The matter of women leading the church centers on a set of justice issues, and at the top of that list is affirming humanity, Eileen Campbell-Reed told listeners at the opening of the two-day “Journey for Justice” conference held Nov. 5-6 in Central Kentucky.
“We need to nurture the vocations of girls … in our communities of faith because we want them to know that they are fully human,” she said. “A lot of this gender bias I’m talking about tells them they are secondary, not fully human.”
“The church needs to undo that,” she stressed to the crowd gathered at Central Baptist Church, an Alliance of Baptists congregational partner and a sponsor of the event along with Baptist Seminary of Kentucky (BSK), the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and the Alliance.
“Journey for Justice: Empowering Women Leading the Church” was designed to “explore many aspects of justice regarding women’s leadership in churches and other ministries.” It included worship and an afternoon presentation at Central Baptist Church, meetings with BSK students, and conversations with emerging and established women leaders in the Church.
Nurturing and supporting women in leadership is particularly relevant in Kentucky, where the number of Baptist women in senior pastor positions is minuscule. And on a broader scale in moderate Baptist life, women only lead between six and seven percent of churches from the pulpit.
Campbell-Reed, the author of Anatomy of a Schism: How Clergywomen’s Narratives Reinterpret the Fracturing of the Southern Baptist Convention, is uniquely positioned to help lead critical conversations on the leadership of women in the Church. As an ordained minister who grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition, she also has had to navigate her own set of turbulent waters in order to fully live out her call.
Sending the message to women and girls that they are secondary is “theologically horrible, and it’s so covert,” said Campbell-Reed. “We participate in it and don’t even know that’s what we’re doing.”
Advocating for women in ways that move beyond words includes providing viable opportunities where woman leaders can actually practice ministry. “To learn the practice you have to be … IN the practice,” Campbell-Reed said.
Work on this issue also includes recognizing ways in which implicit, and especially explicit, gender bias run rampant.
“How many churches in this city would be explicitly against having a woman as a pastor?” Campbell-Reed asked. “A lot. Many evangelical, Catholic, Baptist churches would be openly against it.”
“That surrounding culture then has an effect even on a place like this, where there are women on the ministry staff,” she said. “The influence of that other world shapes what we see.”
Women in leadership must be more than just novelties placed on pedestals, Campbell-Reed said.
Churches also need to do things like “employ fully and pay fairly the women who are called to ministry,” she said. Also, “we need to recognize how doing the work of justice for women and girls is also about justice for others.”
“We have to talk about race and class and gender and sexuality as all related,” Campbell-Reed said. “One maintains the other.”
Among the results of the “Journey for Justice” conference will be the formation of a regular meeting for women leaders in Baptist churches, and funds taken up during Journey for Justice will help support that effort.
“There is still so much for us to learn,” Campbell-Reed said. “We’ve still got such a long way to go, even though we’ve come a long way already.”