The Rev. Libby Grammer, senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Martinsville. Courtesy of Grammer.
The Rev. Libby Grammer, senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Martinsville. Courtesy of Grammer.

The Rev. Kristen White found her faith in a Southern Baptist Convention church.

The pastor of Antioch Baptist Church in Red Oak in Charlotte County, White grew up attending a church affiliated with the SBC, a denomination of the Baptist church that counts nearly 50,000 congregations across the United States among its ranks. That experience led White to answer the call to ministry.

“Through its ministries and programs, I learned what it meant to be a faithful follower of Christ, and I began to sense the call of God on my own life to pursue vocational ministry,” she said. “Because of those roots, I find it even more essential to be a voice of encouragement and support to others who are experiencing a similar call, particularly when there are other voices telling them their roles are limited or they must have misunderstood God.” 

And some of those dissenting voices are now coming from the SBC. Last month, the convention voted overwhelmingly at its annual meeting to uphold the decision to expel two congregations — California megachurch Saddleback and smaller church Fern Creek Baptist in Louisville, Kentucky — for having female pastors. The nearly 13,000 voters pointed to the denomination’s 2000 statement of faith, Baptist Faith and Message, which states that only qualified men can serve as pastors.

The Reverend Kristen White. Courtesy of White.
The Rev. Kristen White of Antioch Baptist Church in Red Oak. Courtesy of White.

Some Baptist congregations such as Antioch and others in the area adhere to a 1963 version of Faith and Message, which does not exclude female pastors. White said Antioch began disassociating with the SBC several decades ago.

During the annual meeting, the SBC also held a preliminary vote to amend its constitution to require member churches to only allow men in pastoral roles. The final vote on that amendment will be held next June.

Earlier this year, Mike Law Jr., senior pastor of Arlington Baptist Church in Arlington, compiled a list of SBC member churches with female pastors. The list, which includes contact information and photos of church pastors and staff, has been criticized by some as a means of alienating or targeting the pastors and their congregations.

That list includes nearly a dozen churches in Southwest and Southside Virginia, including Antioch. However, only one of the congregations listed still affiliates with the SBC, despite the group listing them on its online roster of churches. That exception is Vitalize Church, which has congregations in Hardy and Rocky Mount. The Rocky Mount location pastor, Terry Colomba, is a woman; the church declined to comment for this story.

“My church, long before I came on as pastor, had stopped giving to the Southern Baptist Convention,” said the Rev. Libby Grammer, senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Martinsville. “Historically we’ve been on their list, but in the last 30-plus years, we haven’t given anything as a church. But they never took us off the list. Basically, they didn’t do their homework — they didn’t do their due diligence to clean off their list.”

In the weeks since the SBC held its vote, pastors and other observers have speculated as to whether it will begin ejecting other churches should they opt to stand by their female pastors. And some churches have elected to leave the SBC rather than ask female pastors to step down. Last week, North Carolina-based megachurch Elevation Church, which operates more than a dozen locations across North and South Carolina, as well as in Roanoke, announced it would leave the SBC. Elevation is led by husband-and-wife pastors Steven and Holly Furtick.

Baptist churches have historically operated on a model of autonomy for individual congregations. However, many churches affiliate with groups like the SBC to tap into benefits, including a wider missions network and programs such as GuideStone Financial Resources, which offers retirement plans, health insurance and other services to churches and their staff.

“The latest decision continues to use women as pawns in a political battle for power,” White said. “It sends women the message that they are not as valuable to the kingdom of God as men are. It disregards the long-held Baptist values of biblical interpretation and local church autonomy.”

Virginia Baptist churches not affiliated with the SBC can be part of other organizations, including the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, a nationwide group similar to the SBC in its support of member churches but with a more moderate outlook. At the state level, the Baptist General Association of Virginia, a separate entity from the SBC, offers churches resources such as mission assistance and education and training for pastors and staff.

While some SBC member churches may follow in the footsteps of Elevation Church, many others may opt to eliminate the pastoral roles for women in their congregations. Meredith Stone, executive director of Baptist Women in Ministry, a national group that offers support for women serving in ministry within the church, said the women in those latter churches stand to lose the most. She points to women whose beliefs may be more conservative, but they still hold pastoral positions in areas thought of by the church as traditionally for women, such as music or children’s ministry.

“Those churches are going to choose their affiliation with the SBC over affirming the calling and the roles of the women who are serving in those churches,” Stone said. “And while at first that may seem like no big deal, whenever you’re in the non-dominant group, you’re already isolated as a woman serving in ministry in Baptist churches. To have that further diminishment of your role is going to be harmful to the spiritual and emotional lives of these women.”

And for many women who’ve grown up in their church or built a strong sense of connection and community with their congregation, leaving may be much easier said than done.

“Just as it’s hard to leave your biological family, it’s hard to leave your faith family, even if you disagree with them,” said the Rev. Angela Zimmerman, pastor of Starling Avenue Baptist Church in  Martinsville. Starling Avenue Baptist still appears on the SBC’s roster and the list compiled by Law, though it hasn’t affiliated with the group since the early 1990s.

Should the SBC begin ejecting churches with women in pastoral roles, Grammer said the convention will likely set itself up for a lengthy fight since congregations have the option to appeal at next year’s annual meeting.

“If they pass the amendment, are they going to try to disfellowship 2000 churches — which was what one of the estimates was of those that have women with ‘pastor’ in the title — all at once? Because then, all 2000 churches can appeal and have three minutes at the convention,” she said. “So they are potentially setting themselves up for having a weeks-long convention in order to accommodate all of the appeals of these churches.”

Regardless of what happens, White said this decision goes against the belief that all are equal in God’s eyes and creates unnecessary separation between Baptists.

“[This decision] ignores a holistic view of scripture that shows a God who has always called both women and men to serve and to lead,” she says. “It distracts from the many needs that exist in our communities and our world that Christians can respond to with the grace and love of God. It creates division among Christ’s followers who are called to unity time and again throughout scripture.”

Jennifer Bringle is a longtime journalist who has written for The Washington Post, The News & Observer,...