Click here for General Assembly coverage

Georgia Baptists cut ties with church led by woman pastor

DECATUR, Ga. (ABP) -- The Georgia Baptist Convention has ended its 148-year-old relationship with First Baptist Church of Decatur, Ga., over the congregation's 2007 vote to hire a woman as senior pastor.

         Julie Pennington-Russell has been pastor at First Baptist Church in Decatur, Ga., since August 2007.

         Pennington-Russell read a letter at the end of both worship services Nov. 15 from Robert White, executive director of the 1.3 million-member state convention. It informed her that messengers to the group’s recent annual meeting took action to declare them “not a cooperating church,” because “a woman is serving as senior pastor.” White said funds received from First Baptist Church of Decatur during 2009 will be returned.

         “Obviously the severing of relationship after so many years is unfortunate and gives the world-at-large another reason to conclude that Baptists care more about putting people out than gathering them in,” Pennington-Russell said in an e-mail Nov. 16. “At the same time, I don’t think this came as a surprise to many in our congregation and to be honest, having a Southern Baptist affiliation has not been especially helpful when it comes to connecting with our largely unchurched community.”

         Last year the Georgia Baptist Convention, one of the oldest and largest of 42 state and regional organizations affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, changed policies to decline funds sent by churches “not in cooperation and harmony with the approved work and purpose” of the convention. Leaders recommending the change said it came “as a result of questions raised regarding First Baptist Church of Decatur, who has a woman as senior pastor.”

         The Southern Baptist Convention amended its Baptist Faith & Message doctrinal statement in 2000 to declare, “While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.”

         With the new action, Georgia Baptist leaders not only may refuse to accept money from First Baptist Church of Decatur, but now the church is no longer eligible to receive resources and services offered by the 3,300-church convention.

         Meeting in their 188th annual session Nov. 9-10 at First Baptist Church in Woodstock, Ga., messengers to this year’s Georgia Baptist Convention adopted a budget $4.1 million smaller than the previous year’s spending plan. The state convention has eliminated 27 positions since January, about 13 percent of its total staff. The 2010 budget of $45.5 million is divided between the state convention’s own ministries and the Southern Baptist Convention, with 41 percent of receipts forwarded to the national body.

         Baptist Women in Ministry, an advocacy and support group founded in 1983, has estimated there are more than 2,000 ordained women ministering in churches with a Southern Baptist heritage. About 120 have been identified as senior pastors, mostly in churches that now identify with newer groups like the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and Alliance of Baptists. The majority of the women serve in roles other than preaching pastor, like church-staff positions, chaplains, and missionaries. Thousands more minister but are not ordained.

         With 2,700 members, First Baptist Church of Decatur, one of several historic congregations in what is now metropolitan Atlanta, is one of the largest and most prominent churches traditionally affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention to be led by a woman pastor.

         A search committee considered 64 candidates before unanimously recommending Pennington-Russell, who at the time had been pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Waco, Texas, for nine years. Before that Pennington-Russell, a native of Florida and graduate of Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary, was pastor of Nineteenth Avenue Baptist Church in San Francisco.

         Though affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention since its founding during the Civil War era, First Baptist Church of Decatur has in recent years identified primarily with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, a group of former and current moderate Southern Baptists formed in 1991 that is more open to women in the pulpit.

         White, executive director of the convention since 1993, said in the letter to Pennington-Russell that he “would be remiss if I did not say on behalf of the convention how grateful we have been across many years of partnership with First Baptist of Decatur for our service and ministry together.”

         “You and the church family are in my thoughts and prayers today as you move forward to continue your ministry in the name of the Lord,” White wrote. “We recognize and appreciate the faithfulness of First Baptist Church of Decatur throughout the years.”

         Pennington-Russell said members of the church “wish our brothers and sisters in the Georgia Baptist Convention well, and we’re moving ahead toward God’s good purposes for us.”

         She said the church’s 150th anniversary is just a little over two years away, and the congregation is strategizing about 150 ways to “communicate the love of Christ to our community and world.”