Editor’s Note: The following interview appears in the March/April issue of Nurturing Faith Journal

Although most Christian traditions claim to value women for their unique perspectives and roles within society, there is significant variation in how each of them understands and lives out that claim. This is especially true regarding matters of vocational and ministerial calling. For those in the Baptist tradition, the variation extends to the numerous individual Baptist denominations, churches and individual believers. 

In the controversies regarding identity and control over Baptist institutions from the 1970s through today, conversations about women in ministry have echoed through denominational gatherings, seminary and Sunday school classes and the dinner tables of family and friends. 

Yet even among those who have fallen on the side of complete acceptance of women in all pastoral and ministerial roles within churches and institutions, more work must be done before the promise of equality becomes reality. 

Enter Baptist Women in Ministry (BWIM), an organization devoted to supporting women in their ministerial calling and advocating for a greater menu of opportunities to be available to them. In August 2020, Meredith Stone assumed the position of BWIM executive director. 

The following is adapted from a recent interview with Stone about the importance and work of BWIM. It has been edited for length. 

NFJ: Meredith, would you describe how you discerned your personal call to ministry? 

MS: I appreciate that you asked that question. However, it can be a very complicated one for women to answer. 

From the moment I could articulate a sense of divine stirring and name it a calling, I equated it with the occupation toward which I felt God leading me. I was taught being called meant having a ministry job. But while there were no limits to how the Spirit was moving in my life, there were severe limitations on the number and variety of occupations I had seen women working in. 

Without the images to help create a vocational imagination of ministry at 17, and even at 25, it would have been impossible to say with any sense of reality or certainty that I felt called to any particular job. And yet, people continued to ask me, “What do you feel called to do?”

Because of this, my vocational discernment has included paying attention to how my passions and gifts intersected with the doors that opened—even if those doors were not occupations with which I would have equated my calling.

The famous Frederick Buechner quote that has guided so many of us is, “The place God calls you to is where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” But that “place” doesn’t always exist in job form for women. Sometimes, it becomes what we make of the job we do have, how we choose to spend our time outside of work or, most often, who we decide to be in all aspects of our lives.

I think it is important to recognize how equating “calling” with “ministry occupations” has been informed by the assumptions embedded within the patriarchal privilege of clergy structures. 

At the beginning of our journeys, women may be unable to articulate a sense of calling to a particular clergy occupation (though some might). Still, the Spirit can work just as strongly through paying attention to one’s circumstances as it can through a burning bush. 

Deconstructing a limited definition of calling is a way to remove human-constructed barriers to the Spirit’s creative work in people’s lives.

NFJ: Could you describe how you and other women find ways to live into your calling outside the parameters of a ministry “job”?

MS: Amy Sherman’s Kingdom Calling (InterVarsity Press, 2011) describes an integration of occupation and communal justice based on Proverbs 11:10, “When the righteous prosper, the city rejoices. When the wicked perish, there are shouts of joy.” 

Sherman illustrates ways in which every vocation can be centered around seeking the good of our communities, rather than materialistic or personal gain. So, any occupation can become a “kingdom calling” in which the cultivation of beloved community is the aim. 

As I began to recognize I could live into my ministry calling in any job, not only the ones that were seemingly off-limits to me in the church, I was able to discern my calling as what I hoped to add to the beloved community instead of only focusing on the job I wanted to have in the beloved community. 

Ultimately, my discernment led to a sense of calling to help people see things in new ways and create larger perspectives on God and God’s work in the world. I have lived into that calling in congregational ministry, but also working in a denominational setting, serving as a faculty member and administrator in a university and seminary, and leading a non-profit.

But I can also see how I seek to live into that calling when I volunteer at the local community theater, in conversations with friends and people I meet, in my parenting and even during my years as a florist, bookkeeper and golf shop manager.

NFJ: Once vocational opportunities in ministry careers did begin to open up, could you describe some of the challenges and joys associated with moving into those roles? 

MS: Even though I strongly feel that calling is more expansive than particular “clergy” occupations, sometimes it has been hard to shake the pain associated with believing my gifts would be well-suited for the church even though the church has not welcomed my gifts with open arms. 

I will always remember the first time I preached a sermon in a congregational setting. I was 27 years old. Most of my male colleagues had preached their first sermons before they turned 18. But in that moment of my first preaching experience, I had an overwhelming Spirit-inspired experience of fulfillment—a sense that I was doing something I was created, gifted and equipped to do. 

So, in the ten years that followed, I prepared myself and sought an opportunity to lean into that fulfillment in a senior pastor role. But the weight of the piles of rejection I experienced in those years pointed me back to see how God was using my calling in the jobs I did have for the good of the communities I was a part of, as Proverbs 11:10 might direct me to do. 

While I can see the ways my gender limited the abilities of search committees and congregations to see the gifts I had to offer the church, which needs to change, I can simultaneously see the ways I had the opportunity to participate in the transformative work of God in the work I have been privileged to do outside of the church. 

NFJ: The mission of BWIM is two-pronged and can be condensed into two words, “support and advocate.” How is the organization supporting women called to ministry, from those in the early stages of discerning a calling to those already active in church leadership? 

MS: The ways BWIM supports women in ministry include offering programs and resources and seeking to help facilitate opportunities for developing community.

Perhaps the program that best exemplifies our work in this area is our mentoring program. Women in the early stages of their ministry careers need mentors to learn from and peers they can lean on. Research on the flourishing of ministers has revealed how devastating isolation can be for ministers and the difference having a community of support can make. 

Our mentoring program seeks to provide this type of support for women who are starting in ministry or new ministry roles. In the next few years, we plan to expand this type of program and increase our offerings in other areas.

Besides the more formal and defined programs and resources, our staff spends a good deal of time supporting women in ministry one-on-one as they face challenges, navigate transitions and celebrate successes. Our role in these conversations and interactions is to see, hear, and believe women. Too often, women in ministry do not experience any other place where they are seen, heard and believed. BWIM can play an important role in providing a listening ear and safe space for the hard realities women face.

NFJ: Regarding advocacy– This is an oversimplification since churches, especially Baptist churches, consist of members with a wide range of beliefs. But there is a spectrum that most churches fall on regarding women in ministry.

On one end are those churches that will likely never believe God calls women to any kind of vocational ministry. On the other end are churches that believe God calls women to all levels of vocational ministry and have taken active steps to affirm their calling through support and vocational placement. How is BWIM speaking to and working with the churches that fall somewhere in the middle of that spectrum? 

MS: Most churches we work with fall somewhere on the middle of a spectrum between full, unlimited, equitable affirmation of women in ministry and disavowal of women’s roles in any leadership capacity. 

Many congregations have done the difficult work of opening themselves to the Spirit’s guidance in discerning how to interpret biblical passages related to women’s roles in church leadership. They have concluded that God does not discriminate in who is equipped and gifted for ministry leadership based on gender. This work, in itself, is difficult and worthy of celebration. However, moving from changing one’s mind about women in ministry to seeing women’s equality in every aspect of the church’s ministry is quite challenging.

BWIM provides churches with the resources they need to make the first move toward believing in women’s equality in church leadership and resources to help them see that belief fully embodied in practice. This type of work includes illuminating the unconscious ways in which our church structures, policies and practices have disadvantaged women and reinforced notions that women’s value is limited to traditional gender roles. 

By elucidating the unseen ways women are told their voices are not as valuable to God, it provides an opportunity for congregations to create new structures to intentionally value, affirm and uplift women’s gifts and leadership. 

BWIM works with search committees, congregations and congregational leaders who might want to begin assessing how their beliefs and practices align or are misaligned regarding women’s equality.

The most notable way we approach this work is through our BWIM Month of Advocacy initiative. Each March, we encourage churches to invite women to preach (if women do not preach regularly) and engage in additional forms of advocacy for women in ministry. 

This might include examining personnel and lay leadership policies and procedures, reviewing curricula for overt or covert messages that diminish women’s value, assessing committee leadership for appropriate women’s representation, and evaluating sermons, songs and artwork in the church to ensure that the perspectives, stories and bodies of women are present as exemplars of the Christian life.

NFJ:  What gives you hope in this work? 

MS: There are many reasons to be discouraged in this work. Some of the stories women tell are extremely painful and hard to hear. Unfortunately, I often hear similar accounts from different women, revealing the widespread nature of difficult experiences. 

However, sometimes, the calls or emails I get are to tell me encouraging stories—ones where congregations rally to support female leadership and make bold moves to demonstrate their affirmation of women’s full value to God’s beloved community. 

I hear many of these stories in the nominations for our awards—the Distinguished Mentor Award and the Church of Excellence Award. In those nominations, we hear how women’s lives have been changed and how they have found a new sense of knowing that they are truly created in God’s image and can experience the unlimited love and empowerment found in Christ. 

We hear how churches have been enlivened and enriched by women’s leadership. It is those stories that give me hope, and it is for this reason that one of BWIM’s organizational values is celebration. For every story of affirmation, bravery, and transformation, we celebrate and give thanks for the hope that other similar stories might soon be written.

Share This