and justice, to be with the poor, the broken, the suffering, the powerless, to offer hope and light and compassion, and to lead through example, through deeds as well as words, through love, not through power.
The SBC’s sound and fury over women pastors are the last gasps of a declining denomination, a smoke screen to avoid dealing with the real problems of clergy abuse in their midst.
Still, I ache for the women and girls who are harmed by these pronouncements, who hear that they are somehow less than their brothers, who are discouraged from answering God’s call as they understand it. I’ve been there, a casualty of the takeover years in some ways. I still have some post-traumatic stress from those days.
Yet, on the other side, I’ve found a life I never could have imagined. The places and ways I can minister have expanded more than I could have guessed. Even in exile, my Baptist identity has propelled me toward struggle for equality and justice for all people, and that struggle has energized and empowered me.
My ordination is precious to me. It’s been worth the cost and the struggle. And, in the words of the old gospel song, “I wouldn’t take nothing for my journey now.”
Susan M. Shaw is professor of women, gender and sexuality studies at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Ore. She also is an ordained Baptist minister and holds master’s and doctoral degrees from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Her most recent book is Intersectional Theology: An Introductory Guide, co-authored with Grace Ji-Sun Kim.
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