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Less than 1/10th of 1% of churches in SBC have women pastors, study finds

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (BP)–Women who serve as senior pastors with a preaching role are rare in the Southern Baptist Convention. Messengers from local Baptist churches will consider on June 14 in Orlando, Fla., a revision to their 1963 Baptist Faith and Message statement of beliefs that specifies what most of those churches are already doing — following biblical teaching that the office of pastor is to be held by a male.

According to preliminary results of a study conducted by Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the 41,099 SBC churches are pastored by women.

“This study confirms what we have known both by intuition and experience,” stated William Merrell, vice president for convention relations with the SBC Executive Committee and editor of SBC LIFE. “There are no surprises in it whatsoever.”

According to the Midwestern Seminary survey of denominational offices and state Baptist leaders, only eight states have women pastoring Southern Baptist churches — most of them in North Carolina and Virginia where about a dozen serve in each state. Confirmation of the SBC affiliation of those churches is under way. Other states with women in pastorates include: Georgia (4), Texas (2), Maryland (2), Kentucky (1), Hawaii (1) and South Carolina (1). In total, the overall number would be 35 or less.

According to Southern Baptist polity, the ties that a church has with the state convention and national convention are distinct. Thus, some churches pastored by women may choose to affiliate with their state convention without participation in or support of the national convention. The finalized study will clarify those instances.

Merrell emphasized the commitment of Southern Baptists to uphold the teaching of the Bible. “Southern Baptists have, from our beginning, honored Holy Scripture as the final arbiter for Christian faith and church order, including the teaching of the New Testament that the pastorate is limited to men as qualified by the Scripture.”

If the complete report expected later this month confirms that there are only a few dozen women pastoring in the SBC, it will counter inaccurate figures cited in both secular and religious media.

“The inflated figures that have regularly appeared in news stories have caused no end of confusion among those who are not well aware of how Southern Baptist churches are constituted and do their work,” Merrell said. Statistics used to represent the number of women serving as senior pastors sometimes include those now affiliated with American Baptist churches who approve of the practice.

Reporters often turn to a 1997 article by Sarah Frances Anders in which she referred to 1,225 confirmed SBC clergywomen. “Of these at least 85 are pastors,” Anders reported in her article for Baptist Women in Ministry’s FOLIO magazine.

A former Louisiana College professor, Anders centered her research on the progress made by women in religious leadership, particularly noting their ordination. The proposed revision to the SBC doctrinal statement does not address ordination. It also affirms the leadership of women in a variety of non-pastoral roles.

In an interview with reporter Joni B. Hannigan for an upcoming SBC LIFE article, Anders said her figures are drawn from records of “women who have been or are senior pastors.” Hoping to secure a grant to update her records, she said a generation has passed since she began compiling records, with many women pastors retiring or moving to other denominations.

Anders said reporters sometimes confuse her figures on ordained Baptist women with the number of SBC women pastors.

“They have distorted the meaning of my research,” which she said does not “say that they are all serving currently as senior pastors in Southern Baptist churches.”

In 1998 Midwestern Seminary, based in Kansas City, Mo., revised its purpose statement to clarify that “the Seminary maintains, consistent with Convention resolution and agency policy, that, while a wonderful range of strategic and effectual ministry is open to both men and women, the pastor of a biblical congregation must be a male.” The seminary prepares women for a variety of ministry roles, with recent graduates serving as domestic and international missionaries, counselors and in church staff positions apart from the pastorate.

Midwestern offers alternate studies in public speaking and leadership skills for the coures in preaching and pastoral leadership. With no churches employing women to pastor Southern Baptist churches in the Midwest, the study appears to demonstrate that Midwestern’s purpose statement reflects the views of its region.

Midwestern Seminary’s interim president, Mike Whitehead, responded to the proposed revision to the Baptist Faith and Message, saying, “It is a clarification of what we have always believed. For most Southern Baptists, the committee’s report is not news that God assigned roles in the home and in the church. This principle is not a cultural relic, but the divine order. Most Baptists are pretty squeamish about tinkering with the words of God.”

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  • Tammi Reed Ledbetter