Women blaze trail in Hispanic Texas Baptist pastorates

Melba Zapata became pastor of New Wine Church in La Feria in January 2018. (Photo / Isa Torres)

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The history of Texas Baptist women pastors dates back only two decades, more than twice as long as the history of Hispanic Baptist women pastors in the state.

Julie Pennington-Russell broke new ground in 1998 when she became pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Waco. Pennington-Russell left the Waco church in 2007, three years before Centro Cristiano de Oracion in Houston called Giselle Borbon as pastor and became the first Hispanic Texas Baptist church with a woman pastor.

In January 2018, Melba Zapata became the second Hispanic woman to serve as pastor of a Texas Baptist congregation, New Wine Church in La Feria.

Zapata began working at the congregation in 1999 as youth minister and in a variety of other roles at the invitation of her uncle, New Wine’s founding pastor Jorge Zapata. The church ordained her to the gospel ministry in 2009 and called her to serve as senior pastor nine years later.

Although the mission’s founding pastor, Julia Barba, died before the congregation reached that milepost, the church called her daughter, Dalila Martinez, as pastor.

From its earliest days as a mission, Casa de Dios has understood its responsibility to share the gospel with others, Martinez said. Her own study of Scripture also led her to recognize the importance of helping new believers grow in their faith as disciples, she added.

Dalila Martinez is pastor of Casa de Dios de Laredo in Laredo. (Photo / Isa Torres)

Missions and discipleship demands a church’s involvement in all aspects of life, Martinez said.

Whether a family needs food, housing, help with education or skill training, or anything else, then the church has to walk with them, she noted.

“God has called us to give from what he has given us,” Martinez said.

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While other pastors appreciate her vision for missions and discipleship, some have questioned her calling to the pastorate.

“You have to believe the call God gave you, even if others do not believe God has called you,” she said.

Since God can use even the least qualified person, and because God can transform the person with the most wrecked life, then there is nothing that can limit God from calling anyone to serve, Martinez insisted.

“We have to move forward in order to minister to those who have never heard the Good News,” she said.

Varied perspectives

Hispanic Texas Baptists hold varied perspectives on the subject of women in ministry, said Jesse Rincones, executive director of the Hispanic Baptist Convention of Texas.

To a large degree, churches’ beliefs on the role of women are influenced by their member families’ countries of origin, he observed.

Jesse Rincones

Baptist churches in Mexico tend to reflect the views of Baptists in the United States—particularly Southern Baptists, Rincones noted. The Southern Baptist Convention commissioned many missionaries to serve in Mexico. As Hispanic churches north of the Rio Grande grew, many churches in Texas invited Mexican ministers to serve as their pastors, he added.

However, Baptists from other parts of Latin America grew up in churches that often held different views.

“Women had more ample opportunities to be in ministry where I came from,” said Alicia Zorzoli, who grew up in Argentina. “Culture where I came from was different.”

Zorzoli is an author and international speaker who serves as a board member and Bible professor at Christian Latina Leadership Institute, housed on the campus of Baptist University of the Américas in San Antonio.

Zorzoli and her husband, Rubén, came to the United States 30 years ago. After serving as preaching professor and women’s minister in Argentina, she said, there was a concern on whether she would be able to continue exercising her giftedness in the United States.

“Preaching has always been part of my passion,” Zorzoli said. “But God is so wonderful that everything was already prepared for us here. The churches where we have served shared a vision for women in ministry.”

‘Doors will open’

After serving in ministry 18 years before coming to the United States, Zorzoli felt no doubt about whether she had been called or whether she was prepared for ministry. But moving gave her a bigger vision—a vision for the world, she said.

Alicia Zorzoli, board member and Bible professor at Christian Latina Leadership Institute, noted women in ministry had more opportunities in her Argentina homeland than in the United States. (Courtesy photo)

As she has traveled globally to minister, Zorzoli has encountered a variety of cultural perspectives regarding women in ministry.

But Scripture is the final authority, she emphasized, and from what she sees in the Bible, Zorzoli is convinced women are called by God to serve in ministry.

“I do not have any authority,” Zorzoli said. “I only rely on the authority of the Bible.”

Zorzoli emphasized she has no desire to argue or debate anyone. Divisions in the church are nothing to be happy about, she said.

Still, in the midst of disagreements, God’s light continues to shine, she noted.

“I’m amazed at how God continues to give me opportunities to be in ministry,” Zorzoli said.

“If God is the one who calls a person to ministry, then doors will open up,” she continued. “Those who are called must then prepare and always keep their sight on the target.”

Rincones also holds to the hope that God will guide individuals to places where they can fulfill their sense of calling. Convención’s goal is not to pull people to one side or the other of debates about women in ministry, but the organization must help those who have been called to serve the church become better teachers, preachers and leaders, he stressed.

Young Hispanic women in Convención and Unión Femenil Misionera seem to have a strong mission focus in ministry, Rincones said. And with events like Shine Girls Conference, which exposes teenage and college age women to other women leaders, Hispanic churches can invest in developing more leaders, he added.

The same investment Convención makes in young women needs to come from other leaders, ministers and local churches, Zorzoli said.

“Recognize and congratulate them for the calling God has given them,” Zorzoli said. “Give women the opportunity to respond to that calling and open the door for them to teach, preach and lead the congregation.”

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