Wow. What a morning. Thank you. To all of you. To my new, beloved congregation, to my friends, my family, my teachers, mentors, pastors… I am overwhelmed with gratitude and pride.
This is, indeed, a significant, historic moment, and while it means so much to me, I also know that it’s about so much more than me.
I have to tell you a story about this past Wednesday night. I was leaving the church after our Ash Wednesday service and was headed home where my in-laws were watching my children, because my husband Matt was out of town. I was tired. It had been a long day, but I realized as I was driving that I hadn’t eaten yet, so I decided to stop and treat myself to one of my favorite restaurants that’s on my route home.
I sat at the bar, ordered my favorite dish on the menu and was about to start listening to a podcast episode when a young man sat down next to me and decided to strike up a conversation.
“Where did you go to mass,” he asked. I’d almost forgotten the ashes on my forehead. “I didn’t go to a mass,” I told him. “I got my ashes at Royal Lane Baptist Church.” He said, “Oh, I thought only Catholics celebrate Ash Wednesday.” I informed him that there are lots of traditions that celebrate Ash Wednesday, and then I turned my chair slightly away to signal that I wasn’t there for conversation. He didn’t take the hint.
“How long have you been going to Royal Lane?” he asked. I responded, “oh, about two months.” He said, “What made you decide to go to church there?” I thought about it for a second, and then I said, “the pastor.” He then said, “Oh wow. Is he a really good preacher or something?” … “Yes, actually,” I said. “She is.” He responded, “Wow. SHE. I’ve never heard of a female senior pastor.” I took a sip of my beverage and said, “Well, you have now, and you’ve seen one too.” I then introduced myself as the senior pastor of Royal Lane Baptist Church and gave up on my hopes of listening to a podcast.
We talked for about twenty minutes or so, I didn’t stay long, but it was clear I had really rocked this man’s perceptions of what a senior pastor looks like. It’s funny, because I remember the first time that happened to me. I was 19 in an introduction to ministry course with my dear professor and now friend, Dr. Doug Weaver - thanks for being here, Doug - when a young woman came to speak to our class who was serving as the senior pastor of a Baptist church in North Carolina.
I’ll never forget that moment, because as soon as she walked in, I was completely disoriented. Growing up Southern Baptist, I had NO idea women could be pastors - and not just in my own tradition, I had no idea they could be pastors in any tradition. Seeing her made me VERY confused.
I was confused that this woman could be a senior pastor, and if I’m being really honest, I was confused that she wanted to be a senior pastor. You see, my tradition had conditioned me for years - in proclamation and in practice - to believe that women had no right to be pastors. And therefore, because of what I’d been taught and what I’d seen, the pastorate and the pulpit to me reeked of masculinity. A woman pastoring a church in my mind was like a woman coaching football. Friends, I remember actually thinking to myself, why would this young woman want to sacrifice all her femininity to pastor a congregation? Again, I was confused.
Oh, but friends, as it turns out, confusion can be such a holy thing. I look back now, and I see that her presence was a holy disruption to my own imagination. I’ll tell you, from the moment she came to our class, I never stopped thinking of her and pretty soon that confusion turned into curiosity. I had to know more.
A few months later, I found myself on the back pew of Calvary Baptist Church on one of the very last Sundays that Julie Pennington Russell served as senior pastor, and I’ll tell you this friends: I walked in that church with curiosity and I walked out that church with a call.
From confusion to curiosity to call… these have been the markers of my journey. It hasn’t always been linear, but these have been the lamp posts that have illuminated my path to this place.
This moment for us is a celebration. It’s a moment we’ve longed for - both as pastor and as church. But for others in our community, it’s a moment of confusion. In fact, for some of our Baptist siblings it’s a moment of transgression, of offense. Just this week, Saddleback Church, the largest Southern Baptist church in the world, lost its affiliation with the Southern Baptist Convention because they hired a female teaching pastor.
For some this moment, it’s a moment of confusion. But if my journey has taught me anything it’s that confusion is part of the work of the Holy Spirit. Confusion is the first step in deconstructing false, idolatrous ideas about who God is and who God calls. Because confusion, don’t you see, lends itself to curiosity and once one is curious that’s when all becomes possible.
On Thursday I got an email from the man who sat next to me at the bar. He went to our website, found the staff page, got my email address, and sent me a note. He attends Watermark, a church notorious for their conservative views on women and other things. In the email he thanked me for my willingness to engage his questions and said he was grateful to know that there was a church in his city - a Baptist church - with a female senior pastor.
Friends, this isn’t about me. This about the hundreds of thousands of people who have no idea that women can pastor churches and the other hundreds of thousands of people who think women have no business pastoring churches. This is about disrupting the patriarchal patterns that say women’s bodies don’t belong behind pulpits. This about giving young girls a fuller vision of what God can call them to, so they aren’t conditioned to believe that the senior pastorate is a masculine role meant only for men.
And members of Royal Lane, this is about you. This is about your courage to make the just decision to expand the landscape of ministry for people everywhere. Together, let’s continue to create a holy disruption to the status quo, let’s confuse the masses for the sake of stimulating a curiosity that maybe God is more than we’ve tried to confine God to be. It doesn’t stop here, it starts here. We will work to model a community of faith that puts no limitations on the types of people God calls. We will work together to induce a curiosity about the expansive love of God. We will create a holy and sacred space where children of every kind can come to understand the call that God has placed on their lives. Together - through the gifts of confusion, curiosity, and call - we will advance the Kingdom of God.
What a moment, for all of us. Thanks be to God. Amen? Amen.