BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (BP) — Women from all across the Southern Baptist Convention were urged to meet the challenges of leadership and ministry with patience and confidence at the newly inaugurated SBC Women’s Session, held June 10 at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex.
The speakers for the three-hour event, which replaced the former Pastors’ Wives Conference to include a broader spectrum of women in attendance, featured Norine Brunson, wife of Andrew Brunson, the American pastor released last fall from imprisonment in Turkey, and Lori McDaniel, outgoing manager of church initiatives in mobilization at the International Mission Board. A panel discussion on women’s leadership and discipleship was moderated by Kathy Litton and included Kandi Gallaty, Amy Whitfield, Missie Branch, and Ashlyn Portero.
The event was held in conjunction with the SBC’s annual meeting, 11-12, in Birmingham, Ala.
Brunson shared how she met her husband Andrew at Wheaton College, married and later joined him as Evangelical Presbyterian Church missionaries to Turkey, where after 25 years of ministry, they were imprisoned.
Brunson explained during the event how the Syrian war caused a flood of refugees into Turkey, including the Kurds, whom even the Turkish believers disdained and did not want to reach with the Gospel.
The Brunsons’ Turkish church ministered to the refugees, which likely led to complaints and the resultant attention of Turkish authorities. Soon, they were asked to come to the police station.
Expecting to receive their long-term residence permits, the Brunsons were instead thrown into a detention center, arrested as “a threat to national security.”
Brunson explained, “We had no contact. We couldn’t see a lawyer. We saw the U.S. consulates approaching; they were turned back. We couldn’t be in touch with our kids. So, it was difficult.”
Brunson’s captors suddenly released her 13 days later. However, Andrew Brunson was not released and would remain imprisoned for two years.
Brunson said she really had to cast herself on God and spend long periods of time with Him.
Her husband was finally sentenced to time served and released in October 2018, which Brunson credited, on the human level, to “unprecedented engagement by President Trump,” but even more, on the spiritual level, to the “unprecedented supernatural prayer movement” from the prayers of God’s people all over the world.
Upon her husband’s release, they were immediately forced to leave the country.
A book about the ordeal, “God’s Hostage: A True Story of Persecution, Imprisonment, and Perseverance” will release this October.
McDaniel previously served alongside her husband Mike and their three children as IMB missionaries in Zambia before they returned to the U.S. to plant Grace Point Church in Bentonville, Ark., where Mike is senior pastor.
In her keynote remarks, McDaniel said her focus was that “we as women see that we are partners in the Gospel and that we are partners in our diversity, characterized by unity, compelled by the name of Jesus Christ, propelled by the power of the Holy Spirit to advance the Gospel to all people at all costs for the glory of His name.”
Drawing from Philippians 1:5, in which the apostle Paul expressed thanksgiving for the disciples’ “partnership in the Gospel,” McDaniel shared several scripture passages of women who served alongside and ministered to Paul and to Jesus Himself.
“They were people who had been mutually invested and have a mutual responsibility and a shared common task,” McDaniel explained, pointing to the church planted after a vision appeared to Paul from a “man from Macedonia” (Acts 16:9).
“Because of their obedience to the Spirit moving, God changed their trajectory and because of the change in their trajectory, it became a turning point in the history,” McDaniel said. “And the Gospel leaves Asia and for the first time, goes transcontinental into Europe.
“And who knew that the ‘man from Macedonia’ appears to be a woman, Lydia…. A woman of affluence. A woman of influence. A woman who loved God, that didn’t know Jesus until God opens up her heart and she becomes the first believer that later on in this chapter, we see that the church is now meeting in her house.”
McDaniel continued, “And Paul, a former Pharisee, is the one who shares the Gospel with her. A man, who at one point, according to Warren Wiersbe, had been taught by rabbis that it is better that the words of the law be burned than be delivered to a woman.
“But because of the power of transformation of the Gospel in Paul’s heart, this is no longer his philosophy. He’s the man that wrote that ‘there’s neither Jew or gentile, there’s neither slave nor free, there’s neither male nor female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus'” (Galatians 3:28), she said.
“The Gospel is not limited by culture, or color, or gender, or geography. But partners who advance the Gospel do so to all people that God puts in their path and they often look for a different path to give the Gospel to people who don’t yet have it,” she noted.
“Women, I want you to know that in your diversity that you have an integral, vital, critical, essential, indispensable role to play in advancing the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” she said, cautioning the women not to “hear the word indispensable as meaning irreplaceable.”
She clarified, “But indispensable in the sense that we see throughout the entire narrative of God’s Word that He has been calling a people to Himself using men and women for the entire purpose of making His name known and sharing His glory among all the earth.”
Kathy Litton, director of planter spouse development for the North American Mission Board, led a panel discussion on women in leadership and discipleship. Collectively, the women shared what prepared them most for leadership, about their unique giftedness, and about the value of women in the Kingdom of God, among other topics.
Whitfield, director of marketing and communications at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and co-host of the podcast “SBC This Week,” co-authored the book “SBC FAQs: A Ready Reference” and has served since 2016 as an assistant parliamentarian for the Southern Baptist Convention.
Sharing her desire to help people feel more engaged with the SBC, Whitfield credits her current leadership opportunities to the many previous leaders in her life who allowed her to ask questions and gave her space to grow.
Branch, assistant dean of students to women and the director of graduate life at SEBTS, explained how she has observed women’s greater propensity to bring community in workspaces.
“I think [coming together] forces the men in our space to see us, to even see each other as not just employees but brothers and sisters in Christ,” she said.
Branch also spoke to God’s timing for one’s life.
“I would just say be patient and be willing to really learn and invest in the season you’re in because … your minds will be blown by how God can use you if you are faithful where you are,” she encouraged.
Portero currently serves as one of the executive directors overseeing and supporting staff and day-to-day ministry operations at City Church in Tallahassee, Fla. She expressed her gratitude for being allowed to serve as a leader in ministry, even at 30 years old.
“Our church grew really fast — is really young — and so we all had to really just kind of dive in and go,” Portero said, urging others to build intentional steps for people to get experience along the way. “Take things out of the test tube sometimes to see how it will go.”
The wide range of women who attended the gathering also enjoyed table conversations and worship led by Kristin and Eric Yeldell from First Baptist Church of Naples, Fla.