Editor’s Note: This week we welcome Elizabeth-Anne’s SBC Story about calling and ministry. Elizabeth-Anne Lovell is part of the 3MMM Team, teaches Jesus in the Gospel and Film at Belmont University, and is a brand new mom.
It’s Not You, It’s Me:
A Southern Baptist Story
I’m sure by now you have heard about the recent Southern Baptist Convention meeting. You know the one. The one that voted out churches that have female pastors. Maybe you also read the proposal to make constitutional amendments that would further exclude women in leadership. (Warning: may cause extreme eye-rolling; read at your own risk.)
It has been a strange summer for me as I processed this news. I’m not writing this to explain my side or to tell you why I think women should be pastors. I won’t be referencing any Bible verses or mention any names of women in the Bible. I’m not going to bring up Lottie Moon.
Instead, I want to be honest with you and say I am annoyed.
I am annoyed that this conversation is still going on.
More importantly, I am annoyed with myself that I thought anything would actually change.
You see I grew up in a Southern Baptist Church in a rural town in south Alabama. That church was my safe-space, my home, my sanctuary. When I am homesick or feel far from God, it is the place I envision first.
It is where I learned Bible stories; it is where I felt encouraged to ask questions. And it is where I worshiped.
My Southern Baptist church is where I stood up at 17-years-old one Sunday after church camp and shared with the congregation that I believed God called me to ministry.
The strangest part as I look back on all this is that no-one doubted me or my calling. I never remember hearing, “you are wrong!” No one said I couldn’t be in ministry because I was a woman. (Of course…maybe they just all assumed it would be children’s ministry and never thought otherwise?)
My family raised me in a Southern Baptist Church. I believed God was powerful enough to call women into ministry. Sure, no one spoke those exact words and maybe I never saw a woman preach or serve as a deacon. But I saw women lead, and teach, and pray, and serve in all sorts of ways.
As one of the few church members ever entering ministry, I was supported with prayer, a scholarship, and cards with encouraging words.
And so with this support I pursued my calling.
Going to School
I spent my undergraduate and graduate career learning more about faith, the Bible, ancient languages, theology, doctrine, and philosophy. And I learned pastoral care and preaching. I visited Native American reservations and met fellow female pastoras in Cuba.
After graduating college, I did what I thought I was supposed to do. I took a job in a Southern Baptist church as a Children’s Minister. (Dun dun dunnnnnn.)
The next fall, I started seminary in a Women’s Leadership cohort.
I knew this to be the pathway into a pastoral role. I had heard preachers, pastors, and mentors talk about their first year in seminary and times when they were also a youth leader or children’s minister.
But guess what? They were all men.
They eventually received opportunities to “move up” within the rankings of church leadership.
I was not.
No Place to Grow
So I sat in the nursery while I watched men with less experience and less education receive offers of a pulpit immediately.
I adopted other strategies. I asked for more responsibility. And I started women’s groups and Bible studies that failed (like not-even-one-person-showed-up failed). When I would stand up for myself, I heard in a private meeting that I needed to work on fighting my inner demons. I begged to be a part of services. They gave me one minute to ask for volunteers or read Scripture.
There was no place for me to grow. So I left.
When I left, I made more mistakes.
I put my desire to preach and to be called “pastor” above anything else. But I ask: Can you blame me?? Even as I did this, I knew it was the wrong decision.
I went to a church that I knew was not a great fit. It was wrong for me. And I think they knew I was wrong for them.
But for two years I was “Pastor Elizabeth-Anne.”
In those two years I slowly started to become a shell of myself. I hid it well for a while, even from myself, but then I didn’t.
I desperately tried to act as though I was fine. As though the weekly “Lessons of Faith” during staff meeting weren’t almost always targeted towards the former Southern Baptist girl. As if I wasn’t constantly spoken to as a child, asked to do more, and then was told how many mistakes I made. I would sit and listen to things that I 100% disagreed with, but I stayed quiet. My husband, Keaton, and I were constantly questioned because we both grew up in the church (we hadn’t had a crisis of faith, you see, so how could we really know that we trust God?).
My husband, Keaton, and I agreed to get more involved. Maybe things seemed bad because we were on the outside?
I asked to lead Bible studies, for support in connecting with a local college, I attempted to plan events. My husband joined the worship band. Then we reached out to become friends with the intern that was around my age and his girlfriend.
But things never got better…
That one couple left the church. Keaton was told he played music “too much like how it is played on the radio,” and that wasn’t how they did things. I was, once again, told to commit more. And my faith and relationship with God was repeatedly called into question.
I continued to hide how upset this all made me (or so I thought). Most days I would cry on the way home from church. I would stress eat on the way to Wednesday night Bible study and then hide the evidence of the food. I ran up a huge bill at Starbucks sitting in my car drinking Pumpkin Spice Cold Brews as a form of therapy and listening to Taylor Swift and Beyonce to pump myself up for service.
One night Keaton and I discussed how unbelievable things felt.
I finally said I thought God was telling me to leave the church. I didn’t think that could be right… why would God want me to leave the place God called me to?
But when my husband agreed with me, and even said that it was time to get out regardless of having a plan for my next career move, I knew it was time to go.
After I left the church job that did not fit, I turned toward using my knowledge and skills to working for 3MMM and to teaching at Belmont University. Both rekindled my love for studying and teaching the Bible as well as my admiration and respect for the church, its members, and especially its leaders.
So – what does this have to do with the SBC? Maybe nothing. Maybe everything…
I struggle daily (daily y’all!) with feelings of guilt for both wanting to preach so badly that I was willing to go anywhere and work for anyone to have a chance and for giving up the fight as a woman pastor and preacher.
I stayed connected to the Southern Baptist church so long because I thought there needed to be a voice in the room that supported women in ministry. And I fought so long because I worried that if I left, no one would remain to fight for us.
I stayed in the wrong church for me even longer because I felt like I needed to prove something. But at what cost? It was soul crushing to so desperately want to serve God while hearing things about God that were contrary to your beliefs. To ask for help, then not only not be given help but hear only about all the things that went wrong. To long for connection and community and not be able to find it in church. The one place that used to feel safe and fun and like home.
I so desperately wanted a chance to say, “Look everyone! I’m doing it! I’m a woman and a pastor AND preaching! You can’t stop me now!” Yet the people did not really embrace me, and I was unable to live fully into my calling.
Here’s the thing. We shouldn’t have to choose.
Stop Expecting Change
Let’s be real. By continuing to kick women out, the SBC continues to harm those attempting to fulfill a call. Supporting someone only on your terms isn’t really support. Creating a system where the oldest voices continue to be the loudest and dissenting voices are silenced is not really democratic. Telling someone God can’t give them a certain gift is not really Christian. Continuing to quote the same verses out of context at women who want to serve God, isn’t very educated.
And in a religion that is dying off daily, why are they kicking out those who want to be a part of it and want to lead it?
Which is why I am here to say – It’s not you SBC… it’s me.
I need to stop expecting a change in a system built to keep the status quo.
What is worth trusting?
I could just leave it at that, but the preacher in me doesn’t get to talk much these days, so she wants to share a little bit of encouragement.
When I think about all of this, and about the church of my past, I keep going back to an old song.
No, don’t get out your hymn book. This is a Veggie Tales song.
I grew up with Veggie Tales. And I’m sure there are all kinds of things wrong with them now – like a tomato isn’t actually a vegetable. But there is this one song I haven’t been able to get out of my head.
The song is “God is bigger than the boogyman.” Maybe you remember it?
It is all about reminding us that God is bigger than anything that scares us, and God is watching out for you and me.
(FYI: Masculine language for God is used and this song will be stuck in your head all day)
When I get mad at institutions who kick women out, and when I feel mad at myself for leaving, when I get mad at myself for believing things would change, this is what I try to remember:
God is bigger than the boogyman.
And God is bigger than the SBC.
God is bigger than your doubts and your guilt.
Do what you have to do. Fight if you have to fight. Rest if you have to rest. Leave if you have to leave. Stay if you have to stay.
But just know, and please believe, God is watching out for you and me.