Texas Baptists elected their first female president in a narrow vote on Monday.
Retired missionary Joy Fenner was elected by a 900 to 840 vote during the annual meeting of the Baptist General Convention of Texas (BGCT) – the largest state Baptist convention in the country. She defeated second-generation candidate David Lowrie by one of the smallest margins in BGCT history.
This year's vote follows previous historic elections in which Texas Baptists placed into leadership their first Hispanic and first black presidents in 2004 and 2005, respectively.
Although Texas is among the top three states with the highest number of women pastors and co-pastors, according to the latest Baptist Women in Ministry report, less than 1 percent of the state convention's pastors are female, as reported by The Associated Press.
The 2.3-million-member organization has distanced itself from some Southern Baptist leaders who say women should not serve in pastoral roles and should graciously submit to their husbands. The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC)'s statement of faith states that the pastorate is reserved for men.
In dissension with the BGCT, more conservative Baptists split in 1998 to form the Southern Baptists of Texas, which is intentionally more related to the SBC.
Fenner was executive director-treasurer of Woman's Missionary Union of Texas from 1981 to 2001. She also served as a missionary with the Southern Baptist Convention's Foreign Mission Board for 13 years. Last year, she was named first vice president of the BGCT.
The new female head pledged to continue the convention's focus on increasing mission work – an emphasis of the current BGCT president Steve Vernon.
"Texas Baptists have always been a missionary people," said Steve Wells, who nominated Fenner for presidency. "Joy Fenner has been that literally."
The state convention met Oct. 29-30 in Amarillo under the banner "Together we can do more" with an emphasis on mission work.
"We really wanted to pull Texas Baptist missions together and communicate that work. We do not have an institution in Texas that is not involved in missions work, yet there is not a lot of connection between them," said Vernon during a workshop, according to BGCT's publication.
In "his day," missions was more about praying and giving from a distance or what Vernon called "missions by proxy."
"Churches are not satisfied with that anymore," he noted.
Today, Baptists are being called to the mission field and to partner with institutions worldwide.
"We have to raise up missionaries. They don't just come out of the woodwork when they turn 25," said Vernon. "Our students, for example, are excited to go and they'll go anywhere. We don't need to harness that; we need to release it and send them out."