MOBILE, Ala. (BP)–Hillcrest Baptist Church in Mobile, Ala., recently was ousted from the Mobile Baptist Association by an overwhelming vote on the grounds that the church’s hiring a female associate pastor violated the association’s membership guidelines.
The action, which passed 204–44 at the association’s annual meeting Oct. 19 at Dauphin Way Baptist Church in Mobile, followed the recommendation of the association’s executive committee to disaffiliate with Hillcrest Baptist. At issue was Ellen Sims’ position as associate pastor, a title Bill Whitfield, chairman of the association’s membership committee, said is “interchangeable” with senior pastor in Scripture and thus at odds with the association’s adherence to the 2000 Baptist Faith & Message.
The Mobile Baptist Association’s constitution indicates that the “basis of common faith and practice for the association” is the 2000 BF&M, which states that “the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.”
“Our exegesis confirmed no distinction biblically in the office of pastor between the contemporary titles of pastor, senior pastor and associate pastor. Even the Internal Revenue Service sees ordination as the distinction for all pastoral roles,” said Thomas Wright, the association’s director of missions. “Multiple options were discussed but [Hillcrest] was unwilling to make any changes to prevent disaffiliation. The membership committee worked hard to maintain affiliation with [the church] even though they historically have not been involved in [associational] meetings, events or training.”
Leaders of the Mobile association called the first meeting with Dudley Wilson, Hillcrest’s pastor, two months ago after learning of Sims’ new role, which she assumed officially Aug. 1. During the meeting, Hillcrest leaders were presented with the opportunity to withdraw before the committee recommended disaffiliation.
“We met with them and it became very obvious throughout the meeting that they were using the Baptist Faith & Message … in a creedlike way,” Wilson said. “We realized quickly that they had settled in their minds that pastor and associate pastor were synonymous.”
Hillcrest members felt that the decision to choose a female associate pastor was done in the tradition of the autonomy of Baptist churches, Wilson said.
But associational leaders felt that it likewise was within the autonomy of the association to require its members to adhere to its guidelines, said Whitfield, who serves as minister of senior adults at Dauphin Way Baptist Church.
“This was not an ugly fight. We didn’t argue, debate or complain…. We didn’t want to withdraw because we had no reason to withdraw,” Wilson said. “Ultimately I asked the question, ‘If she bore the title of minister of congregational development, we would not be having this conversation, would we?’”
According to Wilson, the answer was no.
Whitfield confirmed that answer. “We encouraged them to change the title. We told them they were outside the guidelines,” he said.
Wilson said Hillcrest members were happy with the path the church had chosen and had hoped things could stay as-is with the association. “We had no quarrel with the association, and we still have no quarrel with them. We did not choose to separate from them, but we told them that if that was their wish, we would defer to their decision.”
Hillcrest member Larry Moons read such a statement at the associational meeting — which drew double the normal attendance — just before the vote for disassociation. Wilson chose not to take part in the meeting, and Sims attended as a visitor rather than a messenger and did not address the group.
“There was no floor fight, and both sides presented their differing view. In the end, the messengers overwhelmingly recognized that Hillcrest has chosen to step outside the guidelines for affiliation,” Wright said. “Our letter [sent to Hillcrest to inform it of the recommendation to disaffiliate] invited them to reapply at whatever point they wish to serve together within the guidelines.”
Whitfield said the association’s adherence to membership guidelines is necessary “for order and unity not just today but for the future and down the line.” The six or eight Baptist churches that have joined the Mobile association this year had to sign on the dotted line saying that they would abide by the established rules in order to remain affiliated with MBA, he said.
But James Walters, pastor of First Baptist Church in Mobile, told those present at the meeting that if the recommendation passed, the association would be using the BF&M as “an element of cleansing and exclusion rather than inclusion.”
“It’s being used as a creed rather than as a statement of faith. The big issue is the autonomy of the local church. Is the association going to be over the church or serve the church?” asked Walters, whose church founded Hillcrest in the 1980s. “I’m flabbergasted that the vote would be so overwhelmingly in favor of the recommendation.”
In addition to Walters, several members of First Baptist in Mobile, as well as Terry Ellis, pastor of Spring Hill Baptist Church in Mobile, also spoke against the recommendation to disaffiliate.
Sims, who was ordained last May in the American Baptist Churches USA, said after the meeting that she had asked Hillcrest’s personnel committee members during the hiring process if they believed calling a woman might jeopardize the church’s relationship with a denominational group. “I believe that most Hillcrest members thought that the Baptist principle of local church autonomy would probably prevail — they certainly thought it should…. But we also knew there could be no way to predict how other Baptists might respond,” Sims said. “Their support has been unwavering not only of me but of the processes we’ve been through. We continue to marvel at the way God has led us into ministry together.”
Wilson agreed. “We do not feel victimized. We are Baptists in Mobile just as we were before; we are just not members of the association. We are at peace with what we have done.”
When Sims and her husband George moved back to the Mobile area last fall, it was a homecoming for her. Growing up at Cottage Hill Baptist Church in Mobile, she never dreamed she would come back to an area church one day in a pastoral role.
Wilson said Sims had been in the congregation for eight or nine months when church leaders realized she “fit the criteria very well to serve in congregational development.”
Before coming to Hillcrest, Sims graduated from Samford University in Birmingham, Ala., and a Methodist seminary in Ohio and was ordained in an American Baptist Church.
The Hillcrest personnel committee approached her about taking the position of associate pastor, and the church unanimously voted her in.
Congregational development work, Sims explained, has been a broadly defined focus that includes ministering to college students, facilitating the work of the church council and various committees, expanding communication and outreach opportunities and preaching occasionally.
And now -— on the heels of going through the disaffiliation process with the Mobile Baptist Association -— Sims said she believes her church and ministry have turned a corner.
“We can focus now on our authentic mission as a church. We are moving ahead with excitement and greater clarity about that mission,” she said.
This article first appeared in The Alabama Baptist, newsjournal of the Alabama Baptist Convention.