I’ve been trying to track down the original source of a quote relative to women pastors that goes something like this: “If you don’t want God to call them, don’t baptize them.” Or a variant form, “If you don’t want God to call women, don’t baptize girls.” Or the more straightforward “We ordain women because we baptize girls.”
I’ve heard the sentiment attributed to various people but have had no luck in tracking down the original version – the truth is so self-evident, I suppose, that it’s been said in many contexts and over many years. In poking around on the web, in fact, I found it applied more often in Roman Catholic contexts than in Protestant conversation.
The situation of the Catholic Church suggests one reason why Baptists who believe it’s God’s business to call people should give serious consideration to calling a woman as pastor. Catholics have suffered from a serious shortage of priests for some time now. Many churches have gone for years without a priest and are served by lay leadership with occasional visits by someone who has the ordination papers required to perform functions limited to priests.
The Catholic situation suffers from a double whammy because priests must not only be men, but unmarried men, and hopefully capable of remaining chaste. Protestants are more than happy to accept married men as pastors: indeed, most churches prefer that the pastor be married, thinking that he’ll be more stable and hoping his wife will be actively involved in church, giving them two-for-one.
But, even among Protestants, there’s a shortage of good pastors although not necessarily a shortage of people willing to be pastors; one could argue that there’s actually a surplus, though that’s mainly limited to the fact that lots of people want to serve in big churches, where there are fewer opportunities and ministers are reluctant to retire. On the seminary level, the number of students who say they want to be pastors continues to fall.
I don’t recall a time when there have been more churches (moderate churches, at least) without pastors, or when the process of calling a pastor took so long.
According to Larry Hovis, executive coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of North Carolina, in that state alone, of the 350 or so churches that contribute to the CBFNC, 70 are without pastors – that’s a fifth of CBF-leaning churches in the state. Churches still get big stacks of resumes from would-be pastors, but the number of well-qualified, gifted, experienced applicants is far smaller.
Churches could expand the pool of qualified and experienced pastors if they’d be willing to call some of the well-prepared and very gifted women who feel called to the work. I’m not going to argue here the theological case for women pastors; those who oppose it because they take a literal view of certain Scriptures are unlikely to be convinced otherwise, at least until one of their daughters feels the call.
I’m more concerned with individuals and churches who say they believe women can serve as pastors, but won’t actually consider calling one. I don’t think it’s just that smaller churches, where most pastors begin their careers, are more conservative and thus blocking the gate. I think it’s because too many of us are bound by tradition and custom – and fear of the unknown. Search committees will often say “I believe women can serve as pastors, but our church isn’t ready yet.”
When will churches be ready to give women a chance? Some of them have, and the vast majority that I’m familiar with have had very positive experiences. I know one small church that has called three consecutive women pastors with women interims in between. I know of another that called two consecutive women.
Perhaps that’s one of the reasons some men oppose women pastors. Maybe they’re secretly afraid that the women will perform better, show them up and become more popular.
In any case, a part of being faithful in kingdom living is to call out the called, to prepare them for ministry, and to give them opportunities to serve. Divinity schools like Campbell and Gardner-Webb and Wake Forest and Duke (in North Carolina alone, not to mention fine schools in other parts of the country) are turning out a number of well-trained, very capable women – most of whom have to switch denominations to find a church they can serve as pastor.
It’s time for moderate Baptists who claim they support women pastors to quit paying lip service to the notion and actually call a woman. In most cases, I’m confident that they’ll be glad they did – and the work of God’s people will be stronger for it.
Tony Cartledge is associate professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School and contributing editor to Baptists Today, where he blogs.