Growing up Baptist, Jennifer Harris Dault says her calling into the ministry was clouded by comments and assumptions along the way that the pulpit was no place for women.
“I had this feeling as a kid that women could not be pastors,” said Harris Dault, 30, a May Central Baptist Theological Seminary graduate who lives in St. Louis “It wasn’t until I was already in seminary and had preached my first sermon that I realized I did have these gifts.”
She also realized she wasn’t alone – that many Baptist women, even those traditions OK with women’s ordination – faced the same opposition and doubts she did.
So Harris Dault compiled 23 of those experiences (including her own) into Modern Magnificat: Women Responding to the Call of God, a book released in November.
A common denominator in their stories is the experience of being told by churches they would not be hired despite being the most qualified candidates.
If nothing else, Harris Dault said, she hopes the book will convince search committees to drop that line.
“I don’t think churches have heard these stories,” she said. “To say ‘we think you’re the best person for the job but we’re not ready to hire a woman’ can be really difficult to hear.”
Harris Dault spoke with ABPnews about her book, her calling and her future – if any – as a Baptist.
How does a person know when they’ve been called into ministry?
I think that it varies for different people and often it’s a process. As I started compiling the stories for The Modern Magnifcat, there are a lot of stories of women who only in retrospect saw evidence of a call throughout their lives, and often when someone else recognized the gifts in their life.
What advice do you have for women – or men for that matter – in determining if they are truly being called into ministry?
Seek counsel in how to discern that. Talk to trusted mentors. Talk to people around you who know you and have been part of your faith journey. That, and a lot of praying.
How was the “men only” message about preaching conveyed to you while growing up?
I grew up in the South, in Central Louisiana, going to a Southern Baptist church. I never heard it from the pulpit, but it was part of the culture in the city, and there were some voices along the way…. I remember being on a mission trip with my youth group when I was in junior high, when one of the counselors made a comment that I would make a great missionary’s wife…. I remember telling my youth minister at the time that maybe I was interested in youth ministry, and he sort of chuckled and said I would probably marry a youth minister.
Did you take those kind of comments personally? Did they make you sad or angry?
It certainly bothered me…. The comment about the missionary’s wife made me think he’s confused about that role. I was stubborn enough not to give up on the idea, but I entered college thinking I would be a missionary because it was one thing that was OK for a woman to do.
What’s the idea behind the title of your book?
The idea is that the Magnificat is the response Mary gave after she was told she would have a child that was God’s son. The Modern Magificat is the implication that that is what we are doing responding to our callings.
Is the book intentionally tied in with the season of Advent?
I enjoy that the timing worked out that the book came out right before Advent started. The book is not Advent related, but Advent is all about this preparation and this beginning that we’re looking for, and I think that’s the case with a lot of these stories.
In the foreword to the book you say Baptist women are in a unique situation compared to those in other denominations. What do you mean by that?
It seems like a lot of the other denominations have figured out who they are on this subject. You have groups … that are very firm that women do not belong in the pastorate, and then you have the United Methodists who will place you if you have been ordained. When I did an internship with the United Church of Christ, they couldn’t believe that I was still in a situation where I was hoping a church would be comfortable calling me…. So there is a strange situation (in the Baptist tradition) where you have all of these ordained women out there with churches who say ‘ yes, we believe you have been called,’ but still can’t find a position anywhere.
Are you hoping the book will convince more churches to hire women pastors?
Yes. I think there is power in telling stories, and I would like to think that in hearing these stories that there will be more understanding.
Do you think the book will help you land a job you are called to?
I think it could go either way. It could either help or hinder. I have wondered what being a voice advocating for women in ministry will do.
Have you been searching for those positions?
I have … and I have been in a spot where all the churches I have applied to have hired someone else.
Do you think about following other Baptist women into more welcoming denominations?
Yes…. I am kind of in this weird spot, where I am in the process of joining a Mennonite church and I work at a Methodist church as a church administrator …. I would like to be Baptist – it’s what I know and it’s where I feel drawn – but I struggle with whether or not there is a place for me there.
Do you wonder if your calling is to remain in the Baptist world to clear the path for future generations of women?
I do. I feel very torn. I feel pulled in both directions, and I don’t know where it will lead. It’s something I continue to struggle with and something I am talking to other women about.
© 2012 Associated Baptist Press, Inc. Reprinted with permission.
Jeff Brumley is Assistant Editor of Associated Baptist Press and editor of the ABP newsblog. Brumley holds degrees in journalism and religious studies. In addition to his duties at ABP, he teaches a world religions course at Florida State College at Jacksonville.