Imagine a gender equal Baptist world. Now open your eyes and allow me to tell you a story about how it happens.
Emma was born on a Monday morning in the local hospital. Family and friends came to see her on her very first day in the world, along with her pastor. After asking for permission to hold Emma, Pastor Sarah cradled her delicately, looked deeply into Emma’s eyes, and prayed, “May you always know that you are created in God’s image and how deeply God values every part of who you are.”
As Emma grew up in the Baptist congregation that her parents chose long ago, she saw people of every gender preaching and leading in worship in equal measure. The pastor who prayed over her at her birth, a woman of dynamic and insightful preaching gifts, never felt the need to preach every Sunday, but shared the pulpit with other ministers and leaders within the church. Emma especially liked when the youth minister preached because she could relate to their stories.
Emma’s mom served as lead collaborator of the finance committee at the church for a few years while she was in elementary school which meant Emma had the privilege of being at church a few extra times each month. She loved to play with the children of the other moms and dads on the committee. They played on the playground, had snacks, and often made crafts.
But one time, the dad who normally plans the crafts couldn’t get them ready, so they played in the church sanctuary instead. One by one, Emma and her friends took turns pretending they were baptizing each other.
Holding one hand up while they stood next to the baptizee, they said the words they had heard so many times, “I baptize you my sibling, in the name of the Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit.”
Next, Billy said, “Let’s all be preachers!” Billy called out to the college student watching over them, “Zain! Come fix the preaching thing for us!”
Dutifully, Zain stood at the pulpit and turned the crank on the adjustable pulpit up and down so that it fit each child perfectly as they stood and spoke words over each other. It even went low enough for Alex, who had wheeled her chair up the ramp to the platform to see over.
When it was her turn, Emma grabbed a Bible from the pew where her grandpa’s best friend sits, and read her favorite Bible verse for all to hear. When she was finished articulating each word, Zain told her, “Emma, you read the scripture so well! I’m going to recommend that you read scripture in the service this Sunday.” And she did just that.
Through her teenage years, Emma had more opportunities to lead by helping with children’s Bible study, volunteering at an assisted living center nearby, traveling with members of the congregation to the state capitol to join a march for equality, and even serving as an assistant coach for the women’s ministry’s softball team.
After graduating from high school, Emma enrolled in the Baptist university one state over. Together with friends she had met at Baptist camps and retreats as a youth, she joined the Baptist church that was located downtown.
When she first visited, she noticed that things were a little different at that church—the ministers wore robes, and there were quite a few more times when the congregation all spoke words printed in the bulletin in unison.
Though it was unfamiliar, Emma quickly fell in love with the fact that even when she wasn’t on the platform, she was able to speak the words of her faith as boldly as she did when she read scripture in worship as a child.
Just before the summer between her junior and senior years, Emma got a call from Pastor Sarah inviting her to be the summer intern at her home church. Emma was ecstatic for the opportunity, but even more honored that Pastor Sarah invited her to serve in this way.
Frankly, she wasn’t sure if she would have applied for the job. But when Pastor Sarah told Emma that she was asking because she had seen Emma’s gifts for ministry, something stirred in her that she had felt lingering for a long time. Her mind immediately drew her back to that night when she had “baptized” Billy, and when she stood in the right-sized pulpit and read scripture.
Eight years later, after completing seminary, serving as an intern and then staff minister at two different churches, Emma’s grandfather called to tell her that Pastor Sarah had announced she would be retiring. Then, not three months later, the chair of the pastor search committee also called. Again, like Pastor Sarah had done, they had decided to extend an invitation to enter conversation with Emma about becoming their next pastor.
The process was one of mutual discernment, with the search committee having a chance to ask Emma questions and know more about how she had developed as a person and minister, and Emma also having a chance to ask her own questions so that she might also discern for herself.
After several weeks of prayer and conversation, the call to become pastor of the church was extended to Emma, and she also extended a call to the congregation to become partners with her in living out God’s purposes together.
Emma started on a Monday, and her first call was from the hospital. A new baby had just been born into the congregational family. As Emma arrived at the hospital and entered the room, she asked for permission to hold the baby.
Cradling her delicately in her arms and looking deeply into her eyes, she prayed, “May you always know that you are created in God’s image and how deeply God values every part of who you are.”
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series this week for International Women’s Day (March 8). The previous article in the series is:
Building a World, a Church Where We Show up for Everyone | Leah Grundset Davis
Executive Director of Baptist Women in Ministry.