Women have come a long way in moderate Baptist ministry in four decades, but groups like the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship need to do far more to match their walk with their talk when it comes to opening pulpits to female pastors, a historian told a state CBF gathering on Saturday.
Women have always been part of and leaders in the Baptist tradition, Pamela Durso, associate director of the Baptist History and Heritage Society, told a breakout session at last weekend’s 2006 General Assembly of the Tennessee Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
Durso said many churches in Tennessee, for example, would not have survived the Civil War without women, who, in the absence of men, stepped into leadership in worship roles including “testimonies,” which today would be called preaching.
In a recent statistical study, Durso said she and another researcher found 86 names of women who are preaching pastors or co-pastors of churches aligned with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, Baptist General Association of Virginia, Baptist General Convention of Texas and Alliance of Baptists.
In 1964 there was just one ordained female Baptist minister in the South, Addie Davis, and she had to move to the North in order to find a church that would hire her.
Durso said that seemed like good progress, until she “looked at the numbers.” CBF alone claims about 1,800 churches, meaning that fewer than 4 percent of CBF churches are led by a woman pastor
Greater numbers of women serve in ministerial roles other than pastor. While that also should be celebrated, Durso said, CBF churches need to do more to open doors for women who feel called to be preaching pastors.
“While we have come a long way, until all the opportunities of the church are open to all people whom God has called, I don’t think there will be true movement in this area,” Durso said. She said it is important not only for now but also in order for the Baptist tradition to be viable in the future.
“Young girls growing up now, if they want to be a pastor and God calls them to do it, they will be a pastor,” she said.
The author of a new book, The Story of Baptists in the United States, which she wrote with her husband, Keith, Durso identified several traditions from Baptist history–which celebrates 400 years in 2009–that she said provide guidance for churches in the 21st century.
While the dominant church model today is the mega church, Durso said Baptist churches in the beginning were small. Affirming the strong community in small congregations that can make up for lack of programming, she said: “I think it’s time for us to start celebrating smallness. We need to celebrate and not despise the small things.”
Baptists have been avid church planters, she said, often as the result of division and conflict. “We do church planting by division a lot, and we have always done that,” Durso said. “Baptists have grown that way. It is negative, but it is also positive.”
Asked how to label churches started in sympathy with CBF, which does not describe itself as a denomination, Durso said CBF “is a denominational tradition” whether or not it uses the label.
“I haven’t considered myself a Southern Baptist in a long time,” Durso said. “I say I am just Baptist.”
“It’s kind of an awkward time to be a Baptist,” she said. “The whole denominational structure in the last 10 or 15 years has really broken down,” not only for CBF but the Southern Baptist Convention as well.
“We are going back to the societal method of doing mission in partnership with other groups,” she said. “That whole idea of funneling money through a Cooperative Program, I don’t think it’s going to be as viable in the 21st century as it was in the 20th century.”
Durso said she hopes Baptists will continue to be avid church planters. “I think that is our future as CBF,” she said. New churches, she said, particularly those that “look different,” are more attractive than traditional congregations to younger and un-churched adults.
Some say revivalism, another Baptist tradition, is outdated, but Durso predicts there will be a revival in the next 10 or 15 years, though she expects it also to “look different” than previous movements. She thinks it might center in college students.
Missions has been a key component of much of Baptist history, Durso said, but is rapidly changing, with movement toward indigenous church planters rather than just missionaries sent by Western mission boards. “We are no longer the leader,” she said. “We Baptists are going to be left behind if we don’t step up to the plate and get involved in what they are doing.”
“We are going to have to get on board with them instead of asking them to do things our way,” she said. “If we want to be part of the mission movement of the 21st century, we are going to have to change our ways.”
Baptists in the United States have always been diverse, she said, both theologically and ethnically, but, “This country is so diversified now it we are going to keep up we are going to have to diversify our Baptist churches.”
Hispanic Baptists, in particular, “are taking off,” Durso said. “I don’t want to get into a political discussion about immigration,” she said. But, “There are millions of Hispanics in our country that need to be evangelized and brought into the church.”
“Our Baptist churches still are very segmented and segregated when it comes to Sunday morning,” Durso said.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.