Among my favorite collaborative partnerships has been one between Martha Stearns Marshall and Melissa Rogers.
Martha and Melissa have worked together to amplify the voices of Baptist women preachers.
You are thinking that I got this all wrong. Martha and Melissa lived in different centuries. They certainly never met. They had little in common – how could they have collaborated? So, let me tell you the story.
Martha was an 18th-century Separate Baptist, who with her brother and husband founded Sandy Creek Church in North Carolina in 1755.
She was a preaching woman, who could bring an entire congregation to tears with her prayers and exhortations.
In 1771, Martha and her husband, Daniel, moved south to Georgia, founded a Baptist church in Kiokee, which is the state’s oldest continuing Baptist church.
Martha stood alongside Daniel in worship services, calling people to faith and praying over them.
Baptist historian A.H. Newman wrote that she “was noted for her zeal and eloquence,” and her preaching “added greatly to the interest of meetings conducted by her husband.”
And yet in the church records and histories and on the monuments that pay tribute to the Marshall family and their faithful leadership, Martha’s name does not appear. Her contributions and her influence are overlooked, ignored.
Melissa is one of most influential Baptist women of recent days. She serves as a nonresident senior fellow in Governance Studies with the Brookings Institute.
During the Obama administration, Melissa was special assistant to the president and executive director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
Prior to her time in the White House, she was director of the Center for Religion and Public Affairs at Wake Forest University Divinity School, executive director of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and general counsel of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.
Melissa’s name is well known. She has been a visible leader, a public voice for good. Her contributions and influence are celebrated by faith leaders, including many Baptists.
So, how are these two women of different eras connected?
In 2006, Melissa wrote a blog, and when Melissa Rogers writes something, I read it.
That blog was a lament – her sadness and disappointment that so few Baptist women had opportunities to preach, to use their gifts, to share the good news from a Baptist pulpit.
Melissa then suggested that pastors find space in their calendars for women to preach.
Those words sparked an idea for me. I was then serving as a volunteer on the Baptist Women in Ministry (BWIM) Leadership Team, and I took Melissa’s blog to our next meeting.
The Leadership Team talked about all the possibilities – how we could encourage churches and pastors to be more invitational, how young and new preachers would benefit from more opportunities, how BWIM could help change the Baptist landscape by promoting a preaching emphasis for women.
We concluded that we wanted to do more than simply ask pastors to invite women to preach on their vacation Sundays.
We wanted to push churches to do this work together – to stand united in their support of women’s gifts.
We wanted pastors to invite young preachers, inexperienced preachers, preachers without access to pulpits.
As we kept dreaming, we decided to choose one Sunday in which churches could participate in this new emphasis. Then we looked at the church calendar and realized that finding a perfect Sunday for a Baptist emphasis was impossible, even finding a perfect month was hard. But we finally settled on February.
None of us at the BWIM table was a marketing specialist, but we knew we needed a name for this emphasis.
We pondered and threw out ideas, and then LeAnn Gunter Johns suggested Martha Stearns Marshall, the preaching woman she had learned about in her Baptist history class during seminary. And Martha Stearns Marshall Month of Preaching was born.
In February 2007, Baptist Women in Ministry sponsored its first Martha Stearns Marshall Month of Preaching, and 54 churches participated.
In the last few years, around 200 churches each year have invited women into their pulpits, and “Martha” is now in her 11th year.
In those 11 years, hundreds of churches have stood together to affirm and celebrate the preaching voices of Baptist women and God’s call and gifting of women, and hundreds of women have had preaching opportunities.
Few people know this story of Martha and Melissa – two gifted women who used their voices to call for change and who worked “together” to open doors and pulpits for Baptist women preachers.
But every February, I am reminded of how women from across the centuries inspire, encourage, challenge and nudge each other and how they become collaborative voices for renewal and progress, and I give thanks to God for Martha Stearns Marshall and Melissa Rogers.
Pam Durso is the executive director of Baptist Women in Ministry, Atlanta, Georgia.
Editor’s note: This article is the first in a series on women in ministry.
President of Central Seminary in Shawnee, Kansas.