Julie Pennington-Russell was voted on Sunday to become senior pastor of an Atlanta-area megachurch. The historic decision that went without dispute makes the congregation the largest church of Southern Baptist heritage to be led by a woman.
"Without a doubt, this is a major development," commented the Rev. R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and one of America's pre-eminent Evangelical leaders, in a blog post when initial reports about Pennington-Russell's near-confirmation as head of First Baptist Church of Decatur, Ga., came out.
In a closed session on Sunday after morning worship, some 500 members elected the married mother of two to lead the nearly 2,700-member church, according to The Waco Tribune-Herald. Only five hands of dissent were visible at most, said First Baptist's interim pastor, Dock Hollingsworth.
Pennington-Russell, 46, currently pastors Calvary Baptist Church in Waco, Texas. According to the female pastor, Calvary was the first Baptist church in Texas to call a woman as a senior pastor in 1998.
"They were writing that chapter, a fresh chapter for Baptists," Pennington-Russell told Tribune-Herald. "They were scared. I was scared. But we just discerned together this was a leap God meant for us to take."
Some 70 congregants left but the Waco congregation has grown under her leadership, according to a number of Calvary accounts.
The Southern Baptist Convention's current Baptist Faith and Message (BF&M) – the denomination's confession of faith – adopted and revised in 2000, limits the office of pastor to men "as qualified by Scripture."
But as stated on their website, FBC Decatur is different from many Baptist churches. For one thing, "We accept women and men as equally called of God for ministry as laity and clergy."
Pennington-Russell expressed strong disagreement when Southern Baptists adopted the revised BF&M in 2000. While top church officials oppose female pastors, the wording in the SBC confession does not prohibit women from leading individual churches if their local congregation so chooses.
"In Baptist tradition, the local congregation is where it all happens," she said at the time, according to CNN. "As long as there are congregations out there with the courage to follow the spirit of God ... then women will always find a place."
Although calling Pennington-Russell as senior pastor was "definitely not about 'making a statement,'" one church leader said, according to the Associated Baptist Press, Mohler believes the church is making a statement, considering the wide news coverage.
The issue, Mohler argues, is gender.
"For those who believe that the Bible is clear that only men should be pastors, this singular concern is non-negotiable," he wrote.
"A look at Julie Pennington-Russell's education, experience, and related qualifications would appear to qualify her for a major pulpit ... except for the fact that she is a woman. On that point both sides in the controversy over women in ministry should agree," he explained. "Those opposed to the service of women in the pastorate are not arguing that women are less articulate, less bright, less winsome, less caring, or less educated. Gender is the issue."
Pennington-Russell's election to head one of the area's most historic Baptist churches "undeniably" makes history, Mohler indicated. Not only does it set a precedent for women in major pulpits but the church itself is in the heart of the South and has "a proud place in the history of the Southern Baptist Convention," said Mohler.
Mohler predicts the new FBC Decatur pastor will quickly become one of the most prominent leaders among moderate and liberal Baptists. Pennington-Russell is scheduled as one of the main speakers for the New Baptist Covenant – an initiative of former president Jimmy Carter and the North American Baptist Fellowship – meeting in January. The initiative to unite Baptists and create a more positive Baptist image is said to resonate more with more moderate Baptists.
Pennington-Russell told the Tribune-Herald that she is "for anything that brings people together rather than divides them."
"Sometimes I think you have to choose to set some of the divisiveness aside and lean into the worthy part of the event," she said.
Pennington-Russell will begin her ministry with First Baptist on Aug. 19. The Decatur congregation is affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, a moderate body, but also maintains a relationship with the more conservative SBC.