N.C. church, first to ordain a woman, calls its first female pastor

Fifty years after ordaining the first female Southern Baptist minister, Watts Street Baptist Church in Durham, N.C., has called a woman as pastor.

By Bob Allen

A North Carolina church credited with opening doors for women in ministry by ordaining the first Southern Baptist woman to the gospel ministry 50 years ago lifted its own stained-glass ceiling April 6 by choosing a female pastor.

Dorisanne cooperMembers of Watts Street Baptist Church in Durham, N.C., voted unanimously to extend a call as senior minister to Dorisanne Cooper, currently pastor of Lake Shore Baptist Church in Waco, Texas.

On Aug. 9, 1964, Watts Street ordained Addie Davis, a 1963 graduate of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary from Covington, Va., to the ministry. After failing to find a Southern Baptist church that would consider hiring a woman, Davis moved north to become pastor of First Baptist Church of Readsboro, Vt., an American Baptist congregation.

American Baptist Churches of Vermont and New Hampshire named Davis pastor of the year in 1971. The following year she moved to Second Baptist Church in East Providence, R.I., a church of about 250 members. She resigned in 1981 to return to Virginia following the death of her mother, hoping to find a Baptist church.

Davis eventually gave up on being a Southern Baptist pastor and served Rich Patch Union Church, a rural ecumenical congregation, from 1982 until 2002. She died in 2005 at age 88.

According to Courage and Hope: The Stories of Ten Baptist Women Ministers by Pam and Keith Durso, Davis didn’t set out to be a pioneer. When she began contacting churches about ordination, she was unaware that no Southern Baptist church had ever ordained a woman minister.

After her home church, Covington Baptist Church, balked, Davis withdrew her request to avoid controversy. She contacted some churches in Raleigh, N.C., before finally turning to Watts Street, which had granted her a license to preach in 1963.

The move sparked controversy both within the church, as two members of the ordination committee decided that despite previous assurances they could not recommend ordaining a woman, and on the outside. Warren Carr, the pastor who chose the ordination committee, received nearly 50 letters criticizing him and the church.

Letters came from as far away as California, with demands that Davis renounce her ordination and learn from her husband. (She was unmarried.) One writer called her “a child of the devil.”

The second ordination of a woman in Southern Baptist life didn’t come until 1971, when Kathwood Baptist Church in Columbia, S.C., ordained Shirley Carter as a hospital chaplain.

Opportunities for women in ministry increased during the 1970s, and by the early 1980s Southern Baptist seminaries encouraged women feeling a call to preach. Roy Honeycutt, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote a tract titled Affirming Women in Ministry in 1984.

The climate changed with a debate over the inerrancy of Scripture beginning in 1979. The Southern Baptist Convention adopted a resolution opposing women’s ordination in 1984.

In 1987 the 120-church Shelby Baptist Association in Memphis, Tenn., voted to withdraw fellowship from Prescott Memorial Baptist Church, determining the congregation violated New Testament teachings on the role of women in the church when it elected Nancy Hastings Sehested as pastor.

The Baptist Faith and Message was amended in 1998 to declare “a wife is to submit herself graciously” to her husband and again in 2000 to clarify, “While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.”

Disenfranchised moderates withdrew from the battle to control the SBC to form the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in 1991 around principles including support for women in ministry. Opportunities for female pastors have increased slowly but steadily in CBF churches.

Pam Durso, executive director of Baptist Women in Ministry, now lists 157 women identified as pastor or co-pastor of churches affiliated with the CBF or in state conventions located in the South.

Durso said it is no longer an “oddity” for a Baptist church in the South to call a woman. She said she is particularly encouraged by the fact that female ministers like Cooper, with more than 11 years in pastoral experience, are now finding a second church.

Cooper became senior pastor at Lake Shore Baptist Church in February 2002. She was the second woman to lead a church affiliated with the Baptist General Convention of Texas. The first, Julie Pennington-Russell, served at Calvary Baptist Church in Waco from 1998 until 2007.

Pennington-Russell’s current church, First Baptist Church in Decatur, Ga., is her third pastorate. Before moving to Texas she served for five years as pastor of Nineteenth Avenue Baptist Church in San Francisco. The Georgia Baptist Convention withdrew fellowship from First Baptist, Decatur, in 2009, and in 2010 ousted Druid Hills Baptist Church, finding both congregations non-compliant with the Baptist Faith and Message.

Cooper, a graduate of Baylor University with an M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary, will become the eighth pastor of Watts Street, which holds ties with the American Baptist Churches USA, the Alliance of Baptists and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. The previous pastor, Melvin Williams, retired after 24 years in 2012.

Carr, the pastor who ordained Davis, led the church from 1946 to 1964. A church history credits him for leading transformation from a “strictly Southern Baptist congregation into the innovative, liberal and open institution” that Watts Street remains today.

Carr was followed by Bob McClernon, pastor from 1964 until 1987. During his tenure Watts Street accepted baptized members without immersion, elected its first female deacons and affiliated with American Baptist Churches.

In 1989 Watts Street joined the Southern Baptist Alliance, now known as the Alliance of Baptists. The church severed its ties with the Southern Baptist Convention in 1998 and voted to leave the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina in 2004.

In 2009 the congregation voted to join the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists, signaling the embrace of gays and lesbians. Other affiliations include the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America and CBF of North Carolina.

Cooper’s last Sunday at Lake Shore is April 27. Her ministry at Watts Street begins this summer. She served previously as associate pastor of College Park Baptist Church in Greensboro, N.C.