By Jack Brymer
The youngest of four children — three girls — born to a successful Baptist pastor and a wife who was equally dedicated to the congregation and denomination, Sarah Jackson Shelton suspects that being a pastor is part of her DNA.
Passing her 10th anniversary as pastor of Baptist Church of the Covenant in Birmingham, Ala., only served to validate her suspicion.
“Church was my favorite place to be,” she said. “In fact, I would rather be at church than any place: the grandeur of worship — all of it, I just loved.”
But for an 18-year-old female in the Southern Baptist Convention, heavily influenced by its Southern culture and heritage, getting there was an eternity. She was ordained to the gospel ministry in 1982, but the positions available to her and many of her female colleagues at the time included most everything but the pulpit.
She could have become a pastor right out of seminary, but not a Baptist pastor. The Methodists recruited and encouraged her, but she had always been a Baptist and wanted to stay one. She received some encouragement from her family, but even they knew a barrier existed at the time against women, especially in Baptist circles.
Still, she pressed on. Confiding her calling to a seminary professor with the disclaimer that she knew her Baptist heritage would likely prevent her from ever being a pastor, she received a rare encouraging word that she was on the right track. “Wouldn’t you rather be part of what is to be than what has been?” the professor asked.
Shelton graduated from the University of Alabama and earned both the master of religious education and master of divinity from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. While in seminary she received honors including the coveted Clyde T. Francisco Preaching Award in 1981, which comes with an invitation to preach in the seminary chapel.
She worked through a stint as youth director, education director, associate pastor and even a brief respite from the church as a college teacher and administrator. Through it all, she said, “the nagging sense to be a pastor never went away.”
She occasionally received opportunities to preach, lead conferences and write articles and even books but was never offered a pastorate until 2002, when a church contacted her about being interim pastor. She agreed to meet with the committee, expecting that like in the past, she wouldn’t hear any more about it. To her surprise, a second call came.
The pastor of Baptist Church of the Covenant, a progressive congregation formed in 1970 after Birmingham’s First Baptist Church refused to accept African-American members, had retired and the church was searching for an interim pastor to serve no longer than one year.
A stipulation of the job was the interim would not be considered for the permanent pastor. Considering the 30-year-old congregation had never had a woman pastor and didn’t seem likely to change, she took the interim position.
The search for a permanent pastor dragged on, leading to a second interim. It was during that time that the pastor-nominating committee turned to Shelton. She was elected in a called business meeting on Aug. 11, 2002, by a vote of 131-2 announced to a standing ovation.
Ten years later, Shelton said she now receives “constant confirmation of what I should have been doing all along.”
The calling is not without its surprises and challenges. There is the workday to plan, administrative duties, hospital visits, counseling, baptisms, surgeries, deaths, weddings and family life, just to mention a few.
One of the greatest rewards, she says, “is to see the church grow in understanding of who they are.”
“Fortunately, this congregation is open to growing and learning and moving ahead,” she said.
One of the most difficult tasks, she said, “is burying the people you have come to love.”
“It leaves not only a personal void, but for the church it prevents that person’s ability to minister to others,” she reflected.
Shelton admits the passion that drives her “is to be faithful to the calling God has given me.” As a result, she reads and studies a lot. “I love worship and I love to preach,” she said.
Her secret to sermon preparation — be it a baptismal service, a baby dedication or a funeral — is listening to the people.
“Listen to families,” she explained. “Over the years I have found they dare to be honest. Some hate the church. Others find it memorable. Regardless, it is unique for each person.”
Fortunately, Shelton has seen continuous growth in the church, not only in membership — from an average of 80 to 200 in attendance — but in baptisms and most other measureable facets. She is even contacted about considering other pastorates.
On her anniversary in September, church members honored their pastor with a Book of Prayers edited by Bridget Rose, a Samford University faculty member, and a commissioned hymn by Milburn Price, dean emeritus of Samford’s School of Music.
The Book of Prayers includes a benediction by her late father, Lamar Jackson, offered by his grandson, Dan Shelton, son of the pastor. The hymn – “Who Was the Prodigal?” – invoked the pastor’s favorite parable.
In addition to being a pastor, Shelton makes time and opportunities to be a wife to her husband, Lloyd, a Certified Public Accountant, and mother to two sons: David, a graduate of The Fashion Institute of Technology in New York who lives in that city, and Dan, a senior at Mountain Brook High School.
For other women who may find themselves in the holding pattern where Shelton was for 28 years, her advice is to find ways to be faithful to their calling. That may include having to take another role in the church, to be a chaplain or even changing their denomination.