"We would like young women to see what a female preacher really looks like," Carolyn Staley said.
Carolyn Staley sees a parallel between racial relations in church life and the relationship of women in ministry.
Staley, the minister of education at Pulaski Heights Baptist Church in Little Rock, Ark., has organized an Arkansas Chapter of Baptist Women in Ministry.
She already has a few members, some of whom she can't name publicly.
"Because some are involved in churches that have dual membership in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and the Southern Baptist Convention, they don't put reverend before their names (the designation for an ordained pastor in many Baptist churches) and they don't want their names published," said Staley. "It's a very unlevel playing field in the Southern Baptist world. Some of these women really have to walk a tightrope."
The directory of the Arkansas Baptist Convention identifies Staley as Mrs. Instead of Rev., the usual ID for a male minister, particularly one who preaches.
"When I first saw it, it hurt my feelings," Staley said. "But I got over it. It was one of those things that made me realize how far we haven't come.
"It reminded me of race relations and the progress we've made but we've a ways to go. We really have a ways to go as Baptists as far as women in ministry. I think women in ministry may be a last frontier."
According to the 2000 version of the Baptist Faith and Message, adopted by the Southern Baptist Convention, the office of senior pastor has been determined to be limited to men based on scripture. In 1 Timothy 2:12, one of the main scriptures cited, Paul writes, "I permit no women to teach or have authority over men." Staley said she has a fundamental disagreement in interpretation of that passage, maintaining that, according to her research, the context relates to a certain group of women who were disrupting a church with gossip and elaborate dress.
"In another part of scripture, [Peter said] that our sons and daughters will prophesy," Staley said. "I don't think theology should be gender-based."
Her chapter of the Baptist Women in Ministry group is not a band of rebel-rousers. It's designed more as a fellowship and support group.
"Ministry can be a very lonely life, particularly for women," she said. "There are not many women who preach in Arkansas."
Although the group has two African-American preaching ministers, most in the current group are chaplains, associate pastors, worship leaders, reflecting areas of a church staff traditionally filled by women.
"This is not a hierarchal thing," she said. "We're open to any woman in ministry. But we're trying to provide a fresh feel to the calling. We're just trying to bring these women closer to their spiritual nature. We want to fellowship with each other. We want to have an opportunity to share our successes and problems and exchange ideas.
"There are also some informational things. There are some major benefits to being a woman minister. Going into the ministry for tax benefits is no reason to do it. It is a calling. It is not worth doing for tax benefits, not worth it all. But we want to give our members information on what is out there if they have a calling.
"I hope this chapter gives women in ministry the opportunity to create a vision for women as leaders and pastors in ministry in the future," said Rev. Ray Higgins, the Arkansas CBF coordinator, who helped Staley begin the local chapter.
"Particularly, I want to help younger women and show them that being a minister is a wonderful vocational choice," Staley said. "We would like young women to see what a female preacher really looks like."
Staley's late father, the Rev. Walter Yeldell, was a longtime Southern Baptist minister and served as president of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention.
"I've often been asked what my father would have thought about me preaching," Staley said. "I think he would have recognized that I'm responding to a call by God, and I think that would make him very proud."
David McCollum is a contributing editor to EthicsDaily.com