The fallout from the exposé of the Southern Baptists’ coverup of sexual abuse by church leaders continues to ricochet after their recent Annual Convention in Anaheim.* Ironically, Baptist leaders were among the harshest critics when, a few years back, the Roman Catholic Church had to face up to similar problems, but now they’re forced to defend their own policies and practices.
What these two church traditions have in common is a strong commitment to unhealthy authoritarian male leadership. In the modern world, implications of male dominance that might have been acceptable in the past are more easily identified by women than by men. Women leaders pick up on vibes that men in their position might miss. I believe that, if women had been involved in the higher echelons of Southern Baptist and Roman Catholic leadership, these sexual abuse problems would have been sniffed out and dealt with much earlier and more efficiently.
This is one of the fringe benefits of a journey that ABC has been on for more than forty years. In my memory, it began with Lily Martin, whose husband Dr. Ralph Martin** was serving as ABC’s Interim Pastor before I came to be its Pastor. Lily was a strong and intelligent woman, and the weekly Women’s Bible Study she led was the largest regular gathering in the Church, outside of the Sunday Morning Worship Service. She helped women learn that they could and should assert themselves in shaping the Church’s decisions. Out of her influence, a group of young adults began a study of Biblical teaching about women’s roles in leadership. They presented their findings at a Church business meeting, and Lily rose to support them.
Further study led, in 1981, to a one-word change in ABC’s Constitution, from “The Deacon Board shall consist of nine men,” to “The Deacon Board shall consist of nine members.” At the very same meeting, the Church’s first women Deacons were elected (Jean Marsh and Joyce Spencer). Three people, including one Deacon, resigned from the Church because of that decision. However, within three years, the Board elected its first woman Chair, Dina Palen.
This opened the door to a further step: the ordination of women to be clergy. In 1982, husband and wife Mark and Stephanie Dodrill, serving as ABC’s Youth Directors, both graduated from Fuller Theological Seminary with the same ministerial degree, so the Church ordained both of them to be Pastors. It turns out that Stephanie was the first woman ordained in our Baptist denomination in 31 years. Together, they have been serving ever since as spiritual leaders of Youth For Christ in Barcelona, Spain.
In 1988 Connie Larson became the second woman ordained by ABC. She was installed as Assistant Pastor. In 1991 she became the Church’s Co-Pastor, and in 2019 she was elevated to be Pastor. Currently, Pastor Connie Larson DeVaughn is assisted in leading this Church by a Deacon Board, led by a woman Chair (Debra Blake) and supported by six (out of 9) women Deacons. Both the Church Treasurer (Martina Westmoreland) and Finance Secretary (Peggy Golden) are also women.
I believe this history of affirmation of women in leadership has provided our Church with a heritage of a more holistic, positive and humane ministry over the years. As a bonus, I think it has also helped keep ABC from falling into the blindness to abuse being uncovered in some other Christian groups, where leadership is stubbornly and exclusively male.
- *Last Thursday, June 15, news report
- An in-depth discussion of the report
- ** Dr. Ralph P. Martin, Professor of New Testament and Graduate Studies, Fuller Theological Seminary, 1969-1996, and his wife Lily raised their children at ABC. Pat, their oldest, married Lynn Losie and served as ABC Administrative Assistant for several years in the 1970s.
[If you want to study the bottom-line result of toxic male leadership in a religious group, I recommend you watch the 2022 Netflix series, “Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey,” which chronicles the gradual decline into awful abuse under “Father” Warren Jeffs in the Fundamentalist Later Day Saints.]
— Pastor George Van Alstine