Inside the domed ceiling of First Baptist Church, a congregation of about 200 people listen to a sermon given by a woman.
Emily Hull McGee, age 33, is the first female pastor in the church’s 150-year-long history. She started at the church in early July after an extensive hiring process. While the role of women as pastors can be controversial, the decision to hire McGee says that she has been widely accepted by the church.
McGee comes from a long line of pastors. Both of her parents as well as her grandfather were pastors, but she never thought that she would become one herself. She majored in music at Furman University and decided that she wanted to be an opera singer. Instead of attending church on Sunday mornings, she found herself having long theological debates with her friends in bars on Saturday night, McGee said.
“I was feeling more connected spiritually then than I had at any other time in my life,” McGee said.
At that point, McGee said that she had a decision to make. She could either struggle through auditions to hopefully become a successful opera singer, or she could go back to school. Inspired by her discussions of theology with her friends, she decided to attend the divinity school at Wake Forest University, she said. Even then, McGee said that she was adamant that she would not become a pastor like her parents and her grandfather, but she couldn’t resist a familiar tug that brought her back to the local church.
She found her first job as a minister to young adults at Highland Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky., where she worked for nearly six years. McGee said that she wasn’t looking for a new job until a hiring committee at First Baptist called, and even then she had her doubts.
“I thought, I am a woman. I am young. I’m probably more progressive than the church is. I’ve never been a pastor. Oh, and by the way, I’m pregnant,” she said.
In spite of her own doubts, she was exactly the kind of pastor that First Baptist was looking for, according to Baxley. The hiring committee, made up of eight people, was looking for a pastor who would fulfill the church’s vision of becoming more progressive, Baxley said.
“We had no gender questions,” said Nancy Baxley, co-chair of the committee. “We had qualifications, but we felt like our task was to find the best person for our church and the person who God wanted to have in our church.”
Baxley said that when the committee got their first applications from female pastors, some instinctively said that they wouldn’t consider the applications. Some said that they didn’t have any qualms with the idea of a female pastor, but they weren’t sure that First Baptist as a church was ready.
The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) believes that the Bible restricts the office of pastor to men, according to the convention’s website, but First Baptist split from the SBC in 2005 to join the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. This new network of leadership not only condones female pastors but encourages it, according to Baxley, which gave the hiring committee the freedom to move forward regardless of gender.
The hiring process not only included extensive, personal interviews via Skype with prospective pastors, but it also involved three all-congregation conversations about what the church wanted in a pastor. Interestingly enough, Baxley notes, gender never once came up as an issue in these conversations with the church members, although she says that this may have been because it never occurred to some people that the committee was even considering women.
At the end of the hiring process, Baxley said it was clear among the hiring committee members that McGee was the obvious answer for the church. A unanimous vote from the church members sealed the deal, Baxley said.
Baxley says that she and the rest of the committee were nervous about the church’s response to hiring a female pastor, but only one person left the church – and even that was very amicable, according to Baxley. Otherwise, both Baxley and McGee agree that the congregation has been very accepting and welcoming.
“We were most happy when [McGee] was enlisted and we were most glad when she was selected,” said Helen Gwyn, a long-time member at First Baptist.