“I’m here today because nobody calls me ‘chicken,'” guest preacher Michelle McClendon said in a sermon Feb. 3 at Second Baptist Church in Lubbock, Texas.

One of 70 women filling Baptist pulpits for the second annual Martha Stearns Marshall Day of Preaching, McClendon, a former staff member at Second Baptist, recalled a conversation she once had with a member of the congregation. Listening to a guest preacher, the member remarked to McClendon that was what she should be doing.

McClendon said she told the congregant she could never do that. “You’re just chicken,” the parishioner replied.

Today McClendon, minister of Christian education at First Baptist Church in Greenville, S.C., is an experienced preacher. For some women, however, the preaching event sponsored by Baptist Women in Ministry was either a first or one of a few opportunities to preach.

Allison Hicks, a second-year student at McAfee School of Theology in Atlanta, had preached in her home church, but Feb. 3 was the first time in another church on a Sunday morning. She called preaching at Covenant Community Church in Elba, Ala., “a wonderful experience in learning and growing.”

“I was absolutely blessed by the church’s hospitality and the words of affirmation that now echo in my ears,” Hicks said.

Though it isn’t scheduled until April, at least one Baptist congregation will hear a woman preacher for the first time, when Ellen Sims, associate pastor at Hillcrest Baptist Church in Mobile, Ala., visits Pintlala Baptist Church in Hope Hull, Ala.

“Inviting female clergy to preach for the Pintlala Baptist Church was something I had always wanted to do,” said Pastor Gary Burton. Burton said “inertia of the past” stopped him from taking the step, until the Martha Stearns Marshall Day of Preaching gave him the impetus he needed to invite Sims to his pulpit. “I can’t wait,” Burton said.

Tradition hinders many Baptist women who feel called to preach. When Sims, who was ordained through the American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A., joined the ministerial staff at Hillcrest Baptist Church in 2006, the Mobile Baptist Association voted 204-44 to remove the congregation as a member body for its “decision to differ with the guidelines for affiliation.”

Baptist Women in Ministry estimates that more than 1,800 Southern Baptist women have been ordained to ministry positions since the 1960s, but few are regularly assigned to preaching roles. That is true even in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, a moderate group that split from the more-conservative Southern Baptist Convention in part over the issue of women in ministry.

According to the 2006 State of Women in Baptist Life, nearly 40 percent of students attending 14 theology schools affiliated with the CBF are women, but just 6 percent of Fellowship churches are led by a woman pastor, co-pastor or church planter.

Carolyn Blevins, retired professor of religion at Carson-Newman College, said Baptists have “a woman problem” in her guest sermon at First Baptist Church in Jefferson City, Tenn. “The problem is numerous Baptist women have taken being a Baptist seriously,” she explained.

Blevins concluded with a series of questions. “What if our church encouraged every person toward true soul freedom, taking seriously a personal relationship to God?” she asked. “What if our church became more diligent about Bible study, enabling our members to experience the joy of Bible freedom? What if our church used our church freedom to dare to be what God wants us to be in our community?”

During transition between moderate and fundamentalist leadership, the Southern Baptist Convention adopted a resolution in 1983 urging churches and other religious institutions “to seek fairness for women in compensation, benefits and opportunities for advancement” and encouraging all Southern Baptists “to continue to explore further opportunities of service for Baptist women, to ensure maximum utilization of all God-called servants of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

The following year the pendulum swung the other way. Meeting in Kansas City, Mo., the 1984 convention adopted a strongly worded resolution limiting women in church work to roles “other than pastoral functions and leadership roles entailing ordination.”

In 2000 the convention for the first time inserted specific language into the Baptist Faith & Message defining women’s roles in ministry. “While both men are women are gifted for service in the church,” Article VI proclaims, “the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.

Fifteen more churches reported participating in Martha Stearns Marshall Day of Preaching this year than the 55 that took part in Iast year’s inaugural event. Designed as both a celebration of women in the pulpit and an educational opportunity for congregations, the emphasis is named for an 18th-century woman who preached at Baptist meetings alongside her brother, Shubal Stearns.

Stearns was a pioneer Baptist preacher and evangelist who started Sandy Creek Baptist Church in North Carolina in 1755, a turning point in growth of the Baptist denomination in the South. In 1747 Martha Stearns married her brother’s ministry companion, Daniel Marshall, and went on to help her husband establish Baptist churches in North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia.

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com. This story includes material from a Baptist Women in Ministry report written by Pamela Durso.

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