Members of the pastor search committee are, from left, Julia Bass, Joe Dobyns, Shirley Herring, Ray Dalton, pastor Ellen Di Giosia, Don Garner, Will Brummett, Donna Davenport, Joan Barnhill and Kristi Snyder.
Ellen Di Giosia and First Baptist Church of Jefferson City, Tennessee, are the Baptist Center for Ethics' pick as Baptists of the Year for 2017.
Di Giosia and the church represent the best of the Baptist tradition. One readily sees in them hallmarks of the Baptist faith: embracing soul competency, practicing the priesthood of believers, excercising autonomy as a local congregation, reading the Bible with Jesus' help.
The church, after calling Di Giosia as its senior pastor in June, was deemed an uncooperating church by the Tennessee Baptist Convention (TBC) in November.
TBC says it did not "kick out" the church; rather, the church chose a course putting the church at odds with the convention, which has affirmed its commitment to the 2000 version of the Baptist Faith and Message (BF&M).
That version of the BF&M states in Article VI: "While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture."
Di Giosia and her church, prior to the convention's annual meeting in November, still expressed a desire to remain in cooperation, saying all parties agreed on more than they disagreed.
The TBC, first through its Committee on Credentials and second by church messengers' vote at the annual meeting, chose to stay its course regarding the office of pastor and to treat First Baptist of Jefferson City as uncooperative.
Di Giosia fanned no flames of discord. In fact, she and her church embodied Article XIV of that same BF&M - the article on cooperation.
That article reads, in part: "Members of New Testament churches should cooperate with one another in carrying forward the missionary, educational and benevolent ministries for the extension of Christ's Kingdom. Christian unity in the New Testament sense is spiritual harmony and voluntary cooperation for common ends by various groups of Christ's people."
She responded graciously - as so many female ministers and pastors do - in the face of a certain disenfranchisement that was literally applauded by many in attendance when the vote was taken.
To be clear: The Baptist Center for Ethics sees the ability to extend a gracious hand in the face of theological rejection as a sign of practical and spiritual strength and power.
We reached out to others who have known Di Giosia - some for years, some for only a few months - for comment.
"When a new pastor begins her work she needs time to get to know the congregation," says Eileen Campbell-Reed, coordinator for coaching, mentoring and internship as well as associate professor of practical theology at the Nashville, Tennessee, campus of Central Baptist Theological Seminary. "She wants to build the relational bridges and partnerships for ministry. She just wants to settle in. Instead, Ellen and First Baptist were plunged into a time of turmoil and conflict, which on one hand looked like a distraction. But on the other hand, coping with Tennessee Baptists was simply the pastoral work to be done. Ellen and the leaders at FBC engaged the situation with careful attention and intention. They demonstrated the grace and peace of Christ to the Baptists of Tennessee and to everyone observing the story as it unfolded."
"Ellen is a creative, compassionate and charismatic pastor," says Garrett Vickrey, pastor of Woodland Baptist Church in San Antonio, Texas, where Di Giosia served as associate pastor before moving to Tennessee. "In fact, she is many things. Ellen is a preacher, a singer, a teacher, a knitting enthusiast, a mother, an expert grammarian, a former Jeopardy! contestant and someone with a surprising amount of Pokemon knowledge for a woman of her generation. Most of all, she is a friend. Ellen is the kind of friend you can trust to be steady and faithful in difficulty and the first one on to the dance floor to celebrate with you when the music starts. This is the kind of person and pastor God has gifted to the First Baptist Church of Jefferson City, Tennessee."
"Baptists have disagreed and will continue to disagree about any number of significant issues, including the role of women in the church's ministry," says Todd Stilll, dean of Truett Theological Seminary at Baylor University. "About this, however, there should be little to no dispute - in the midst of a denominational maelstrom, the Rev. Ellen Di Giosia has conducted herself in a manner worthy of the gospel that she has been called to proclaim. In so doing, she has become a winsome witness to a watching world."
"Ellen Di Giosia is a smart, strong and gifted pastor," says Jackie Baugh Moore, a member of Woodland Baptist Church. "She has worked tirelessly on behalf of women in ministry for many years as a leader in Texas BWIM (Baptist Women in Ministry). Ellen does not hesitate to stand for what is right and good and just - not only for women in ministry but for others who have been excluded or marginalized by the church in different ways. Those in the broader Baptist world recently witnessed what others of us have seen before when Ellen (along with a faithful and steadfast FBC Jefferson City) stood strong in the face of misguided misogyny and exclusion. What a significant impact she is making in Baptist life but more importantly in the lives of the people in the churches she serves and in the lives of those in her larger community."
"Our family had the privilege of becoming members of First Baptist, Jefferson City, in 1984," says Ircel Harrison, coaching coordinator for Pinnacle Leadership Associates. "This was the first time that our 10-year-old daughter, Stephanie, had the opportunity to see women serving as deacons. This made a significant impression on her and other family members. The church has long affirmed both women and men for leadership roles and called gifted pastors to lead. Rev. Ellen Di Giosia continues that tradition. I am thankful for this gracious and gifted congregation as well as their new pastor."
"In the short time I've known Ellen, I am greatly impressed by her faith and courage in accepting the call to guide First Baptist Church in Jefferson City, as well as her grace, patience and tenacity in responding to the church's critics," says Rick Bennett, field coordinator of the Tennessee Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. "Her calling to a congregation that has shaped generations of Baptist leaders just makes sense."
"When FBC Jefferson City was excluded from the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board's annual convention in November, Ellen and the lay leaders of this faithful Baptist congregation responded with dignity and grace," says Tambi Swiney, associate pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church in Nashville. "While many congregations say they support women in ministry, this courageous congregation has coupled their words with action. I am grateful for their leadership and partnership in the gospel ministry."
"I am grateful that both Ellen Di Giosia and the congregation of FBC Jefferson City are being honored this year," says Kelly Moreland Jones, a member of Nashville's First Baptist Church and a second-year seminarian with Central Baptist Theological Seminary's Nashville-based Women's Leadership Initiative. "This gives testimony to the fact that progress only happens when both women and churches take risks to do something new when God calls. In a time when our society is holding persons accountable for violating sexual harassment laws and workplace policies, the church would do well to consider how it continues to undermine the ministry gifts of women."
"Together, minister and church demonstrated the biblical ideals of courage and grace during this previous year," says Mitch Randall, incoming executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics. "In addition to their unwavering faith, they upheld the Four Fragile Freedoms dear to every authentic Baptist. It's an honor and privilege to be part of an organization that celebrates and affirms the calling of all Christians."
"The path for a woman called to the senior pastor role in Baptist life is one of challenge, one of barriers, one of repeatedly hearing the words 'we aren't ready yet to call a woman,'" says Pam Durso, executive director of Baptist Women in Ministry. "Yet Ellen persisted in the face of closed doors, closed minds, closed churches. She continued to listen to the Spirit as did the people of First Baptist Church, and the prayerful and thoughtful listening of a faithful church and a called and gifted woman led to one another."
Our world needs leaders, including pastors, like Di Giosia now more than ever. We must celebrate them.
The Baptist Center for Ethics sees Jesus, and a pastor, in Ellen Di Giosia. She, and the historic church who called her to lead them, are our Baptists of the Year for 2017.
Previous Baptists of the Year:
2016: Bill and Audrey Cowley
2015: Molly Marshall
2014: Don Sewell
2013: Linda Leathers
2012: Glen Stassen
2011: Wayne Flynt
2010: Babs Baugh
2009: Emmanuel McCall
2008: David Coffey
2007: Al Gore
2006: Lebanese Baptists
2005: Paul Montacute
Cliff Vaughn is media producer for EthicsDaily.com.