(RNS) — During last month’s Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting, debates about if women can serve as pastors dominated the business sessions and national news coverage. But at multiple Baptist denominational meetings since then — that received much less attention — the attendees didn’t debate about if women can preach but instead listened to women preach.
A week after Southern Baptists gathered in New Orleans for their contentious meeting, the northern body from the historic split over slavery assembled in Puerto Rico. Three of the four plenary session preachers for the American Baptist Churches USA’s biennial gathering were women.
The Rev. Miriam Mendez, executive minister for the ABC of New Jersey Region, preached about the importance of lament. The Rev. Laura Ayala-Álvarez, a longtime pastor in Puerto Rico, preached about the importance of context as she talked about the ongoing economic challenges, trauma from hurricanes, and impacts of colonialism on the island territory. And the Rev. Joy Martinez-Marshall, pastor of First Baptist Church in Lincoln, Nebraska, preached on the challenge of proclaiming God’s kingdom in the world today.
Martinez-Marshall, a former Southern Baptist, recently reflected on finding her new home among American Baptists.
“I was welcomed with open and waiting arms,” she noted after preaching during the closing Sunday service of the biennial. “This show of support was something I had never fully experienced in Baptist life as an ordained minister. Overwhelming faith that my sermon on Sunday would be what the Spirit had for our denomination confronted and quieted the shame I still carry each Sunday I stand to preach.”
Delegates to the ABCUSA biennial also elected the Rev. Nikita G. McCalister to serve as the denomination’s next president.
“I am standing here, draped in my American Baptist Women in Ministry stole, because we have always been on the cutting edge,” McCalister said after her election. “For 150 years we have been ordaining women in ministry. We are indeed a denomination that understands the biblical basis for equal partnership in God’s kingdom.”
Then at the end of June, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship held its general assembly in Atlanta. Formed three decades ago during the rightward shift of the SBC, the group has since its inception advocated for women in ministry.
Ayala-Álvarez, who preached at the ABCUSA meeting, also preached during CBF, where she recently assumed the role as coordinator of global missions. During the opening worship service, she talked about the meeting’s theme of “holy ambition.” The Rev. Kat Kimmel, of First Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee, preached during the closing session about the need to “provoke one another to love and good deeds” in these times when people are tired and weary. And other women preached or led sessions during CBF’s assembly.
Also during CBF’s meeting, Baptist Women in Ministry celebrated its 40th anniversary. Organized by then-Southern Baptists to advance and support female pastors amid the rightward shift of the convention, BWIM today continues to help women discover their call, receive mentorship and encouragement and find ministry positions.
Then at the start of July, Baptists from more than 80 nations gathered in Norway for the annual meeting of the Baptist World Alliance. Although the SBC left the BWA a decade ago, ABCUSA, CBF, and more than a dozen other U.S. conventions are part of the BWA. There are literally more Baptists in the BWA than in the SBC (especially since some Southern Baptist state conventions and institutions participate in the BWA).
The opening worship service in Norway featured a sermon from the Rev. Sissel-Merete Berg, who is not only the pastor of a local church but also president of the Baptist Union of Norway. She talked about her call and the importance of people being sent by God on mission. Other preachers during the week of sessions included women from France, Sweden, and Syria.
However, outside of a few Baptist media outlets, these meetings featuring women preaching were ignored by the press. Much ink and many pixels were devoted to the SBC’s debates on women in ministry, but people looked the other way as women preached at other Baptist gatherings. If women preaching at Baptist meetings isn’t newsworthy, then neither is a debate about them.
While the SBC is the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S., Southern Baptists account for fewer than half of U.S. Baptists. Shouldn’t coverage of Baptists look beyond a group that accounts for fewer than half of all who claim that affiliation?
Highlighting these meetings does more than just provide the “other” side. Watching the ABCUSA, CBF, and BWA meetings moves the consideration of the issue from one where a group of mostly men talk about women preaching to instead lifting up the voices of women preachers. Focusing almost entirely on the SBC not only minimizes the theological (and political and racial) diversity of Baptists, but it also privileges a patriarchal body over others.
Like the disciples on that Resurrection Sunday two millennia ago, some Baptists today are happy to listen to women proclaim the good news. My own Baptist church has long ordained women and called our first female lead pastor earlier this year. So the debate about women in ministry matters, but not in a merely theoretical sense. It also matters when women are invited to live out their call, step to the pulpit and proclaim a word from God.