The Southern Baptist Convention, America's largest Protestant denomination, this week doubled down on its stance against women ministers.
Their short-sighted loss will be somebody else's gain. The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), which has ordained women for decades, is the denominational home of Chalice Press. The two most recent general minister and presidents are women, as are a significant portion of the congregational ministers. The Disciples are stronger for their visionary leadership.
Many of Chalice's authors are ordained women from a variety of denominations. One of them, Rev. Dr. Dawn Darwin Weaks, author of Breakthrough: Trusting God for Big Change in Your Church, is a former Baptist who's now a Disciple. In Breakthrough, she shares her own story of breaking free from the Baptist constraints and shares a hilarious story of how the church she serves now let its pastor know they wouldn't be constrained, either.
The following is an excerpt from the introduction to Breakthrough:
The summer I was fourteen years old, I was sitting outside on a metal folding chair during a church camp worship service. I remember the chair because it was the only thing cool on that hot July night. The preacher, who seemed old and gray to me at the time but probably was my age now, preached about God’s blessings. I still remember one of the sermon’s lines, “A blessing from God needs to pass through you, not just to you, if it’s going to remain a blessing from God.” As the preacher talked, suddenly, I felt like God was singling me out. It seemed like God wanted me to do something. It was not a voice, not an audible one at least. It was like the Holy Spirit just touched my shoulder somehow. Before I knew it, I was walking to the front of the worship service. I passed dozens of kids still seated in their cool metal folding chairs as I leapt into the heat of the unknown. I couldn’t say why I was moving up front exactly. I only knew I had to say “Yes.”
It had not, up to that point, occurred to me to be a minister. My dad was one. My mom had gone to seminary for a bit. I’d known women who were children’s ministers and chaplains. The Baptist church I grew up in had women deacons, a rare thing. Back then, none of that ministry stuff had crossed my mind as something for me. Yet that night, I experienced the most urgent impression that God was calling me. To what, I did not know.
I’d been baptized when I was six years old, and had thought of myself as a Christian since then, so this wasn’t about a confession of faith. When I made it up front to the preacher, I didn’t know what to say, so I just said to him, “I think God is telling me to do something.” He smiled, patted my back, and gestured for me to sit down on the front row of chairs. I did. The service ended, and that was it.
That moment may have faded into the background with all my other camp memories, if it weren’t for Patty. I was a little befuddled about what to do, even where to go, after this seemingly holy nudge. People started packing up the folding chairs and shuffling off to the nightly camp games. But Patty, a 20-something seminary student, came over and sat beside me there on the front row. She said to me, “I saw what happened to you tonight. Did God speak to you?” I tentatively nodded yes. It felt very strange to claim such a thing had happened to me. Once Patty acknowledged my experience, I was comforted, but still frightened. Patty said, “I want you to write today’s date down in your Bible and put what you felt and heard. That way you will never doubt that this actually happened to you. You will always know that God called you.” So that night back in the dorms I crawled up on my top bunk. After the counselor hollered for lights out, I grabbed my flashlight. I fished my Bible and pen out from under my pillow and dove in. “June 26, 1986. God called me and I said Yes,” I wrote, and then tucked my confession back under my pillow. That now-tattered Bible with my scribbled Ebenezer has helped me in many an uncertain, despairing moment. It was real. God did call and I did answer. It’s right there in ink, thanks to Patty.
It was a really good thing I wrote that down. The opposing winds were pretty brutal. What to me was a life-changing moment was often dismissed. As a female, I did not have the proper anatomical equipment to be taken seriously by very many. Meanwhile, I began the life-long process of weaning away from others’ approval. I girded up my loins as I graduated from high school in 1989 and headed to college as a student of “full-time ministry.”
About that same time in the oil patch of West Texas, First Christian Church of Odessa held a congregational meeting. The church was deciding if they would call their first woman to be an elder. In the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) denomination, elders are the primary spiritual leaders of the church. Marita Hendrick, a lovely dark-haired woman always decked out in turquoise and a no-nonsense, can-do attitude, was nominated as the first woman elder in the church’s 80-year history. Marita had earned the trust of the congregation over the decades by doing every job available to women at the time. When she agreed to be nominated, a couple of men tried to get her to back down. They told her that women in leadership would ruin the church. According to them, men wouldn’t volunteer anymore if they knew women would do it!
Marita simply reminded the men that they were her friends and nothing would change that. And, she said, didn’t they remember the church had women leaders from the start? She was right. Years ago, the women in the church had rallied to raise funds for the church when all it had was dirt for a floor. Women selling their chickens’ eggs and baked goods from their own kitchens were the reason the congregation even had a place to stand! Marita stood her ground and the congregational vote was held. It was decided by an overwhelming but not unanimous vote: First Christian Church in Odessa, Texas would have women elders!
An incident decades earlier had prepared the congregation for making this stride toward the full inclusion of all people. That time, God moved through someone who wouldn’t get out of his chair! In the 1950s, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) began to split between “Independent” Christians and “Brotherhood” Christians. In essence the division was about interpretation of scripture. Independent Christians wanted a narrower range of acceptable interpretation. The Brotherhood wanted to maintain room for the conscience of each person to interpret the Bible as each one felt led. Ironically, the “Brotherhood” became known for advancing women’s equality based on scriptures that they interpreted as supportive of women’s leadership. Many churches were dealing with this tug of war between understandings of the Bible. First Christian Church of Odessa was one of them.
The pastor at the time insisted upon the church going with the “Independent” branch in that denominational split. He saw the Bible in a more narrowly defined way. The elders disagreed, and prayerful dialogue seemingly failed. At the next elders’ meeting, this pastor insisted that the church would join the “Independent” split from the denomination. He would not budge on his convictions, and the elders decided that was enough. They told the pastor that his time with this church was over. They asked him to pack up and depart. But he refused to leave. So, the story goes, two of the burlier elders went over to the pastor’s chair, and picked it up. With him in it! A third elder held the door. They then sat the pastor, still in his chair, outside the building, in the alley. And they locked the door behind him! That very night, they changed the locks themselves.
From that moment on, First Christian Church displayed an unshakeable commitment to being a place of freedom of conscience and loyalty to the “Brotherhood” which became the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) denomination. Those elders, who took their shepherding role as protectors of the sheep very seriously, paved the way for strong congregational leaders, both male and female, to come. They and those who had come before them set the expectation that the pastor would not run the church; rather, a partnership of congregational leaders and pastors was the way the church would move forward. They would not allow the pastor to dictate how the congregation was to understand scripture. Instead, they would make room for each person to grow in their understanding and interpretation as they matured in faith and connected in community. Thanks be to God!
Thirty years after that chair incident, the congregation decided women could be in any leadership role in the church. Marita became an elder, and later, the church confirmed her as the first female board chairperson. Meanwhile, I went from church camp to studying for ministry. I did not yet know that women could even be pastors; I was just trying to stay faithful to the “yes” I gave that propelled me off my folding chair and down the aisle. Marita paved the way for me, though she didn’t know it at the time.
In Their Words by Marita Hendrick
It was a time in our church’s history, the 1980s, when women were not accepted in leadership positions. I was honored to have been asked to be an elder, the first woman elder. There was a lot of grumbling among the older men and women in our congregation. We even lost some members because they didn’t think women should have a place at the communion table or, for that matter, in any leadership role. But the church pressed on, and I was elected.
A couple of years later we progressed even more, and I was asked to be the chairperson of our church board. That was the last thing some of our older gentlemen wanted, and they told me so. I joked around with them during that year, trying to ease their doubts, and before that year was over, they told me that while it had not been what they had expected, I had been a very good board chairman. That was the highest compliment I could have received from them.
I am delighted that things have changed. We have women serving in many areas of our church and have seven very capable women elders serving currently. Our church has gone through many changes in the past few years. I am so proud of our church for being a leader in our community, and probably, in the state of Texas. We look forward to future years knowing that God will show us the way.
We thank God for Patty, for Marita, for the people of First Christian Church in Odessa, and for everybody who has encouraged women to explore their calls to lead and who have supported them in their ministries.
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