The report on The State of Women in Baptist Life is only a couple of weeks old and already has caused quite a stir. And rightly so.
From excellent opinion pieces calling for repentance to recognition and a call for action at the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly, the outcry over the report has been well deserved.
The report shows women in Baptist life continue to lag behind men in pastoral placements, pay and basic human dignity. The clergywomen surveyed relate common stories of being interrupted, overlooked and denied the authority given to men in the same positions.
While reading the report, I was reminded of Ann Richards’ comments at the 1988 Democratic National Convention, “If you give us (women) a chance, we can perform. After all, Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did. She just did it backward and in high heels.”
The report demonstrates that two crises plague progressive Baptists: Women are either not given a chance or they are asked to do their holy work backward and in high heels by demonstrating greater competence than men in the same position or overcoming obstacles men do not face. It is little wonder that these women are exhausted.
I’m tired of screaming about this. We have known this is the case for years, and the change is coming far too slowly while women continue to suffer. Women continue dancing backward while the Fred Astaires in our churches get accolades, promotions and pay raises.
At the Baptist Women in Ministry national gathering, the program touted Maya Angelou’s famous quote, “When you know better, you do better.” I hope progressive Baptists will do better, but I’m not holding my breath — it’s too hard to do that while dancing backward anyway.
“I hope progressive Baptists will do better, but I’m not holding my breath — it’s too hard to do that while dancing backward anyway.”
I came into Baptist life after CBF split from the Southern Baptist Convention in 1991, and I struggle to see how different progressive Baptists really are from our abandoned brother.
Progressive Baptists were more than a little bit smug when the Guidepost report showed the SBC had covered up decades of sexual misconduct. Meanwhile, one in four women in ministry in progressive Baptist circles reported sexual harassment and assault in their ministry settings.
Similarly, it was somewhat amusing to watch the SBC annual meeting struggle over whether or not to dismiss Rick Warren’s Saddleback megachurch over the ordination of women. How silly, we progressives thought! Women are as called to ministry as men! But we will never actually call them to minister, and if by some fluke we do we’ll pay them less and treat them worse than their male counterparts.
Right now, my social media is flooded with friends coming back from CBF General Assembly in Dallas. They are optimistic that change on many levels can occur. I hope they are right, but I’m still feeling the weight of the moment and I can’t shake the pessimism that years of struggle have taught me.
When you know better, you do better. We have known and we have been too slow to do better. Women continue to be the sacrificial lamb on the altar of our ideals, ideals that have little to no basis in reality.
If this time is going to be better, we’re going to have to do better.
Some suggestions (that are not nearly radical enough for the current crisis but give us somewhere to start):
- Have women visible in every area of ministry in your church. Women should preach, teach, serve Communion, take up the offering. Congregations need to see women ministering so congregants will be more comfortable calling women ministers.
- Call women ministers. They are qualified. And trust me, we don’t need to be worried about the pendulum swinging too far. We’re in no danger of having too many women ministers.
- Every church that claims to support women in ministry should have a budget line that sets aside funds to go to BWIM at the state and national levels.
- The BWIM report provides a reading and discussion guide with several of these suggestions and more. It would be great if churches that affirm women in ministry worked through the guide.
- Advocate for your church staff to complete sexual harassment training.
- Spread the word in congregations that one never needs to comment on what a woman is wearing or her appearance more generally.
If things don’t change, maybe we should just burn it all down and start over. Maybe we should re-align ourselves with the SBC and other conservative bodies so that at least our ideals and practice will be consistent. On the other hand, maybe women should leave the patriarchal structures of the church and create a women-church where our vibrance and giftedness will be unencumbered. I’m out of ideas, and I’m tired of screaming.
My prayer is that progressive Baptists will meet this moment with the urgent action it requires. I admit, it feels like a prayer from the fish’s belly with very little hope because we have been in this predicament for far longer than three days. I suppose, though, if God can raise the dead, there is still hope.
Anna Sieges serves as associate professor of religion at Gardner-Webb University in Boiling Springs, N.C. She loves shopping, discussing the Bible and romantic comedies. The opinions expressed here are her own.
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