Southern Baptist women ministering

Southern Baptist women ministeringAs a pastor in Metropolitan New York Baptist Association (MNYBA) in 1970-73 and as a staff minister of MNYBA in 1974-95, I had opportunity to observe the work of numerous women in churches related to the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC).

The MNYBA serves churches in the tri-state region of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, with much of the association's work being centered in New York City. The percentage of Southern Baptists living in this area is minuscule, and the number of Southern Baptist churches is small. At its founding in 1962, the association had 8 churches and 12 missions and a total of 1,285 members. By 1970, these numbers had grown to 81 congregations (44 churches and 37 missions) and 6,548 members. (1) By 1995, the MNYBA had 201 congregations (140 constituted churches and 61 mission chapels) (2) with a combined membership of about 20,000 persons. The 1996 Census Bureau estimate of the area's population was 19,938,492. (3) Thus, the Southern Baptist-related church-to-population ratio in 1995 was 1:100,000. By comparison, nationally one SBC church existed for every 6,500 people.

These statistics describe the missions challenge faced by the MNYBA, a challenge shared by other evangelical churches in the area. Believers and followers of Jesus Christ have been and continue to be in the minority, and Southern Baptists are a tiny, but growing, segment of the population.

Seeking to meet this missions challenge are Christian men and women who come from all over the United States and from around the world, as well as those New Yorkers who have found a vital faith in Christ. Some of these people come on their vacation time to volunteer in outreach and education projects. Others come in response to God's call to plant their lives and ministries in the New York area. Still others are students in area universities and seminaries, preparing themselves for further ministry. Some of the volunteers end up staying and living in the area in order to spread the gospel. Others have taken jobs locally in order to support themselves or their families in their mission. Women and men have involved themselves in an incredible variety of ministries, traditional as well as experimental, even risky, ministries.

Ordained Women in MNYBA

Beginning in 1970, an unusual phenomenon emerged in the MNYBA. From that year until 1995, forty-eight ordained Baptist women ministers and lay leaders served in churches of the MNYBA. (4) Another nineteen women, while not ordained, filled ministry roles in their churches. This significant number of active women in ministry in Metro New York may possibly be unparalleled within any other association in the SBC. Following is a breakout of the positions held by women and the numbers of churches in which the women served. (5)

In addition to these women, a large number of women, some ordained, were appointed or assigned to the MNYBA as Southern Baptist home missionaries.

The Ordination of Women

The ordination of women is and has been a controversial issue among Southern Baptists. Much insight about ordination may be gained by reviewing what the women ministers of the MNYBA have to say about their experiences with and their views of this practice. One ordained female campus minister wished that she had not been ordained. She had agreed to ordination in order to be eligible to perform the ministry to which she felt God had called her. One unordained woman minister expressed gratitude that she had never been ordained. She believed that ordination would have made her contacts with churches and pastors more difficult. Another woman, who moved to the Northeast in "retirement" to do campus ministry, was invited by her home church to be ordained. She declined ordination and was "commissioned" instead.

Association leaders have struggled with the issue of ordination. David Dean, executive director of MNYBA from 1990 to 2002, commented: "Though I myself am a bit uncomfortable with a woman senior pastor, there is no doubt that in New York City and in our association, women have served valiantly. Ordination is the big issue for most SBC folk. Women's ordination is not the issue, but rather ordination itself. [It's] hard to build a biblical prerequisite for ordination of pastors at all." (6) Dean's call for a reevaluation of ordination practices among Southern Baptists echoes the words of T. B. Maston, who taught Christian ethics at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Maston wrote: "If we would return to the New Testament conception of ordination, we would see that a church could properly ordain or set apart men who felt called to an educational or music ministry, to teaching or missionary service, or to any other type of special ministry within and to the Christian fellowship.... Likewise our churches could properly ordain or set apart women as well as men." (7)

Church Planting

Planting new churches in the tri-state area has been a successful venture, and many of these church planters have been husband-wife teams. Doris Knight and her husband Edwin moved from Arkansas to New Jersey to help begin four new churches in Monmouth County. Like Aquila and Priscilla, the Knights were "tentmakers," supporting themselves by teaching in local schools. Now retired, they are volunteer international missionaries.

Martha and James Chun organized the Korean Baptist Church of New York in their home. This church was the first of twenty-seven Korean SBC congregations in the metro area. (8) Martha was the Woman's Missionary Union (WMU) director for MNYBA in 1999; later, the International Mission Board appointed the Chuns as missionaries to Korea.

Notable among the many husband-wife teams who have ministered in MNYBA are Sam and Lola Simpson in the Bronx, Taylor and Susan Field in Manhattan, Mark and Florence Hui in Brooklyn, Larry and Linda Holcomb in Queens, Harry and Betty Watson in the Hudson Valley, and Romy and Loida Manansala in New Jersey.

Baptist Women as Ministers

Four extraordinary women, through their lives and successful ministries, demonstrate the strengths that women have brought to the churches of MNYBA. The first woman, Suzanne Coyle, was typical of a group of women ministry students. Coyle, a student at Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey, was ordained by her home church, an SBC congregation in Gravel Switch, Kentucky. The local association later dismissed this church from membership because of Suzanne's ordination. (9) Following her ordination, Coyle became an active member of an MNYBA church, Twin County Baptist Church in Kendall Park, New Jersey.

What was not typical about Coyle was that she had earlier worked as the chaplain/pastor of a new church in Center City, Philadelphia and received salary assistance from the SBC's Home Mission Board (currently known as the North American Mission Board). She also had been a supply preacher for several churches in the MNYBA and a gifted pastoral counselor.

A second Baptist woman minister, Nancy Hastings Sehested, studied in New York, at Union Theological Seminary, was later ordained by a Georgia church, and ministered with congregations in Tennessee and North Carolina. Sehested wrote of the lack of acceptance of women in ministry: "We live in the great in-between time. Our calling is clear, and our gifts are manifest. But the desert is a severe, unforgiving place. Many have already parted company, taking on other careers or taking positions with other denominations." (10) Sehested has become a preacher of national renown.

A third exemplary woman, Druecillar Fordham, was typical of a significant number of women ministers living in the Metro New York area. Fordham, founding pastor of a MNYBA church, received one of the first certificates from the Basic Curriculum Series of Seminary Extension courses and was ordained by a Baptist church outside the MNYBA. When Fordham led the Christ Temple Baptist Church to affiliate with the MNYBA, she thereby became the first known female pastor of an SBC church. That affiliation took place in stages. First, Fordham was recognized as a new minister by the association at its annual meeting at Farmingdale Baptist Church in Long Island on October 15, 1971. After one year of "fellowship," Christ Temple Baptist Church "was welcomed into the full fellowship of the Association" at its tenth annual meeting at Greenwich Baptist Church in Greenwich, Connecticut, on October 5, 1972. (11)

The entrance of Fordham's church into the MNYBA in 1972 led her to be recognized by Leon McBeth as "perhaps the senior minister among Southern Baptist women.... Though not ordained among Southern Baptists, this [affiliation] makes Fordham, a widow, the first woman pastor of a Southern Baptist church." (12) Writing in 1974, Sarah Frances Anders cited Fordham as the only female senior pastor of an SBC-related church. (13)