Fewer than one-tenth of one percent of the 41,099 Southern Baptist churches have a woman serving as senior pastor, according to a study by Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Messengers to this year's convention in Orlando revised the denomination's statement of beliefs to specify a conviction that the office of pastor is to be held by a male. In reality, that is the practice of 99.92 percent of the local congregations.
Citing I Timothy 2:9-14, among other Bible passages, the new Baptist Faith and Message states, "While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture."
"This study confirms what we have known both by intuition and experience," stated Bill Merrell, vice president for convention relations with the SBC Executive Committee and editor of SBC LIFE. "There are no surprises in it whatsoever."
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."
The research drew from reports of state convention annuals, moderate publications such as FOLIO magazine for Baptist Women in Ministry, state Baptist papers, secular media coverage, and SBC church listings to identify women pastors. Confirmation was made through associational and state denominational offices, contacts with churches and other state Baptist leaders.
According to the Midwestern Seminary survey ten state conventions have churches where women are pastoring Southern Baptist churches – half of them in Virginia. Ties to the associational, state, and national level of the SBC vary from church to church as does the degree of involvement.
Of the churches that continue to identify themselves as Southern Baptist, fifteen of them are in the Baptist General Association of Virginia, four in the Georgia Baptist Convention, three in the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, two in each of the state conventions of Pennsylvania/South Jersey, New England, and Baptist General Convention of Texas, and one each in the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware, Hawaii Pacific Baptist Convention, Kentucky Baptist Convention and Tennessee Baptist Convention.
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. Over half of the female-led churches affiliate with either the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship or the Alliance of Baptists.
Calvary Baptist Church in Roanoke, Va., for example, dropped its affiliation with the Southern Baptist Convention over the denomination's conservative stands. It aligned with the American Baptist Convention and contributes missions offerings to CBF. But it continues to hold membership in the local association and state convention while being pastored by a woman.
One of the most publicized accounts of a church led by a woman pastor is Prescott Memorial Baptist Church in Memphis where Sue Enoch is pastor. In 1987, the church hired Nancy Hastings Sehested which ultimately led the Shelby Baptist Association to remove the church from its membership. The church decided to leave the Southern Baptist Convention and the Tennessee Baptist Convention and became an American Baptist Church. It also supports CBF and the Alliance of Baptists, as well as holding membership in the Association of Welcoming & Affirming Baptists which pledges to be "inclusive, welcoming, and affirming of sexual minority people." Washington Plaza Baptist Church of Reston, Va., which is led by a female pastor, is also in the pro-homosexual association.
Although Prescott Memorial Baptist has dropped its SBC-affiliations, the church apparently contributes to SBC causes by giving to the Tennessee Baptist Convention. TBC officials confirmed that Prescott Memorial Baptist is still listed on its rolls. It is included in the most recent state convention annual as well as the 2000 Directory of Southern Baptist Churches. When searching for a church through the SBC website, an individual can be directed to Prescott Memorial Baptist and many other congregations led by women pastors by searching for the church name or city and state in which it is located.
Fern Creek Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky., remains linked to all three levels of Southern Baptist life. Half of its mission offerings goes to CBF while the other half goes to Southern Baptist causes. The church's female pastor has a seventeen-year tenure on the staff, moving into an interim pastor role in 1990 and then as pastor in 1993. She attributes the lack of friction in her association to the good relationship that has been forged and continued involvement in associational committees.
Many of the churches that began as Southern Baptist congregations and in recent decades hired a woman as pastor decided to cut all ties to the denomination when the issue became volatile. University Baptist Church in the college town of Bloomington, Indiana, voted last September to withdraw from the SBC at every level and aligned with CBF which supports woman pastors.
Numerous churches in the association expressed opposition to UBC's decision to call a woman as pastor in 1998, and the State Convention of Baptists in Indiana prepared to consider a recommendation that would declare the church's action unscriptural. The church's decision to withdraw ended the standoff. While church leaders cited the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message as its standard for local church autonomy, Indiana leaders pointed to the state convention's autonomy in refusing fellowship with churches that violate Scripture.
At present, Southern Baptist churches with women as pastors are located along the East Coast and in a few southern states. In the area from which Midwestern Seminary draws most of its students, the school's stated belief in a male-led pastorate is not considered controversial.
Interim President Mike Whitehead described the revised Baptist Faith and Message "a clarification of what we have always believed." In the case of Midwestern, trustees had already made that clear with their 1998 revisions. "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."
Merrell said, "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. 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 eighty-five 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 revision to the SBC doctrinal statement does not address ordination, but it clearly affirms the leadership of women in a variety of non-pastoral roles.
In an interview with reporter Joni B. Hannigan for SBC LIFE, 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."
She added, "Some are not now pastoring in Southern Baptist churches because there are not enough who are willing to call them and they have gone to other denominations or the American Baptist Convention."
The inability to find full-time work in a Southern Baptist church contributed to Cynthia Simpson's decision to accept an associate role at an Episcopal congregation in the Washington, D.C. area. A 1985 graduate of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Simpson has served as pastor in two of the three Southern Baptist churches, most recently Broadneck Baptist in Annapolis. Previously she found ministry opportunities within United Methodist and Presbyterian churches.
"There will always be a part of me that will be Baptist. But stepping into the future means going into another denomination," she explained. "While I have been given a rich heritage as a Southern Baptist, it's not home anymore. It does not reflect who I am or where I want to be."