It wasn’t that conservative evangelical leader John MacArthur insulted women clergy last fall that shook Rebecca Caswell-Speight, a Baptist minister.
Instead, it was the audience response in the recording that most disturbed Caswell-Speight, minister of families, faith formation and connection at Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia.
“For me it was listening to the cheers around the room,” she said. “It was that large group of men cheering the claim that women should ‘go home.’”
“Go home.” MacArthur aimed those two words at evangelist, author and Bible teacher Beth Moore in a panel discussion during October 2019’s “Truth Matters Conference” in Sun Valley, California.
Caswell-Speight quickly responded with a “cbfblog” post to share how difficult it was to hear the jeering and to read subsequent social media comments from men ridiculing Moore.
But she also shared how encouraging it was to witness a deluge of #notgoinghome tweets and other social media posts reminding her and other women clergy they are, in fact, at home in their churches and ministries.
Now, some three months later, Caswell-Speight tells Baptist News Global why verbal attacks on one woman in ministry hurt so many, and what can be done about it. Her comments are presented here, edited for clarity.
Why do women in ministry seem to be facing fresh challenges these days?
I’m not sure they’re really fresh. I think they’re more cyclical. I’ve been in ministry for 21 or 22 years now. And these kinds of things pop up and go away and pop up and go away. I think they’ve always been there. MacArthur has been doing this workshop and conference for years now. He’s been making these statements for years. This time he made the comments about the wrong person.
How do words like that hurt Beth Moore and other women ministers?
Your calling is so personal. Your calling is between you and God. It becomes who you are. For those of us in ministry a long time it’s completely intertwined with our being.
Did you personally feel hurt by these comments?
Does the pain include fear that ordinations can be threatened?
That’s a real concern. The Kentucky Baptist Convention was making congregations choose whether they were going to stay or go from the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. If a church made a choice one way, people like me could have lost their ordinations.
How old were you when you heard your calling – and did it come out of the blue?
I went to a small Baptist college in Kentucky – Georgetown College. One night I was at a fraternity devotion and they were talking about callings. Later that night I was studying, and I realized I am being called. I remember it vividly. I was 19.
You’ve said God spoke to you in that moment. What did he say?
It was a strong feeling. I’m a strong feeling kind of person. Just listening and studying and remembering the devotional I could feel God saying you’re supposed to work in the church and to this day I cannot imagine doing anything other than what God has called me to be.
How did you overcome doubts about it?
I spent the next six months meeting with mentors, my minister and my family on ways to confirm and cultivate my calling.
Were you drawn to a specific ministry?
I felt youth ministry was my strongest calling. I did that for 10 years before going to seminary. It wasn’t until seminary – when I was working at a domestic violence shelter and I had a newborn – when I started to study family systems and realized I might able to help people sustain more healthy, sustaining families.
In what ways have you been told to “go home”?
I remember being a minister of youth and college students in my 20s and sitting in meetings as the only female in the room. In most of those meetings I stayed very quiet because I knew a good majority of the men believed I shouldn’t have been there. But the man who ran those meetings believed very strongly that I did. There has always been somebody out there saying “you are home” and someone on the other side telling you to go home.
In what ways do you continue to feel that pressure?
Often, it’s just simple things.
One of the scariest places for female clergy to park is in church parking spots marked “clergy.” You’re not sure when you get out of your car who’s going to say what to you. They aren’t going to hurt you, but they are going to tell you that you can’t park there. These are things my moderate brothers in ministry never have to think about.
Do you see the situation for women clergy improving overall?
I think it’s trending upward but it’s a cycle and the trend doesn’t just go straight up. You step back and go forward.
What actions can be taken to continue that progress?
We have to continue to build the next generation. The more that people continue to see women in the baptistry and the pulpit or the mission field – the more they see women claiming their calling – the better off we will be. We must reach out to new ministers. We need to take them to lunch. We need to have conversations with them. We must find ways to keep them in the spaces they’re in and build them up.
Do you see any major movements arising to support women in ministry?
I’m not necessarily seeing big social media movements. Much more powerful are the mentoring groups that you see Baptist Women in Ministry and CBF are doing, and the grants Lilly (Endowment) is providing. Those are the things that are going to make the difference – as opposed to social media activism.