Southern Baptist women talk of 'using their gifts' as denomination debates ministry roles
The hands of Southern Baptist women shot into the air as Amy Whitfield quizzed them about the ministry roles they hold in their churches.
"Raise your hand if you currently are doing anything in the area of children's ministry," Whitfield said.
Several hands went up.
They were urged to raise them higher as Whitfield ticked through more options at the start of the SBC Women's Leadership Network event held Monday in Nashville. It was one of a slate of sessions happening this week as thousands of Southern Baptists gathered for their big denominational meeting.
"What if you're currently doing anything in women's ministry?" Whitfield said, looking for raised hands. "How about just in any other ministry in your church?"
Women filling the rows of chairs shouted out examples at her request: hospitality, missions, technology, worship, youth.
"Everyone is using their gifts in different ways for the church," said Whitfield, who is on the network's steering committee.
In the months before they arrived at Music City Center, Southern Baptists reengaged in an ongoing debate over how exactly women can serve in the conservative convention of churches that restricts the office of pastor to men alone.
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It is a widely accepted ban, but some within the Southern Baptist Convention extend the restriction to other church leadership roles. The disagreement opens women in ministry up to criticism.
New SBC president faced pushback after wife helped with sermon
Ahead of his Tuesday election, new Southern Baptist Convention President Ed Litton faced pushback from critics for having his wife, Kathy Litton, help him teach a sermon series on marriage. Ed Litton said the Southern Baptist statement of faith doesn't address this particular scenario.
"My wife is an apt teacher," he said during a Tuesday news conference. "I felt absolutely free within my convictional status with the Baptist Faith and Message and the word of God to invite my wife to come up. She is under my authority as her pastor and so we did that together."
Litton is a theological complementarian, the belief that men and women are equal but have distinct roles with men leading at home and in the church, and he does not think Southern Baptist complementarianism should be narrowed.
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Instead, Litton said that it "needs to be as wide as it is in the Baptist Faith and Message and I'm good with that."
On Tuesday, Bible teacher, author and Memphis pastor's wife Donna Gaines addressed the role of women in a Baptist21 panel during the convention.
Southern Baptists can be "soft complementarian" or "hard complementarian" or anything in between, she said, but they are decidedly complementarian.
"I believe the vast majority of Southern Baptists are focused on the mission of reaching the nations with the gospel and as a woman I have never felt hindered when I wanted to do anything," she said.
Gaines and Kathy Litton are on the steering committee for the Women's Leadership Network with Whitfield, who also works in convention communications. The team of women who launched the network in 2019 described themselves as loyal Southern Baptists and convictional complementarians who uphold the statement of faith.
The aim of the network is to foster connection and collaboration among women across the convention.
"We want more than anything to help women in the SBC meet each other, encourage each other, help develop each other because we think women are out there developing as leaders in so many different areas," Whitfield said as she addressed the women in the room on Monday.
Her icebreaker-like introduction helped set the stage for the evening's panel discussion on "persevering through every season in leadership."
It featured Kathy Litton, who serves with the convention's North American Mission Board, and three other steering committee members: Missie Branch, the assistant dean of students to women at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary; Susie Hawkins, an author involved in the convention and women's ministry; and Bible teacher Jacki King.
Together, they discussed an array of topics, spanning leadership tips, wins and struggles.
To the women working on male-dominated teams, Kathy Litton encouraged them to be relevant, clear and concise in their communication. She said they should find their "authentic voice and style."
"That doesn't come in apologetically or doesn't come in with pride, but you're able to really share in just a professional manner about whatever you're talking about with men," Kathy Litton said. "Also a win is always to recognize your weaknesses in communication and address them.
Asked to share a challenge, Branch said she has dealt with "imposter syndrome."
"I think a lot of us have to learn that there's a difference between being a leader and being in charge and sometimes we're allowed to be in charge, but that doesn't mean we're good at being leaders and I've had to do a lot of growth in what it means to lead," Branch said. "Of course, Jesus is an incredible model."
Renewed debate this year over women's ministry roles
Although the role of women in the convention has long been debated, two recent events reignited it ahead of this year's annual meeting, which dove head first into contentious issues like views on critical race theory, sex abuse in the church and the future direction of the denomination.
In March, popular Bible teacher Beth Moore declared she was no longer a Southern Baptist. And then in May, Saddleback Church in California, home to high-profile pastor and author Rick Warren, announced it had ordained its first three female pastors. The move drew criticism from Southern Baptist leaders.
The latter came up Tuesday on the floor of the convention hall. A messenger, the voting representatives from Southern Baptist churches, asked the convention to address it. The motion on breaking fellowship with Saddleback, one of the largest Southern Baptist churches in the nation, was referred to the credentials committee, which helps decide if churches should be expelled from the convention.
When asked during Tuesday's news conference whether churches who ordain women as ministers can still be a part of the convention, Ed Litton said it was something Southern Baptists will have to figure out. He said the Baptist Faith and Message does not address ordination.
"What we need to do is hear each other out and say, 'how do you define that role that you're ordaining that person to?'" Ed Litton said. "The best thing for us to do is not make a national issue out of that, but let that local association work it out, and then we'll do our best to hold the line together."
Reporter Katherine Burgess contributed to this report.
Reach Holly Meyer at email@example.com or 615-259-8241 and on Twitter @HollyAMeyer.