Two Baptist Women, Two Baptist Churches: Baptist Freedom at Work

By Paula Clayton Dempsey

The churches are far apart geographically, and the stories are separated by 20 years. Yet they share much in common—the ordination of Silvia Nogueira and the call of Erica Grace Saunders to serve as pastor.

Silvia was ordained 20 years ago by First Baptist Church of Campo Limpo, São Paulo, within the Baptist Convention of Brazil where she was serving as a seminary intern. Having been nurtured in Baptist life and trained at a Baptist seminary, Silvia followed the call of God to local church ministry. Her graces and gifts for ministry were plentiful and obvious. The church she served was under pastoral transition and the pastoral commission requested her ordination as quickly as possible in order to call her as their pastor. With no history of having ordained women, the male leadership within the Baptist convention balked, resisted and delayed responding to the request. Nevertheless, the local church, exercising its autonomy, persisted.

When the initial ordination council was finally assembled, over 100 pastors—all men—flew in from various regions of the country to participate and mostly to hinder the process. The conduct of the pastors assembled was shocking as the men, seeking to obstruct the ordination, argued among themselves—so much so they broke out into a brawl! The local church leaders dissolved the initial examination council and established another ordination council of approximately 27 pastors that met the same day and questioned Silvia regarding her sense of call, understanding of doctrine and church polity. Silvia’s responses were impeccable. 

The local church persisted, and Silvia was ordained, becoming a pioneer opening the way for other women to follow and serve as pastors, as well as scholars within the theological academy. The 20th anniversary of her ordination was celebrated last month in Rio de Janeiro at a gathering of women pastors and theologians, where Silvia led communion, the story of her ordination was recalled, and the continuing resistance to women’s equality and dignity in church and society was profoundly expressed and articulated.

One month later, attending the installation of Erica Grace Saunders as pastor of Peace Community Church, Oberlin, Ohio, the persistence of the local church was once again evident as person after person shared that calling a trans-woman to serve as pastor of this over 150-year-old church was an unproblematic and right thing to do. Erica’s call, her love of God and neighbor, her theological savvy, her pastoral bent, her understanding of community—all of these led to her being the most outstanding candidate to the search committee. The gender boundaries of ordained pastoral ministry having been confined to cisgender males historically, and inclusive of cisgender females only recently, were crossed because of the power and autonomy of the local congregation—a central freedom in Baptist life.

The celebrations of Erica’s installation and Silvia’s ordination anniversary are both occasions to be lifted up and remembered by the larger church in the world, as hope is reborn in those for whom the church has repeatedly closed its doors and shattered hopes for inclusion, dignity and  welcome. Reminders of the patriarchy in church and society are prevalent in Brazil as daily women suffer violence and are killed physically, mentally and spiritually—much of this happening in the name of religion. And reminders of how far we have to go to reshape church and society to reflect God’s vision of equality and justice for trans-persons are evident in the recent onslaught of deaths of black trans-women as well as the online aggressions written surrounding Erica’s  ordination and call to pastoral ministry.

What we can affirm from these two stories is the power of the local church to make a difference. Women, trans-persons, and gender non-binary children of God often live in fear and suffer violence in silence and shame. One church has—and can—make a difference.

Paula Clayton Dempsey is director of partnership relations for the Alliance of Baptists.

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