When Googling images for a PowerPoint presentation on “Baptist Women in Ministry” some years ago, I was a little startled to see the first image that popped up was a poster for the film, “Attack of the 50ft Woman.”
It was an image that would doubtless have empowered some and terrified others. It made me smile.
My own journey in ministry has been relatively straightforward. I am grateful to have grown up in churches who affirmed the ministry of women.
In my teens, I had that first tentative conversation with my minister about an embryonic sense of call to ministry.
I was part of the most wonderful and creative youth group who regularly led services in church and at two local nursing homes.
These early experiences were utterly formational for me. We were part of the pre-Spring-Harvest-early-Greenbelt generation.
Following three years working in administration at the Baptist World Alliance in Washington, D.C., I came back to the United Kingdom and joined the staff of BMS World Mission in both promotion and personnel work.
That season eventually led to the deep sense of God’s call to theological education and ministerial formation, culminating in three very happy years at Regent’s Park College.
A pastorate with the courageous community of Littlemore Baptist Church in Oxford led to nine rich and stimulating years on staff at Bristol Baptist College.
Different ministries. Different locations. Different gifts called for and generously given. But the bottom line was this: I knew God’s call to it all. It was that simple.
This sense in my heart and, thankfully, affirmed by the wider community of the church, was that this was of God’s making, and obedience to that was part of my discipleship, my following of Jesus.
At no point did anyone tell me that I couldn’t do this. They might have thought it, but no one said anything to me. I’m aware of the grace of that now.
I had to be honest about my sense of call, but I never had to defend my experience of it.
I had to be responsive to ways of working out my calling but not in a hostile environment where the deepest thing in my heart was discounted on cultural or theological grounds.
I was held in a wider community of Baptist work and witness, which gave me the “spacious place” to explore and respond, to struggle and grow, to inhabit fully my baptized life.
And I am grateful that I, along with more than 330 other women (and many others who have gone before us), have found in the Baptist Union of Great Britain a place within which to exercise accredited ministry.
The days when it was possible to count the number of women in accredited ministry on the fingers of one hand are long gone.
Over the years since Edith Gates became the pastor of Little Tew and Cleveley in 1918, the number of women applying for and exercising accredited ministry has steadily, if painfully slowly, grown.
So, to the number crunching:
- As of October 2018, there are 1,023 retired ministers of our union of which 87 (8.5 percent) are women.
- There are 1,197 fully accredited active ministers of which 190 (16 percent) are women.
- There are 180 newly accredited ministers of whom 62 (34 percent) are women.
- Ministers in training number 133 of whom 53 (40 percent) are women, and there are 47 ministerial applicants, of whom 20 (43 percent) are women.
This trajectory lags behind but resembles that of sister denominations.
In 2017, 29 percent of Church of England clergy were women, and at the moment just over half of the ordinands in training are women.
Two years ago, the Methodist Church had 1,812 ministers of whom 667 (37 percent) were women. Today, there are 1,632 ministers, of whom 681 (42 percent) are women.
The United Reformed Church currently has 1,383 ministers, of which 431 (31 percent) are women, but this percentage increases to 61 percent of their newly accredited ministers and 56 percent of their ministers in training.
While the numbers of women in accredited ministry are growing, many never set out to explore God’s calling of them.
The reasons are varied – church communities that continue not to affirm the ministry of women citing biblical interpretation; cultural “norms” where the called woman cannot respond healthily to God’s call because the context for her discipleship discounts it; the prevalence of “complementarian theology” in many churches, which pre-shape the service of women to help men to exercise theirs.
These contexts tend to welcome the service of women in what’s perceived as the “soft” stuff – relational, pastoral, caring – while the called men get the “tough” stuff – leadership, preaching, vision setting.
That division, of course, reveals a complete lack of understanding as to the “tough” nature of excellent pastoral care, and the need for first-rate interpersonal skills in enabling church communities to respond to God’s leading in ministry and mission.
Being a flourishing people of God demands a renewed commitment to healthy relating.
The urgent task of ministry and mission lies before us in a rapidly fragmenting world. We need to work out the God-given calling of the whole people of God in generous, faithful and transforming ways.
So, let’s model functioning healthy ministry in a world well acquainted with fractured, power-based, oppressive relationships.
Let’s move to a place where a single-sex diaconate or eldership is unthinkable; a single-sex regional ministry team is anathema; where colleges, who have been at the forefront of encouraging women in ministry, might appoint a woman principal (recognizing Northern Baptist College’s pioneering co-principals model); where women feel free and welcomed to be considered as ministers of large, multistaffed, well-resourced churches along with the small or struggling or pioneering ones.
A sea change in the releasing of more women into accredited ministry will have implications for church discernment processes, regional ministerial recognition committees, Union, association and college trustee boards.
But the time has surely come.
We won’t see an army of 50-foot women. Just faithful ones, called, gifted and ready.
With grateful thanks to sister agencies and the Baptist Union of Great Britain specialist ministries team for the figures.
Sian Murray Williams is the moderator of the Baptist Union of Great Britain’s Ministerial Recognition Committee. She is a Baptist minister living in Canterbury, Kent, United Kingdom, who was formerly coordinator of Ministerial Formation at Bristol Baptist College, where she taught for nine years until 2015, and now serves as a spiritual director, mentor and retreat facilitator.