Baptist Megachurch Prepares for Female Senior Pastor

A Baptist megachurch in Decatur, Ga., is preparing to take the rare step of calling a female pastor to lead its congregation.

First Baptist Church Decatur and its 2,696 members have been without a pastor for about a year. The search committee sought out to find a pastor young enough and mature enough to appeal to both young and old congregants, a dynamic speaker, and passionate and warm leader with a vision for the future of the church. On Sunday, the committee presented the Rev. Julie Pennington-Russell to the church.

The Decatur congregation reportedly reacted positively to the announcement of Pennington-Russell, who is scheduled to preach on June 17 when congregants plan to officially issue a call for her to become senior pastor of the church.

If Pennington-Russell is elected, FBC Decatur would be the largest woman-led Southern Baptist church, reported Pam Durso, a Baptist historian who serves as an officer with Baptist Women in Ministry, according to Associated Baptist Press. First Baptist is affiliated with Cooperative Baptist Fellowship – a moderate splinter group of the Southern Baptist Convention – but still maintains ties with the SBC.

"Calling Julie was definitely not about 'making a statement,'" one church leader told ABP. "Our committee and the deacon council really felt the leadership of the Holy Spirit as we navigated this decision-making process. And to have our entire congregation – minus five or six folks who are not happy about this – stand at the close of the service yesterday (Sunday) and applaud our committee was overwhelming to us."

The SBC's current confession of faith – The Baptist Faith and Message – limits the role of women from the pastorate. It states: "While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture."

Pennington-Russell has led Nineteenth Avenue Baptist Church in San Francisco in 1984-1992 and Calvary Baptist Church in Waco, Texas, since 1998 as pastor. She was faced by some protests during her leadership at the two churches, but accounts at Calvary have testified of growth while she was pastor, according to ABP.

"She is a good role model for any minister, male or female," stated one comment from an outside six-person panel knowledgeable in Baptist life today, according to First Baptist Church.

"This is a significant moment in the life of FBC Decatur. Julie is a perfect fit," said another comment by the panel.

The search committee studied some 64 candidates and devoted nearly 800 hours to find a successor to former head pastor Gary Parker. At the end of the process, the committee's selection was unanimous and it was "pleased" and "excited" to present Pennington-Russell to the congregation.

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