Over scones and chocolates, hundreds of Southern Baptist women gathered for tea in a convention center ballroom June 11 on the eve of their denomination’s annual meeting.
They were attending “Tea@3” a tradition of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, the school until recently led by Paige Patterson, the revered Southern Baptist leader who was terminated in May after reports he mishandled student rape allegations and made comments demeaning to women.
Patterson announced last week that he would not attend the annual meeting so as not “to detract in any way from the important business of our convention.” But at “Tea@3” Patterson’s wife, Dorothy, was seated at one of the front reserved tables, not commenting much on the recent scandal.
“We served at the pleasure of the board these years and they no longer have pleasure,” she told Religion News Service.
Though her husband was not mentioned by name, his seminary’s recent history of promoting women into gender-appropriate teaching roles — but not preaching positions — were highlighted from the stage.
Long known for his resistance to feminist ideas, Patterson has boasted previously about the programs for women he established at Southwestern Baptist. In an interview at last year’s meeting, he told RNS that while he holds to the Apostle Paul’s teaching in 1 Timothy that a woman should not teach or have authority over a man, “that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing a woman can do except stay home and wash dishes,” he said.
“We believe that women have a tremendous impact on 51 percent of the population of the world that we men will never touch effectively.”
But others have wider expectations.
In the hallways of the Kay Bailey Hutchinson Convention Center and in eateries and hotel lobbies nearby, messengers, as delegates to the meeting are known, are having heart-to heart discussions about future possibilities for women in a denomination that walks a “complementarian” line: the belief that women and men are equal before God but have different roles in church and home life.
The discussions, which come as the denomination marks 100 years since women have been welcomed as messengers, are already making their way to the meeting floor.
On Tuesday, the first day of the two-day annual meeting, Baptists were set to vote on a resolution in which they “call upon all Southern Baptists to encourage, cultivate, and celebrate the diverse gifts, callings, and contributions of women in biblically appropriate ways.”
Rhonda Kelley, wife of the president of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary who chaired a Women’s Advisory Council last year, said she hopes to see Southern Baptists move beyond having “token women on committees.” She would like to see more elected to serve on trustee boards, she said, where they can use their educational and professional expertise.
“What we discovered, more than anything, Southern Baptist women do not know about training opportunities and ministry opportunities, mission opportunities,” Kelley, who is Dorothy Patterson’s sister-in-law, said of her work with the council. “We need you all to be sharing with other women that you know, mentoring them and encouraging them, helping them to know how to use their gifts and abilities.”
The pro-woman talk buzzing in the halls has even included speculation about a suggestion, floated in a Christianity Today column on June 8, that a woman could be president of the Southern Baptist Convention. Citing “her qualifications and the current context the SBC finds itself in,” Pastor Dwight McKissic put forward the name of Beth Moore, a popular author and speaker, who herself has recently blogged about facing “misogynistic attitudes.”
McKissic, a Texas pastor known for prodding last year’s meeting to pass a statement condemning “alt-right white supremacy,” wrote that “a woman would not be usurping authority over a man by serving as SBC president.”
Moore declined to comment on McKissic’s proposal, but it may have helped make her something of a sensation. On Monday, she took part in a panel discussion about abuse in the church that drew hundreds to an exhibit hall space that had seating for about 25.
She declined to comment on a possible nomination for president.
On Tuesday, messengers elected North Carolina megachurch pastor J.D. Greear as the next SBC president, and its first top official from Generation X.
Bobbi Jackson, wife of a just-retired senior pastor in Huntsville, Ala., who served for years on Southwestern Seminary’s trustee board and has known the Pattersons for more than four decades, rejected the notion of Moore serving in that role.
“I would totally disagree just because I think that she does the best where she’s serving — writing books for women and Bible studies,” said Jackson, who described herself as “very sad” about Paige Patterson’s termination. “I don’t think she can have a higher calling than what she’s doing right now.”
Jackson said she doesn’t know any woman who has been the “help mate” of a Southern Baptist pastor who would want that role. “I know a lot of the strong minister’s wives in the convention,” she said. “I don’t know any of them that want to be president of the convention.”
Krissie Inserra, 36, the wife of the pastor at City Church in Tallahassee, Fla., takes another view.
“I don’t see why she can’t,” said Inserra, whose husband hired a woman as an executive director, a rare administrative role for a woman in SBC life. “This is not a church. And so I don’t know that that would happen anytime in the next few years but just the fact that it was even suggested says something, I think.”
Inserra, was one of the more than 3,300 women who signed a petition seeking action against Patterson after his statements about women came to light. She said Southern Baptist women are starting to band together in ways that could lead to more involvement in leadership. Some male ministers, too, are beginning to speak up about the need to embrace the presence of women in prominent roles.
“When we see the men stepping up alongside the women, saying this is what we recognize in you and there’s nothing in the Bible that says you can’t lead this committee or you can’t do this, that’s helpful,” said Inserra. “I’m encouraged.”
Within hours of Inserra mentioning male encouragement of women’s roles, suburban Atlanta megapastor James Merritt, speaking on a panel about “Gospel Sexuality in a #MeToo Culture,” mentioned women at his church who serve on teams dealing with personnel and finance. Complementarians, he suggested, can get too legalistic in their approach to Scripture.
“A woman could be the president of the Southern Baptist Convention,” he said. “I think sometimes we complementarians suddenly have gone into a Pharisaic mode of going beyond what the Scriptures teach and I think this is a good wake-up moment for us in that area as well.”