Last month conservative-turning-moderate Southern Baptist Wade Burleson, pastor in Oklahoma, spoke of his newfound acceptance of women as full partners in ministry. This month, the moderate-turning-conservative Baptist General Convention of Texas retreated from open organizational support of women as full partners in ministry. Meanwhile, a Barna survey indicates that 10% of churches in the United States now have women senior pastors.
While the number of senior women pastors in Baptist churches is far fewer than in many other denominations, the numbers are growing.
Baptist Women in Ministry (BWIM), founded in 1983 "to be change-agents… to empower women to hear God’s call and to have the courage to respond… to bless the ministries of all women… to encourage churches to enter into dialogue and to listen for the discerning voice of God who calls both men and women," serves as a regional, southern barometer for Baptist women in ministry. (Many American Baptist congregations have long accepted women in ministry.)
Earlier this year, BWIM hired Pamela Durso as its first full-time director in six years. BWIM is in better financial and organizational shape than ever, at a time when the numbers of Baptist women in ministry in the South are steadily growing, with the exception of Texas. Whereas Texas Baptists in the past have stood at the forefront of some Baptist trends - including early resistance to fundamentalism in the 1980s and 1990s - prophetic voices in Texas Baptist life in recent years have been increasingly muted by ascendant fundamentalists and internal controversies within the BGCT. Church historian Rosalie Beck suggests that full support of women in ministry has been historically sacrificed in order to broker peace among Texas Baptists, who as a whole lean more to the right than left (moderate Texas Baptists tend to be more conservative than moderate Baptists in other states).
At this point in the modern saga of Baptists in the South, it is quite apparent that even moderate Baptist statewide organizations (whether traditional conventions or more recently-formed state CBF organizations), grappling with a wide diversity of views among the local congregations from whence their support comes, are not in a position to fully exercise the freedom of conscience that is the historical hallmark of Baptists. While an inherent conservative bias in Texas Baptist life disallows full support of women in ministry, emotional attachments to SBC mission agencies on the part of many older members of openly moderate congregations prevent many churches in the southeastern states from aligning solely with CBF. In addition, the modern Baptist confusion over the historical Baptist positions of full religious liberty and separation of church and state poses an ongoing challenge. In short, traditional and moderate state Baptist organizations are often pushed or pulled down a path of political and/or pragmatic reality that results in incremental changes, or in some cases little change at all.
The sometimes-slow change taking place at the state level means that specific advocacy-focused moderate, independent Baptist organizations, such as Baptist Women in Ministry, are vital to the shaping of contemporary Baptist thought and life.