Monday, 27 January 2014

Women in Ministry: Here to Stay

When a South Georgia congregation hired me in 1973 as their first full-time Minister of Music, Baptist women ministers were extremely rare. I had almost no female peers, anywhere.

Needing community, I soon joined a group of Baptist music ministers (all male, of course) who gathered monthly for inspiration and peer support. Usually I was the only female in the room (someone's wife or female accompanist would join us occasionally), but they accepted me as a sister in music ministry.

We enjoyed being together. They listened to my presentations and comments, and accepted my choirs equally at festivals and other church music events. They became my friends and co-ministers, helping shape my early years in music ministry.

By the mid-1980s, the Women in Ministry movement was gathering steam, receiving lots of press in Baptist publications. There were still very few female music ministers among Georgia Baptists, but overall, the ranks of women ministers--especially youth or education ministers--were starting to swell.

Several of us met in Decatur and officially formed a Georgia Baptist Women in Ministry group. I enjoyed helping launch this organization, even though I soon moved away and couldn't participate in its development.

I did help distribute colorful fliers announcing our group's formation at the Georgia Baptist Convention that year. The room was aglow with hot pink. Women ministers were here to stay.

Earlier, I'd begun writing about Women in Ministry issues. Over and over, I heard women ministers tell stories of both frustration and fulfillment in their ministry settings.

We all supported each other, but knew that sharing only with female peers was not enough. In order to facilitate change within congregations, we needed a larger forum.

Ironically, we also needed outspoken men to support us. Powerful male pastors and congregations who adamantly oppose women in church leadership roles only listen seriously to other men, never women.

Prior to drafting my first article, I surveyed Baptist women ministers throughout Georgia, requesting anecdotal responses to questions regarding calling, ordination, salaries, roles and relationships with pastors/congregations/staff members.

They had plenty to say, writing in the margins and on the backs of the survey pages.

When asked about obstacles, they noted that just getting hired as a minister was the biggest challenge, because of women's uniqueness. One woman reported being introduced to a male pastor who blurted, "Oh, a real, live woman minister!"

Once employed, some women reported being perceived more as secretaries than ministers--expected to do their own clerical work, for instance, and receiving lower salaries than comparable male ministers.

One was constantly asked, "Where is your husband ministering?" (He was an architect, not a minister.) Another told of being patted on the head by a male minister.

One woman music minister was told she could lead the choir, but not the congregational music. Another was told she could lead the youth and children's choirs but not the adult choir, because there were men in it.

Others were told to sing but not speak. Stand to the side of the pulpit when leading hymns. Refrain from wearing slacks when on the podium…or when shopping.

Visitors one Sunday morning assumed the woman minister leading the music was a substitute for the "real" (male) minister. They returned the next Sunday, exclaiming, "You're still here!?"

Despite misperceptions and imposed limitations, these women all remained certain of their calling. In the face of Bible thumpers or well-meaning, but unenlightened congregations, they acknowledged God's claim upon their hearts and lives as ministers.

Constant affirmations from those to whom they ministered helped validate their call to ministry, like the father whose son conducted his first Christmas cantata as a minister of music: "I would not be here tonight except for your influence on my son."

They delighted in the changing perceptions of women ministers. Revivals were common then, and one woman music minister invited a male acquaintance to be guest music evangelist. After the first service, her young son said, "Wow, Mommy, I didn't know men did that!"

In the 21st century, the Women in Ministry movement, like the Civil Rights movement and the War on Poverty, has taken great strides, but still has miles to go. "Everything changes, yet everything remains the same."

Qualified, called women ministers permeate every area of Baptist life, yet many still enjoy far fewer opportunities than their male counterparts.

Congregational attitudes are slowly evolving, but many women ministers continue to have difficulty getting hired (especially for "platform positions," i.e., pastor or music minister), and struggle with opposition or misperceptions about their ministerial roles. 

Women ministers are building on their past and looking towards a promising future. One thing is clear: women ministers need supportive relationships with their peers--both female and male--to help shape their lives and ministries. In order to thrive, women ministers need community with others who are divinely called to professional ministry.  

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