Women, Ministry, and Identity: Establishing Female Deacons at First Baptist Church, Waco, Texas

By Pitts, Bill | Baptist History and Heritage, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

Women, Ministry, and Identity: Establishing Female Deacons at First Baptist Church, Waco, Texas


Pitts, Bill, Baptist History and Heritage


Numerous factors contribute to understanding Baptist identity, including theology, ethnicity, class, region, and political environment. This article focuses on changing gender roles in Baptist leadership as part of the evolving identity of Baptists.

In 1996, First Baptist Church of Waco, Texas, ordained its first women deacons--Doris Smith and Amanda Smith (the women are not related). The church, once viewed as socially conservative, has since moved rapidly to elect more women to this leadership position every year since the process began. By July 2003, twenty-four of the church's 130 deacons were women.

Thesis and Sources

This article documents a major change in one local Baptist church. The research relies primarily on interviews with six key participants--four women deacons (Doris Smith, Amanda Smith, Doriss Hambrick, and Anita Rolf), the pastor (Scott Walker), and a former deacon chairman (Alton Pearson). Other participants in the process, as well as records of deacons' meetings and policy papers adopted by the church, were also consulted. The story not only addresses a significant change at First Baptist Church, Waco; it may also be viewed as a case study important to current Baptist identity--a change that other twenty-first-century Baptist churches are encountering and must decide whether to adopt, reject, or avoid.

Significant new opportunities opened for women in the United States in the 1960s. (1) Acceptance of women in church leadership roles was part of that social change. (2) Yet, women holding church leadership positions still seems novel for many Baptist churches in the southern United States.

Precedents

Precedents for women deacons at First Baptist, Waco, may be found in the church well over one hundred years ago. In 1877, B. H. Carroll, pastor of the church, not only argued that deaconesses had a biblical basis; he also supported the office of deaconess in the church. Beginning in April 1877, First Baptist had deaconesses serving in several capacities, but they did so without ordination. Members now regularly cite this early precedent for women serving in diaconal roles.

Several other Waco churches--both Baptist and non-Baptist--began ordaining women as deacons in the 1960s and in the years following. In 1975, Lake Shore Baptist Church elected women deacons; Seventh and James Baptist Church followed in 1980. (3) Several of the interviewees cited the importance of this precedent in their willingness to elect women as deacons at First Baptist; others reported influence from female family members and friends who were serving as deacons in other cities.

Discussing New Directions

In order for a change to occur, the idea first has to be planted. Doris Smith remembered that one Wednesday night during a church prayer meeting, Peter McLeod, a former pastor of First Baptist, asked members to think about possibilities for the future of the church. One of the possibilities he suggested was the election of women as deacons. Doris recalled a church member being terribly upset by this suggestion. She and her husband followed him out to the car to reassure him that this was just a possibility, not a proposal. Yet, the offended member left the church and soon joined Columbus Avenue Baptist Church. (4)

Alton Pearson cited as an example of the church's growing consciousness of the issue a discussion in his Sunday School class that was led by Bob Patterson, professor of theology in the Department of Religion at Baylor University. (5) When Doriss Hambrick first heard the suggestion to include women as deacons, she said that she "didn't think it would happen," (6) and she was surprised by the suggestion and skeptical about its implementation.

Ironically, Doris Smith, one of the first women elected, believed that it would "never happen." (7) Why the high level of skepticism? Hambrick believed the answer lay in the influence of a traditional view of Southern culture and of Baptists in the South, both generally seen as socially conservative.

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