Jump directly to the Content


Many Southern Baptist Women Care More About Calling Than What They’re Called

As the SBC debates restrictions around titles and roles, female leaders continue their work in women’s ministry in their local churches.
Many Southern Baptist Women Care More About Calling Than What They’re Called

When women’s ministry began dominating her schedule, taking too much time from her responsibilities at work and at home, Jacqueline Heider submitted a letter of resignation.

Her pastor responded by offering her a paid position.

That was 18 years ago. Since then, Heider has led women’s ministry at Warren Baptist Church. She serves on the lead team, working alongside fellow ministry heads at the church, which spans four locations in the Augusta, Georgia, area.

Heider developed Bible studies and discipleship programs. She launched a special needs ministry, carrying over what she learned from caring for her own daughter with special needs. She became the executive director of the church’s crisis pregnancy center.

There was a time when Heider considered whether the title of “minister to women” would be a better fit than “director,” but she realized that it wouldn’t really change anything. She was getting to do the work she loved, with the support she needed, and that’s what mattered to her.

“I’m not saying it’s not valid and I don’t think it’s necessary. … It’s just not ever been a hill that I want to die on,” said Heider. “If you start getting concerned about your title and what you can’t do, it takes away from the work you are called to do.”

Women’s ministry titles have been the most talked-about issue going into next week’s Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) annual meeting, when around 11,000 messengers will vote on whether to amend their constitution to state that only men can serve as “any kind of pastor.”

Supporters see the change as a necessary stance for biblical roles for men and women in the church amid society’s confusion around gender. Critics worry it’s redundant or not the best way to enforce a complementarian position—male eldership is already part of the SBC’s statement of faith and the convention has a mechanism to disfellowship churches led by female pastors.

Just under a third of annual meeting attendees are women, many of them pastors’ wives or ministry leaders themselves.

In the SBC, some women are glad for the amendment’s clarification. Others agree about the biblical principle but worry that the move could target women who serve outside of lead or preaching pastor roles. A majority of “female pastors” listed online last year as evidence of the need for such an amendment were leading women’s, children’s, or music ministries.

But many Southern Baptist women are like Heider: too busy with the work before them to pay much attention to the debate.

“There’s so much to do here, so many opportunities to be in ministry here, that I don’t concern myself with what I don’t feel is my calling,” she said. She can’t see the vote affecting her work at Warren.

Southern Baptist churches are autonomous, so the 4 million Americans who attend each Sunday are more directly affected by the decisions made in their buildings than anything voted on in huge convention halls. Leaders emphasize that local church is “the headquarters of the SBC” and its primary vehicle for evangelism and missions.

For women who already feel empowered and encouraged to lead in various areas of church life, it’s easy to focus on their own contexts. But setups vary from congregation to congregation, and there are clear patterns of ministry by and for women going under-resourced.

A survey conducted last year by Lifeway Research, part of the Southern Baptist publishing arm, found that 83 percent of women’s ministry leaders are volunteers or unpaid. Only 5 percent plan women’s programming alongside church staff.

“They often serve without recognition, without compensation, and without resources. They do so with joy and with little to no expectation of these earthly benefits,” wrote Jen Wilkin—a longtime staff member at The Village Church in Texas and an advocate for training women in the Word—in a column for CT.

Kira Nelson, a master’s student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and host of a podcast for Christian moms, is grateful for the investment and encouragement she’s received at Southern Baptist churches.

The instinct to share the gospel came naturally to Nelson, who remembers putting on a Bible study for kids when she was 12 years old. But it was a pastor at her former church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who trained her and other women to lead small groups. While her husband was in law school, she began a Bible study to minister among fellow law school wives.

Pastors at her current church, Del Ray Baptist in Northern Virginia, have continued to recognize and help her use her gifts. The church has covered the cost of some of her theological training and solicits her input through a women’s advisory board.

It also offers childcare for the Bible study she teaches on Wednesday mornings, where about 30 to 50 women show up each week. They just finished Behold and Believe, a study on the “I am” statements in the Gospel of John.

Nelson doesn’t have the SBC annual meeting on her calendar for June. Instead, the mother of four is getting plans together to travel to Indianapolis a couple weeks later for The Gospel Coalition’s women’s conference, bringing her newborn son along.

She’s excited to spend time with a handful of other women from her church and to hear from the lineup of speakers, including the authors of their recent study and several leaders who serve at Southern Baptist churches and entities.

Nelson doesn’t disagree with the proposed amendment on male pastors, but she also doesn’t see the vote affecting the ministry and calling that she has enjoyed at Del Ray. “Right now, I have more teaching opportunities than I can handle,” Nelson told CT.

About as many men as women identify as Southern Baptist, but Southern Baptist women—like American women overall—are much more devout. In Pew Research Center surveys, they’re more likely than men to attend church, belong to a small group, pray regularly, and consider their faith as an important part of their life.

Being involved in church was “never a question” for Lorin Scott, whose Southern Baptist legacy in Texas goes back generations. Growing up, she attended SBC annual meetings with her family during summer vacations. For the past nine years, Scott has served in women’s ministry at North Fort Worth Baptist Church, which is pastored by her uncle.

Last year, Scott launched a support group for women facing unplanned pregnancies and new moms through the ministry Embrace Grace. The church’s chapter has already hosted two baby showers for single moms, clearing out their registries on Amazon as a way to bless them and demonstrate God’s love.

Scott has seen women around her step up to serve and use their giftings at church, like the Sunday School teacher who went to nearby Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary later in life “just out of a thirst for the Word.”

“For me and for a lot of women, this issue isn’t meant to be divisive,” said Scott, who worries that the debate over women’s titles plays into a broader skepticism over women’s voices and involvement in church life. “Women want to be able to use our skills and use our gifts God’s given us. We don’t want to replace men. We want to serve beside them.”

A fellow Texan, Robin Marriott serves alongside her husband—not as a copastor but in her role as a proud, extroverted pastor’s wife. Marriott tries to make it to multiple services at First Baptist Burleson each Sunday. The church outside Fort Worth worships with traditional hymns, contemporary praise music, and in Spanish.

First Burleson has been growing fast, and she wants to be there to meet visitors and greet church members. She believes being a pastor’s wife is a place for her to use her giftings in spiritual discernment and hospitality. Marriott also works as a professional etiquette expert, a skill refined over 37 years of ministry and navigating plenty of awkward church drama (she and husband, Ronny, wrote a book about it).

Across several SBC congregations in Texas, Marriott encountered richer, Christ-centered community when churches intentionally welcomed newcomers and encouraged leaders through the inevitable highs and lows of ministry life. “The main thing is we need to support our staff, male and female, as a church,” she told CT. “Not belittle them, but affirm their calling.”

Nelson from Del Ray Baptist recognizes how frustrating it can be for women in churches that don’t offer a place for them to use their gifts and passions: They could burn out and give up trying to serve altogether.

Despite their shared theological convictions, women in complementarian churches still risk being viewed as “feminist” or unbiblical for pursuing opportunities to lead. “Sometimes, we feel as if we have a huge target on our backs,” writes author and speaker Dena Dyer. Plus, they have to deal with practical burdens from mental load and other family responsibilities.

Work-life balance can be a challenge, but anyone serving in the church is prone to feeling that tension, said Heider, who recently completed a doctoral dissertation on ministry resilience.

Over nearly two decades at Warren Baptist, Heider has lived her version of 1 Peter 5:10. There were difficult seasons, especially in the wake of her daughter’s special needs diagnosis, but ultimately, she has learned to set boundaries, has stayed rooted in Scripture, and has been made “strong, firm, and steadfast” in the Lord.

Heider, now in her 50s, coaches female colleagues on navigating challenges and new chapters of life—one is preparing to go on maternity leave to welcome her first child—and she helps train the staff as a whole on proactively avoiding burnout.

Summer remains a busy season in many SBC churches. Women help put on vacation Bible schools and backyard Bible clubs. They work on curricula for upcoming studies, Sunday school sessions, and workshops. They reach out to visitors, gather for morning prayer, sing in worship bands, and organize meal trains for new babies and hospital recoveries.

After the SBC passed the first of two votes on the male pastors amendment last year, Nelson wrote an op-ed for Baptist Press calling on pastors to live up to their complementarian convictions by investing in the gifted women in their churches.

“In many churches, only men are offered robust theological training. But in Paul’s ministry, women are described as colaborers,” she wrote. “Although women ought not to teach men, a woman with sound theological training will profoundly affect her entire congregation as she teaches, trains, and equips other women; as she encourages, exhorts, and spurs on her elders; and as she holds the needs of her church family before God in prayer.”

To neglect this area, she told CT, would be “ministry malpractice.”

Lifeway found that the top reason women pursue leadership is out of obedience to what they feel God has called them to do. Nearly all the respondents—over 90 percent—said that they have sensed God’s confirmation and guidance in their roles, even if they come with sacrifice.

“I’ve never wanted to be a professional in ministry,” Nelson said. “I just wanted to share the gospel.”

Support Our Work

Subscribe to CT for less than $4.25/month

Read These Next