(RNS) — When the Rev. Gina Jacobs-Strain begins her term as the general secretary of American Baptist Churches USA on Thursday (Feb. 1), the 1.3 million-member ABCUSA will become the last mainline Protestant denomination to call a woman as its leader.
With her rise, American Baptists will also join the United Churches of Christ, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Disciples of Christ in being led by a woman of color. The most racially diverse mainline Protestant denomination, the ABCUSA takes a serious approach to racial justice issues and ecumenical and interfaith engagement. In 2020, it established a task force to provide anti-racism resources for personal, congregational and institutional work.
But while Jacobs-Strain’s call has deep significance for gender and racial equality in the church, gender disparities in the ABCUSA persist. According to the Baptist Women in Ministry report, only 13.5% of ABCUSA churches are led by a female pastor, compared with 45% of churches in the Alliance of Baptists, a progressive group that emerged in 1987 out of the conservative takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention.
In addition, American Baptist women pastors serve predominantly as associate and youth ministers, roles that are typically lower paid than senior or solo ministers. They are also more likely to accept part-time roles. So even as some 50% of students in seminaries affiliated with the ABCUSA are women, many women coming up in the next generation of preachers can’t count on either being called to lead a congregation, or to receive equal pay.
It’s clear that the American Baptists need to do better to make the reality of their churches match the commitments they’ve made as a denomination.
This is especially important at a time when major shifts are taking place in Baptist faith at large. According to research conducted by Christianity Today from 2015-2018, half of those raised in the Southern Baptist Convention are leaving, and those who do generally don’t stray too far. The ABCUSA can be a more progressive place that not only offers more diversity in its leadership and theology, but allows young Baptists to engage with social justice issues and ecumenical initiatives.
That’s just where many “exvangelicals” are longing to go. Jon Mathieu, a pastor of the Harbor Online Community, defines this group as “people who long for inclusive and justice-based church community but (…) who have only known individualistic, conversion-based faith rooted in biblical inerrancy — but who know that they need something very different.”
Mathieu argues that mainline denominations need to open their arms to this group.
But open arms to younger Christians means welcoming everyone. The ABCUSA is still divided on its positions on LBGTQ inclusion and marriage equality. A 1992 denominational vote determined “the practice of homosexuality” to be “incompatible with Christian teaching,” and a 2005 General Board vote reinforced this statement and additionally defined God’s design for “sexual intimacy as only between one man and one woman.”
Though the Office of the General Secretary is bound by this statement, individual congregations are not. As a result, there are considerable differences among local congregations and the regional associations and conventions that together form the denomination, and even among the regions themselves. While some regions do not allow “avowed and practicing homosexuals” to be ordained, seven out of the 33 regions support full inclusion of LGBTQ+ persons into Baptist life; one of them, ABC Metro Chicago, is led by an openly gay executive minister.
Perhaps the biggest draw for those seeking a new Baptist home is the resurgence of interest in Baptist identity in ABCUSA circles. Many of the denomination’s seminaries, regions and agencies have begun offering courses and workshops that explore the question of what it means to be Baptist.
The Rev. Derek White, senior minister at the Federated Church of Norfolk, in Massachusetts, which has dual UCC and ABCUSA affiliation, took such a course offered by American Baptist Home Mission Societies, an independent agency of the ABCUSA. Raised in a conservative Baptist church but ordained in the UCC tradition, he wanted to gain a broader knowledge of Baptist theology. The course helped him see, he said, that Baptists are not defined by the Southern Baptist line.
Jacobs-Strain’s selection as general secretary promises that ABCUSA will continue to have the conversations we need to have to demonstrate that it’s possible to be progressive and not just Christian or Protestant, but also Baptist.
(Anna Piela, an American Baptist Churches USA minister, is a visiting scholar of religious studies and gender at Northwestern University and the author of “Wearing the Niqab: Muslim Women in the UK and the US.” The views expressed in this commentary are the author’s alone and do not represent the ABCUSA or the American Baptist Home Mission Societies. Nor do they necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)