Voices: Women pastors: The title should match the call


In William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, he asks the question: “What’s in a name? / That which we call a rose / by any other name would smell as sweet.”

These lines call into question the power of names and presents the underlying question, “Does naming, or failing to name something, change the identity of the thing itself?”

While Shakespeare wrote these words in the late 16th century, the underlying question is relevant for Texas Baptists today.

During the July 18 business session of the Texas Baptists’ Family Gathering, Meredith Stone, a messenger from Calvary Baptist Church in Waco, made a motion “that the Executive Board resources BGCT staff to continue developing more strategies, resources, and advocacy initiatives to assist churches in affirming, appointing, and employing women in ministerial and pastoral roles.”

However, after much debate, Texas Baptists ultimately voted on an amendment to this motion that changed the phrase from “pastoral roles” to “leadership roles” to protect churches within Texas Baptist life that “hold a conviction that the Bible provides clear gender distinctions when it comes to church leadership.”

In other words, Texas Baptists have agreed not to unilaterally affirm naming or calling a woman “pastor.”

Titles match callings

On the one hand, the amendment seems like a small change. After all, “What’s in a name?” If some within Texas Baptists call women “pastor” while others continue calling her “minister” or “director,” her function is the same.

Women always have served the church in various roles and under various titles, so their function within churches will remain unchanged regardless of what the church chooses to call them. Additionally, those called to ministry are called to serve, to be humble and not to desire a position, title or rank.

So, a woman’s desire to be called “pastor” instead of “minister” or “director” while continuing to serve in various capacities may point either to her desire for power, title or rank, or may cause further unnecessary division within the denomination over a simple title.

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However, for many women, “pastor” is more than a simple title. “Pastor” is an accurate description of the thing they have been called to do.

Like their male counterparts, many women in ministry can recall a point in their life when they experienced the clear and specific calling of God to the pastorate. And like their male counterparts, these women conclude that to pursue any other vocation in their life would be to deny the call of God and live in direct disobedience to the prompting of the Holy Spirit.

Hiding the calling

Despite this clear and specific calling, women, unlike their male counterparts, also have learned how to hide their calling or articulate it in nondivisive ways.

Instead of telling people they are called to be a pastor, women find themselves using phrases such as “I want to be in ministry,” or “I am called to work in a church,” or “I’m studying religion in school.”

This change in dialogue in no way dampens their calling or what they know to be true in their bones, but after receiving one too many questions, disapproving comments or confrontations, like a survival instinct, it simply becomes easier to give a cheaper answer for the calling God has placed on their lives.

It is difficult to live in a world where you fear being clobbered just by honestly answering the question, “What do you want to do with your life?”

Therefore, despite having the same clear calling experience as their male counterparts, women are forced to downplay the work of the Holy Spirit in their own lives for the sake of a more widely acceptable title.

Refusal to allow women the space, encouragement and affirmation to express the work and call of God confidently and excitedly in their lives not only is disheartening for women in ministry, but it also reveals a double standard not applicable to men called to the pastorate and downplays the work of the Holy Spirit.

Precise language matters

On the other hand, Texas Baptists’ denial of unilaterally affirming women as pastors reveals something deeply troubling about their lack of precise language.

Returning to Shakespeare’s analogy, calling a flower a rose does not change the thing itself. The flower’s color, smell, shape and identity will not change if we choose to call it something else.

In the same way, a woman’s calling by God will not change if we, Texas Baptists, choose to call her something else. However, our inability to call a woman what she is demonstrates our disregard for precise language.

If a botanist continued to call a rose by another name, not only would it not change the essence of the flower, but it would reveal an unacceptable level of imprecision for someone in that profession.

Likely, this botanist would not be able to continue within their field if they displayed a complete lack of understanding about how to properly name a rose. So, why is this inaccuracy allowed to continue within Texas Baptist life?

While some celebrate the decisions made at the Texas Baptists’ Family Gathering in McAllen, others look at the situation soberly.

The decision to omit the word “pastor” from the original motion reveals a harsh double standard not placed on Texas Baptist men, denies women peace of mind to freely express their calling, downplays the work of the Holy Spirit, and reveals a deep flaw in the way Texas Baptists accurately address ministers in their care.

Hannah Brown is a Master of Divinity student at Baylor University’s Truett Theological Seminary. The views expressed are those of the author.

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