“Think they’ll have everyone wear sackcloth and ashes at CBF General Assembly this year?”
I texted those words to a fellow Baptist clergywoman after reading the State of Women in Baptist Life report. I wasn’t kidding either. I desperately want the folks gathered for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly to put on sackcloth and ashes. I desire for CBF to take on a posture of mourning and repentance, an ancient Hebrew custom of indicating humility and shame before God about this report and CBF’s role within it.
The report comes in two parts. Part 1, which focuses on the state of women’s experience, is grounds for repentance in and of itself. More than one in four clergywomen have either been sexually harassed or assaulted in their ministerial setting, plus another 6% of women unsure if what they experienced was sexual harassment or assault.
But with that text message, I was especially livid about Part 2 – The Statistical State. Per the report, “While Baptists are making progress, the progress in the last six years has been minimal.”
As a Baptist woman raised, called and ordained within CBF life, I am frustrated and disheartened but not shocked upon reading the report. From my early teen years feeling the tug of ministry to serve as a senior pastor, I’ve been told, “We affirm women; we call women; but change takes time, Molly.”
“From my early teen years feeling the tug of ministry to serve as a senior pastor, I’ve been told, ‘We affirm women; we call women; but change takes time, Molly.’
Twelve years ago, a classmate remarked, “I know you’re the better pastor and preacher, but I have the male parts, so I’m going to be a senior pastor first.”
Ten years ago, a state CBF employee forgot our appointment to meet about senior pastor positions in person, only to follow up and say, “Sorry I forgot, but positions like the ones you feel called to don’t really exist for you.”
Six years ago, when the last report hit, I heard from another person within leadership at CBF, “Isn’t it great that we have called females to lead 6.5% of our churches!”
If you haven’t read it, understand this: CBF was the only organization out of seven Baptist organizations who call women to ministry to have fewer women serving in pastoral roles in 2021 than in 2015. CBF now has 12 fewer women serving as senior pastors or co-pastors, and the number of CBF female senior pastors was not high to begin with.
Of the 1,422 CBF churches in 2021, only 105 are served by female senior pastors or co-pastors. Can we really celebrate a denomi-network, founded 30 years ago because of the conviction that women could be called to any role within the congregational life, who still has fewer than one in 10 of its congregations calling women to senior pastorates?
In response to the report, CBF’s executive coordinator, Paul Baxley, remarked, “The State of Women in Baptist Life makes it incredibly clear there is far too much space from convictions we profess and reality that exists.”
I have deep hope that this space will narrow and vanish, but I’ve had hope of that for decades. I wonder what’s going to happen in this space between conviction and reality now. What will CBF do in this liminal time between what is and what can be? How will CBF repent as an organization, repent within congregational life, and do the work to dismantle systems of patriarchy within the national CBF network, state CBFs and congregations that make up the global CBF reality? How in this space, between conviction and reality, will there be a reckoning for congregations that continue to call and prioritize white, straight men above all other bodies within this denomi-network?
“How in this space, between conviction and reality, will there be a reckoning for congregations that continue to call and prioritize white, straight men above all other bodies within this denomi-network?”
I really wonder if there shouldn’t be literal sackcloth and ashes offered at CBF General Assembly this year. Perhaps the words of the prophet Joel should be one of the many banners displayed in the exhibition hall or even in the large worship space:
Put on sackcloth, you priests, and mourn;
wail, you who minister before the altar.
Come, spend the night in sackcloth,
you who minister before my God;
for the grain offerings and drink offerings
are withheld from the house of your God.
Declare a holy fast;
call a sacred assembly.
Summon the elders
and all who live in the land
to the house of the Lord your God,
and cry out to the Lord.
Reflecting on the book of Acts and the beginnings of the church, scholar Willie Jennings observes that the prophet Joel is who Peter chooses to call back to at Pentecost and remarks that Joel’s “new world order begins with collapse. God shakes the foundations, especially ones that wrongly claim divine imprint … so that God may pour out God’s spirit upon all flesh.” The church began from a place of collapse so that God’s spirit may be poured out upon all flesh through Christ.
What is it going to take to shake the foundations of the CBF’s apathy toward patriarchy and to move past the lip-service that “CBF affirms women”? What is it going to take in this space between conviction and reality for CBF to actually believe God pours out God’s spirit upon all flesh through Christ, and therefore, in God’s spirit CBF congregations can call qualified, brilliant, prophetic, pastoral, loving, talented women into the senior/co-pastorate?
I have deep hope for what may be within CBF life and how the next State of Women in Baptist Life Report could look different five years from now, but I’m skeptical. Why shouldn’t I be? Over my life I’ve witnessed progress, but only barely.
But perhaps, 30 years later, Cooperative Baptists will prove me (and countless other women) wrong. I pray that after reading this report, Cooperative Baptists will put sackcloth and ashes on, honestly repent and in this space between conviction and reality, open themselves to a God who shakes the foundations of what is and what has been.
I pray CBF may robustly follow God’s spirit — Christ’s very self — who pours out on all flesh, and finally become a denomi-network boldly calling women as senior pastors again and again and again.
Molly Brummett Wudel serves as co-pastor with a fellow Baptist woman, Rebecca Hewitt-Newson, at Emmaus Way, a progressive, ecumenical congregation in Durham, N.C.
This is the first in a series of responses from Baptist women to the latest BWIM report.
Annual report on Baptist women in ministry finds some gains but serious losses due to COVID
Women in ministry: Strategically silent? | Analysis by Melody Maxwell
Women need more than your affirmation | Opinion by Laura Ellis
White evangelical leaders who repress women are revered as saints, author says