By Pastor George Van Alstine
Three things came together to cause me to write this article. First, in our TLC group’s current study of some of the Bible’s minor characters, Virginia Burton last week led us in an interesting discussion regarding Deborah, the woman judge who inspired Israel early in its history as a nation. Second, last Sunday Pastor Connie DeVaughn preached one of her most inspiring and challenging sermons, taking us to the Garden of Gethsemane with Jesus. This stimulated a discussion in the evening service about how Connie has blossomed in her ministry and how fortunate we are that ABC has become supportive of women in pastoral leadership. Third, Julie Eby-McKenzie sent us an e-mail reminding us that March has been designated nationally as “Women’s History Month,” and that ABC ought to acknowledge this in some way. I took the confluence of these three separate voices as the leading of the Lord.
Let’s go back in the Old Testament to a very barbaric time, before the Israelites had either kings to rule them or a temple to worship in. The time of the judges, between 1300 and 1000 BC, is summarized in this way: “All the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 17:6). For extended periods of time, there was no central government at all, with the various clans existing in isolation and living by their own rules. The Law that had been given through Moses and the worship of the God of the Exodus were neglected, or even entirely forgotten. At certain key moments in time, however, God raised up a special unifying figure, called a “Judge,” to keep the flow of redemptive history moving forward. Of the thirteen judges mentioned in the Bible, one of the most prominent was a woman named Deborah.
Deborah, in partnership with the military general Barak, inspired Israel to an unlikely victory against the Amalekites, who had a much larger and better-equipped army. But she didn’t just emerge on the scene like a sudden bolt of lightning. She had previously earned a reputation as a source of wisdom and a moral leader over a period of time. She is described as “a prophetess.” She “used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the Israelites came up to her for judgment” (Judges 4:4-5). Most of the other judges during this chaotic era won their position of influence by physical strength (Samson) or military conquest. Deborah earned her right to lead by her strength of character and her wisdom.
In “The Song of Deborah,” which many scholars believe to be the oldest portion of the entire Bible, Deborah sings about her role as being the “Mother of Israel” (Judges 5:7). Her particular gifts as a woman provided the ideal combination of leadership skills for the situation and the circumstances of that moment. Various commentators have expressed this in these words:
“As judge, Deborah brought a feminine sensibility to a male dominated office.”
“Deborah’s understanding of Israel’s potential for greatness stemmed from her maternal love. She exhibited a woman’s ability to instill rather than impose, to invigorate rather than force, and to cultivate rather than command.”
“The word ‘mother’ is linked to Deborah’s patient nurturing of the nation of Israel back to spiritual health.”
Which leads us to Pastor Connie DeVaughn. She brings to her Christian ministry some of the same kinds of gifts that are seen more commonly in women than in men. I consider myself to be a caring person, but I’m a little short on maternal instincts. I don’t pick up on some spiritual and emotional need signals that Connie intuitively senses. She also has a way of counseling and encouraging people that comes from her mother’s heart. These are really important gifts for pastoral ministry, and it’s sad to think that through much of the church’s history they have been excluded from full and free expression. Maybe that’s why the church has so often come across as harsh and judgmental — like a stern father, rather than a forgiving mother.
I enjoy being part of a pastoral team where our gifts complement one another. I feel we’re much more likely, between us, to sense the needs and opportunities for growth in various members of the congregation and to be able to minister in holistic ways. During this “Women’s History Month,” I’m glad to think about how I have been part of the affirmation of women in leadership at ABC and have been able to witness:
● Jeanne Marsh and Joyce Spencer becoming the first women deacons in 1981
● Stephanie Dodrill being ordained at ABC in 1982, the first woman ordained in a Baptist General Conference church in 41 years
● Debbie Peterson serving as the first woman Pastoral Assistant at ABC in 1984
● Dina Palen becoming the first woman Deacon Board chair in 1985
● Connie Larson DeVaughn ordained to the Gospel Ministry in 1988, becoming ABC’s Assistant Pastor and then becoming Co-Pastor in 1991
● Brenda Mitchell being ABC’s current Deacon Board chair, leading a board comprised of five women and four men.
Awomen! and Amen!