The Baptist Women in Ministry Prepares for Transition

( [email protected] ) Jul 03, 2003 04:03 AM EDT

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – After 20 years of providing “support for the woman whose call from God defines her vocation as a minister,” the Baptist Women in Ministry decided to revolutionize their approach. During the BWIM’s annual business meeting in Charlotte, June 26, the board announced the creation of a transition team to address possible changes in the mission of the organization.

"For the next year, the members of the board and the officers have been frozen," said Massey, a faculty member at Mercer University's McAfee School of Theology in Atlanta. "No new appointments will be made to the board."

According to Massey, the new committee will focus on missions, current needs of the constituents and finances.

"We put together a transition team because that is where we feel the organization is right now," Massey said. "We just feel times are changing. Ministers that are coming along have a very different perspective than 20 years ago."

We don't feel like we've done anything wrong at all," Massey said. "We began to think our mission must be different than 20 years ago. Everything is possible at this point. We're not going to exclude any possibilities for the future."

Reba Cobb, resource center coordinator for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, said it is the right time to consider the best organizational approach to providing support for women. She noted numerous Baptist theology schools happily train women for ministry now and churches are increasingly open to women in roles previously closed.

Conversations and convocations related to women in ministry provided the groundwork for the formation of BWIM, recalled Cobb.Woman's Missionary Union, under the leadership of Carolyn Weatherford Crumpler, first sponsored a convocation for Southern Baptist "women in church-related vocations" in 1978 with the assistance of other SBC agencies.

"WMU was cheering us on," said Cobb. "They were very influential — and that was Carolyn Weatherford."

Sehested, then associate pastor of Oakhurst Baptist Church in Decatur, Ga., was visiting Louisville, Ky., where Cobb was on staff at Crescent Hill Baptist Church. Cobb described Sehested as "the first catalyst" for the organization. The BWIM began with a conversation between Cobb and Nancy Sehested in1983.

"We decided we would meet in conjunction with the [SBC] Christian Life Commission in March 1983," said Cobb, noting that Sehested mailed invitations to 40 women and 33 came to Louisville.

"We first met at my house and told our stories," Cobb recalled. "It was a powerful meeting."

The group met the following day at Crescent Hill and decided to plan a larger meeting in conjunction with the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in Pittsburgh the following month.

"WMU gave us space for that meeting," said Cobb. "We had maybe 80 people at the dinner."

Cobb and Betty Pearce prepared a newsletter for that event that has continued to serve the organization under the name Folio. Office space for the upstart group was provided by Crescent Hill Church for the first 10 years.

"Strong, vivid calls to ministry" and "pain about what to do about these calls" are what Cobb remembers hearing at the informal gathering of 33 women in her home in March 1983. Pat Ayres of Austin, Texas, then a lay leader in Sweetwater, Tenn., helped facilitate that Louisville meeting. She described it as "spiritually very powerful."

"The people who came seemed to be so grateful to be in a context where they could share," said Ayres. "Many were in real isolation … Today there isn't that sense of isolation that there was then."

According to Ayres, the meeting was also affirming for her as a laywoman who has assumed many church and denominational leadership roles. Cobb said a common confession from those in attendance was that "the cultural and theological context I'm in is not supporting what I'm feeling,"

"What we hope to begin is not a union, but a movement, one empowered by no other spirit than the Holy One," Sehested said following the 1983 Louisville meeting.

According to Cobb, the BWIM accomplished three important tasks over the past two decades. The first, she said, was bringing together women ministers to feel a sense of community and to affirm their ministerial callings. Second, said Cobb, BWIM "raised the visibility of women as leaders in Baptist life." The third contribution was providing new avenues of leadership for women in Baptist life.

"Sociologically, we were behind the times in 1983," said Cobb, noting that women were entering law, medicine and other professions at a higher rate than Baptist ministry. The wider openness to women in leadership roles, she said, was inevitably going to reach the church.

"It was needed because it was just and right," said Cobb of the formation of BWIM. "We were home to each other (and) we validated each other."

Now, 20 years later, Cobb said women are able to go to CBF-related seminaries where they are treated equally and then enter a variety of ministry roles.

"We've changed the way we educate people [so that] women are fully integrated," Cobb added. "They have opportunities like men, almost."

The BWIM hopes to carefully look at the best options for serving women ministers in the new climate, said Cobb. "Now women want a more local support system and networking," said Cobb. The fact that financial support for BWIM has fallen off, she added, suggests a need to move to the local level as well.

"So we're celebrating 20 years and saying that was a good thing," said Cobb. "Now it's time to do something else."

Task group members for the transition team will include Susan Miller, Raye Nell Dyer, Kerri Oertli, Sarah Withers, David Olive, Eileen Campbell Reed, Linda Hicks, Rachel Gunter Shapard and Suzanah Raffield.