What do you do when God opens an opportunity that will mean instant trouble but that also realizes a lifelong calling? And what if the Lord revealed that opportunity in a way that made it clear he had engineered it?
Melody Pryor's answer was a no-brainer -- "Thank you, Lord, for letting me serve this wonderful church."
First Baptist Church of Stanton called Pryor as its pastor to fill the huge ministry shoes her father Harry Pryor had to step out of last fall due to health issues.
Melody's "first notion" to be a pastor came as a second-grader, "but I blew it off as something I couldn't do," she said.
The "notion" surfaced again shortly after she lost her son to cancer in 1997. Living in Oklahoma at the time, Pryor took classes at Oklahoma Baptist University. "One of my professors said, 'There's a pastor in you. I can see it,'" she explained, and he introduced her to Baptist Women in Ministry, a national support organization.
Reawakened to the call, Pryor considered her options. Since Southern Baptists as a denomination do not recognize women in pastoral roles, "I thought I would have to change denominations," she said. "But I'm loyal to Baptists and I was torn between whether to do it. I thought I might start a church, but then I thought I might be fortunate enough to find a church that would hire me."
When her dad was sidelined by illness in June, the church didn't have enough time to call someone immediately to fill in. But Melody had led January Bible studies at First Baptist, and her father had allowed her to preach a couple times. So she filled in, believing he would be back in the pulpit in a few weeks.
But under his doctor's advise, Harry Pryor resigned as pastor, a post he had filled since 1978. After she read her dad's resignation letter at the Aug. 8 business meeting, the congregation elected a search committee and asked her to continue to fill in until a new minister was hired.
Stepping in brought God's call back to mind, and she remembered that her father had been opposed to women pastors. "I met with Dad but I was ready to fight. I told him that I think women could be pastors if God calls them. Dad told me his feeling had changed. Mom and Dad have been supportive," Melody explained.
But she hesitated to submit her resume to the search committee. "I didn't want them to think that they were stuck because of Dad," she said.
She also knew the difficulties the church might face if she were called as pastor. Committee members, though, pursued her. They asked her parents and her brothers and sisters why Melody had not sought the position. "At that point, I talked with them and tried to help them realize that there would be problems," she said.
Though there was some opposition, the congregation called her. "Some members who had supported the decision have listened to those outside the church who have said that having a woman pastor is unscriptural," Melody noted.
Some members left the church after the vote, and a few others have moved elsewhere since then.
Franklin County Baptist Association, which counts First Baptist as a member church, has asked Melody to resign or the congregation to rescind its call to her. Otherwise, the church faces being removed from the association.
But the retired U.S. Air Force chief master sergeant stresses that all ministers have problems. "Any pastor...has difficulties. Mine may have a different flavor," she said. "I don't want it to be seen that my problems are any harder than anyone else's."
All pastors need a support system, Pryor said. While she may not have it from the association or state convention, she's found it through a group of women in ministry who meet once a month. "It's a comfortable place to unload and sound off," she said. "I had so many doubts and fears and I've been able to share them."
Her primary support comes from her parents, especially from her father as a ministry mentor. "I would love to be like my dad -- so humble, compassionate and very slow to anger. He didn't do anything to fuel conflict.... He is always so calming," she explained.
Ordained to the ministry on March 18, 1956, Harry Pryor led several churches in Missouri. He started at Enon Baptist in Lennox in 1956 and served Round Pond Baptist, Salem; Short Bend Baptist; First, Edgar Springs; Second, West Plains; First, Billings; Oak Grove, Salem; Meadow Heights, Fredericktown; and Calvary Baptist in Bourbon. He also was pastor of two churches in Arkansas.
Although retired, he and Melody have ministered together, including two baptisms, since she stepped into the post.
"I'm learning from the best in my mind. It thrills me to look to him for guidance," Melody said. "He's extremely supportive...constantly building me up.... But he's the first to step back.... He is so kind and gracious.... This just works wonderfully in my mind.
"Dad always wanted a small church. He wanted to know people personally.... He knew their background and their families.... He cared about them personally. I want to emulate him."
Melody praises God, not only for the opportunity to work with her father, but just for the ministry that is still closed to many women. She pointed out that she likely would not have the position if not for her dad. "I know women who are called and who have more education than I do," she said.
Though the theological controversy still creates problems, Pryor and the congregation concentrate on ministry. She wants to build on the church's strong missions heritage and to strengthen its youth program. She also hopes to "reach other people unlike us," to be a welcoming church.
"Change is difficult, but this is a very positive experience...and overall is a blessing. I feel honored and I am thrilled," she said. "To have the opportunity to serve God in this way is overwhelming."