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FIRST PERSON: Freedom to lead

ATLANTA (BP)–Trying hard to conceal the grin on my face, I watched with delight as several Hispanic men distributed flower bouquets to each woman at a church leadership meeting in New Orleans.

My immediate thought was that many might perceive this little bit of honor as a shaky cover-up for male dominance.

Then I thought of Nana, my dear Hispanic grandmother who was the family matriarch. Even at the moment of death, she had the power to cause each and every member of our family to listen, learn and obey. She, who had deferred to my grandfather before his early death. She, who had taken ten children through their tough teen-aged years with the understanding that if they disrespected her, they would cause “papa” needless anguish.

I had to smile. “Papa” is supreme in many Hispanic households. His word is gold and his authority unquestioned. As is his affection for his wife and children. His wife, however, runs the household with an iron fist-as had my Nana-all the days of her life.

In today’s context of feminism and equal opportunity, in a world where the Bible is often misused and misunderstood, it must be confusing when roles, rather than worth, are often seen as indistinguishable and interchangeable.

Maybe it was because of my early perceptions through my grandmother and then through the experiences of growing up in a single-parent home with a determined mother that I developed a very independent and self-sufficient streak. My writing mentor and surrogate father Jim Hefley once offended me by calling me “aggressive.” Without apology though, he went on to say with a laugh that this quality was positive for a journalist.

Jim, like many other men I have known in Southern Baptist life, contrary to widely publicized and non-specific complaints otherwise, has never discouraged me from being myself. In fact, it is distressing for me to see so much misunderstanding about the place of women in Southern Baptist life.

My own experience among Southern Baptists has been richly encouraging and enabling. From my teen-aged years at North Phoenix Baptist Church, under the leadership of Richard Jackson, I have felt empowered for ministry, equipped for doing the work of the Lord, and encouraged as a wife, mother, believer, writer and teacher.

At NPBC I listened to youth speakers and leaders who exemplified Christian service and godly parenthood. I worked in day camp and led little ones. I took on dramatic roles in youth camp to lead worship. I was encouraged in my photojournalism skills and in my spirit.

Later as a sailor and then young wife and mother, I was uplifted by the men and women at First Baptist Church in Laurel, Md. There I led a girls’ junior high Sunday School class and offered nurturing and caring to our small group. In turn, I was strengthened for later ministry to youth. In Augsburg, W. Germany, at Calvary Baptist, no one questioned my leadership of teens, but helped me to deliver God’s message of love to them and others.

Ironically, as the SBC continued to seek ways to stay the course of a great evangelistic denomination, the worth I felt among Southern Baptists did not diminish, but instead has flourished in ways that I could not have predicted.

In the early 1990’s I completed my education at Hannibal LaGrange College and was asked to be Baptist Student Union Director at the University of Indiana at Bloomington. According to the State Convention of Baptists in Indiana, my role at IU was to direct students in seeking God’s will for their lives and to offer them opportunities that would further equip them for ministry in life and in the church.

As I worked with local pastors and other leaders, I never felt inhibited or restricted by my gender. In fact, part of my job was to frequently share my testimony among crowds of pastors and leaders. At one state evangelism conference I remember being more inhibited to share the upbeat music taped for our slide show, than to speak. Actually, if I was hesitant at all to mount the platform, it was because I did not want any there to think I had aspirations to the office of pastor, which I believe, according to scripture, is appropriately reserved for the male. And since the pastor is the one who usually spends the most amount of time in the pulpit, I didn’t want any confusion. Like walking into a roomful of people late, however, this is my hang-up, no one did or said anything for me to feel this way.

At the same time as my work among students took off, my determination and call to write became more pronounced. Capturing the excitement of the moment, recording events, and analyzing certain cause and effect relationships became part of who I am and what I was created for. It is in this field, ironically one that is mostly male-dominated, that I have received unbelievable affirmation among Southern Baptist leaders. First writing for secular papers about Southern Baptists and then under the direction of former managing editor for the Indiana Baptist newspaper, Tammi Ledbetter, I was given my first real breakthrough in writing.

As I seek to impartially impart the truth, I am delighted and sometimes overwhelmed by the receptiveness of Baptist Press and others to print my observations. Never censored, I cannot say, however, that I have not had healthy discussions about the way to present information. I can say that I have never been disrespected or disregarded as a journalist, or further, dissuaded from my task in providing truthful information.

As a Southern Baptist and a woman, I have led children, youth, students and adults in Bible study and church training. I have led seminars, taught VBS and directed communications programs at many churches. I have taught grammar and writing classes for seminary students. I have worked with and among associational, state and national leadership in writing, student ministry, missions and evangelism. I am a public high school English and journalism teacher and the wife of a very competent and knowledgeable minister of education/administration who has supported me throughout almost twenty-one years of marriage. Our children love the Lord and are both seeking God’s will for their lives while in college.

Far from feeling inferior, I have been emboldened, empowered and equipped to share the Good News of the gospel in a way that others can understand. This has happened largely because of the influence of Southern Baptist believers and leaders in my life.

In this age when Southern Baptists and others come under fire because of our interpretation of the Bible regarding the gender of senior pastors, it might be easy to confuse issues and become discouraged about the role of women in Southern Baptist life. Like the Hispanic men at the conference who recognized the women and their work, despite a male-dominated platform, remember to look behind the scenes and get real answers to real situations when you are confronted about the real state of women’s affairs in Southern Baptist life.

    About the Author

  • Joni Hannigan