GEORGE VAN ALSTINE:
I’m not sure when it dawned on me that affirming the full equality of women was an issue I should do something about as a Christian leader. I was aware of the history of change over the last few decades, and was supportive of all of them, including the modern Feminist Movement, but I don’t think I experienced a personal gut response that made me feel I had to act.
Then, in the early 1970s, ABC went through a generational change that led to a study of the leadership roles of women in the church. Beginning in 1974, there was discussion of the Biblical passages that assume male leadership roles in the church: Are we bound to see them as timeless rules from God, or should we interpret them as emerging from the age and culture when they were written? Should we update our practice in light of the movement toward gender equality in the modern world? Finally, in 1979, ABC voted to include women on its Deacon Board. In 1982 we ordained a woman to Pastoral ministry (Stephanie Dodrill, who has served since then as a missionary in Spain), and in 1988, we ordained Connie DeVaughn, who is still serving the congregation together with me.
A few individuals left the church over the 1979 decision, but in general, the people of the ABC congregation have been supportive of these changes. In 1998 Connie and I proposed, and the congregation endorsed, that we would, from then on, serve as Co-Pastors, completely equal in leadership and authority. We have tried to live up to this for the twenty years since, but it’s been hard for some people to embrace. We found that denominational leaders kept on communicating with me as lead Pastor and referring to Connie as Co-Pastor, which in their eyes meant “Assistant Pastor.” We’ve kept correcting this, but they still get it wrong. Even in our congregation, we tend to revert to old habits of thinking; I recently heard someone say that at a particular meeting, “Pastor and Connie were both there.”
So recently, I decided that it was important to make an even clearer statement. I recommended, with Connie’s approval, that she become the Pastor from now on, and that I be given the title of Associate Pastor. I explained this to the Deacon Board, then to the congregational Quarterly Business Meeting on October 28, and the new titles have been approved. Our proposal involves no change in our job descriptions or the roles we play in working with the church’s various Departments and Committees. At the Business Meeting, I shared a timeline of discussions and decisions at ABC over the years, which is available for review [see/download this PDF].
Thanks for helping us make this a positive affirmation of what leadership in the church should look like in this generation.
CONNIE LARSON DEVAUGHN:
When I committed my life to Jesus, I promised to serve him wherever and whenever and however he wanted. I always knew I would serve him in the church, and didn’t expect to be compensated or acknowledged, for this is what women have always done. I had sensed this call from God for many years, which I answered by studying for my MDiv at Fuller Seminary. Even though I knew there was no place for me at ABC as a pastor, given the size of our church, and no place in my home conference, (Baptist General Conference/Converge), given the non-welcoming environment to women in ministry, ABC became my home church during my student years simply because I was hungry to work for the Lord, and the second time I visited I was invited to work with the youth. I had intended to change denominations. If I was ambitious or savvy, I would have. But I fell in love with ABC and the people here, and had as many opportunities as I wanted for ministry. Big battles had blazed over women in leadership in our conference during my college years, which left me weary. I felt ABC was my temporary cocoon from those battles, as that issue was settled before I arrived. I am so pleased that I have not been the “First Woman to” anything here at ABC.
God confirmed my call to the pastorate, with a miraculous provision for my salary through an anonymous donor the summer after I graduated from seminary. So it has been a great surprise and blessing for me to be your pastor all these years. I have loved all the people he has brought my way to pastor. I consider it the highest honor to be side by side with you in prayer, in crisis, in change, in blessings. I have always felt that the learning curve has been long for me, and I’m so appreciative of the people of ABC who have been patient with my growth. My overarching goal has been to be faithful to God and to his people here.
It was always my ‘deal’ with God that since he had specifically placed me here, he would have to specifically lead me out, and when that time came, I would follow him. So this has meant that I haven’t looked for greener pastures myself, and when I thought God might be leading elsewhere, I would ask for confirmation which never came. At one point our anonymous donor withdrew his sizeable support after 12 years. Lauren was a toddler at the time, and I had prayed to be more at home, so I thought it was a sign from God that he was releasing me. It turns out it wasn’t—it was for the health of our church that our dependency came to an end. Then when Robert had his many long years of unemployment, we always knew that he could get a job if he relocated, but again, I did not feel released by God to move, so we never seriously considered it.
Whenever a woman has wanted to use her gifts fully, she has needed a man in power to open the door for her in places previously forbidden to women, and Pastor George has done that for me. We have worked as partners in the pastorate for 31 years. We have always had a relationship of mutual respect and trust, with a whole lot of communication. I don’t think there are many models like that out there.
I did not ask George to become the Associate Pastor. I did not think it was necessary. This is what he came up with on his own. At first I didn’t see the point, but then I listened more carefully to what he was saying. Pastor George has worked very hard in some directions that have been important to the DNA of the church, one of which is women in leadership (another has been racial reconciliation). He has become more and more aware of built-in biases that continually favor men. His way of correcting that is by becoming Associate Pastor. This is not a demotion. Pastor George is secure in his own self, and in his ministry and in his role. But it is definitely a statement that Pastor George means to make loud and clear. As his Pastor, I agree.