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Southern Baptist women ministering in Metro New York, 1970-1995: the story of Southern Baptist women ministering in Metro New York from 1970 to the mid-1990s is remarkable.

As a pastor in Metropolitan New York Baptist Association (MNYBA) in 1970-73 and as a staff minister of MNYBA in 1974-95, I had opportunity to observe the work of numerous women in churches related to the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC).

The MNYBA serves churches in the tri-state region of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, with much of the association's work being centered in New York City. The percentage of Southern Baptists living in this area is minuscule, and the number of Southern Baptist churches is small. At its founding in 1962, the association had 8 churches and 12 missions and a total of 1,285 members. By 1970, these numbers had grown to 81 congregations (44 churches and 37 missions) and 6,548 members. (1) By 1995, the MNYBA had 201 congregations (140 constituted churches and 61 mission chapels) (2) with a combined membership of about 20,000 persons. The 1996 Census Bureau estimate of the area's population was 19,938,492. (3) Thus, the Southern Baptist-related church-to-population ratio in 1995 was 1:100,000. By comparison, nationally one SBC church existed for every 6,500 people.

These statistics describe the missions challenge faced by the MNYBA, a challenge shared by other evangelical churches in the area. Believers and followers of Jesus Christ have been and continue to be in the minority, and Southern Baptists are a tiny, but growing, segment of the population.

Seeking to meet this missions challenge are Christian men and women who come from all over the United States and from around the world, as well as those New Yorkers who have found a vital faith in Christ. Some of these people come on their vacation time to volunteer in outreach and education projects. Others come in response to God's call to plant their lives and ministries in the New York area. Still others are students in area universities and seminaries, preparing themselves for further ministry. Some of the volunteers end up staying and living in the area in order to spread the gospel. Others have taken jobs locally in order to support themselves or their families in their mission. Women and men have involved themselves in an incredible variety of ministries, traditional as well as experimental, even risky, ministries.

Ordained Women in MNYBA

Beginning in 1970, an unusual phenomenon emerged in the MNYBA. From that year until 1995, forty-eight ordained Baptist women ministers and lay leaders served in churches of the MNYBA. (4) Another nineteen women, while not ordained, filled ministry roles in their churches. This significant number of active women in ministry in Metro New York may possibly be unparalleled within any other association in the SBC. Following is a breakout of the positions held by women and the numbers of churches in which the women served. (5)

In addition to these women, a large number of women, some ordained, were appointed or assigned to the MNYBA as Southern Baptist home missionaries.

The Ordination of Women

The ordination of women is and has been a controversial issue among Southern Baptists. Much insight about ordination may be gained by reviewing what the women ministers of the MNYBA have to say about their experiences with and their views of this practice. One ordained female campus minister wished that she had not been ordained. She had agreed to ordination in order to be eligible to perform the ministry to which she felt God had called her. One unordained woman minister expressed gratitude that she had never been ordained. She believed that ordination would have made her contacts with churches and pastors more difficult. Another woman, who moved to the Northeast in "retirement" to do campus ministry, was invited by her home church to be ordained. She declined ordination and was "commissioned" instead.

Association leaders have struggled with the issue of ordination. David Dean, executive director of MNYBA from 1990 to 2002, commented: "Though I myself am a bit uncomfortable with a woman senior pastor, there is no doubt that in New York City and in our association, women have served valiantly. Ordination is the big issue for most SBC folk. Women's ordination is not the issue, but rather ordination itself. [It's] hard to build a biblical prerequisite for ordination of pastors at all." (6) Dean's call for a reevaluation of ordination practices among Southern Baptists echoes the words of T. B. Maston, who taught Christian ethics at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Maston wrote: "If we would return to the New Testament conception of ordination, we would see that a church could properly ordain or set apart men who felt called to an educational or music ministry, to teaching or missionary service, or to any other type of special ministry within and to the Christian fellowship.... Likewise our churches could properly ordain or set apart women as well as men." (7)

Church Planting

Planting new churches in the tri-state area has been a successful venture, and many of these church planters have been husband-wife teams. Doris Knight and her husband Edwin moved from Arkansas to New Jersey to help begin four new churches in Monmouth County. Like Aquila and Priscilla, the Knights were "tentmakers," supporting themselves by teaching in local schools. Now retired, they are volunteer international missionaries.

Martha and James Chun organized the Korean Baptist Church of New York in their home. This church was the first of twenty-seven Korean SBC congregations in the metro area. (8) Martha was the Woman's Missionary Union (WMU) director for MNYBA in 1999; later, the International Mission Board appointed the Chuns as missionaries to Korea.

Notable among the many husband-wife teams who have ministered in MNYBA are Sam and Lola Simpson in the Bronx, Taylor and Susan Field in Manhattan, Mark and Florence Hui in Brooklyn, Larry and Linda Holcomb in Queens, Harry and Betty Watson in the Hudson Valley, and Romy and Loida Manansala in New Jersey.

Baptist Women as Ministers

Four extraordinary women, through their lives and successful ministries, demonstrate the strengths that women have brought to the churches of MNYBA. The first woman, Suzanne Coyle, was typical of a group of women ministry students. Coyle, a student at Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey, was ordained by her home church, an SBC congregation in Gravel Switch, Kentucky. The local association later dismissed this church from membership because of Suzanne's ordination. (9) Following her ordination, Coyle became an active member of an MNYBA church, Twin County Baptist Church in Kendall Park, New Jersey.

What was not typical about Coyle was that she had earlier worked as the chaplain/pastor of a new church in Center City, Philadelphia and received salary assistance from the SBC's Home Mission Board (currently known as the North American Mission Board). She also had been a supply preacher for several churches in the MNYBA and a gifted pastoral counselor.

A second Baptist woman minister, Nancy Hastings Sehested, studied in New York, at Union Theological Seminary, was later ordained by a Georgia church, and ministered with congregations in Tennessee and North Carolina. Sehested wrote of the lack of acceptance of women in ministry: "We live in the great in-between time. Our calling is clear, and our gifts are manifest. But the desert is a severe, unforgiving place. Many have already parted company, taking on other careers or taking positions with other denominations." (10) Sehested has become a preacher of national renown.

A third exemplary woman, Druecillar Fordham, was typical of a significant number of women ministers living in the Metro New York area. Fordham, founding pastor of a MNYBA church, received one of the first certificates from the Basic Curriculum Series of Seminary Extension courses and was ordained by a Baptist church outside the MNYBA. When Fordham led the Christ Temple Baptist Church to affiliate with the MNYBA, she thereby became the first known female pastor of an SBC church. That affiliation took place in stages. First, Fordham was recognized as a new minister by the association at its annual meeting at Farmingdale Baptist Church in Long Island on October 15, 1971. After one year of "fellowship," Christ Temple Baptist Church "was welcomed into the full fellowship of the Association" at its tenth annual meeting at Greenwich Baptist Church in Greenwich, Connecticut, on October 5, 1972. (11)

The entrance of Fordham's church into the MNYBA in 1972 led her to be recognized by Leon McBeth as "perhaps the senior minister among Southern Baptist women.... Though not ordained among Southern Baptists, this [affiliation] makes Fordham, a widow, the first woman pastor of a Southern Baptist church." (12) Writing in 1974, Sarah Frances Anders cited Fordham as the only female senior pastor of an SBC-related church. (13)

In 1972, Ken Lyle was minister of associational services (executive director) of MNYBA. He remembered Fordham as a great asset to the association:
 She was a very humble servant of Jesus.... The church had made some
 progress in their decision to unite with MNYBA before [she] became
 pastor.... She moved that process forward with real joy.... The
 Association did not have a problem with Christ Temple becoming part
 of our fellowship.... We held to the principle of the autonomy of
 the local church in the matter of who was called as pastor.... Some
 of the other African American pastors (male) who were part of CHANCE
 did express some reservations, however.... but, no anger or
 rebellion on their part either.... I had the privilege of being with
 the folk at Christ Temple often to preach and teach.... [There was]
 always a warm welcome ... and much response to the gospel and to
 Southern Baptists.... [Reverend Fordham] graduated from our Seminary
 Extension program ... a good student, eager to learn all the days
 of her life.... She was a genre, loving leader ... a dear friend ...
 my mentor re small churches in Harlem and many other valuable
 lessons re ministry in the city. (14)

A fourth resourceful woman minister, Esther Nahm, was typical of women pastors of churches that worship in languages other than English. Nahm founded the Korean-American Baptist Church in Queens, was ordained by a MNYBA church, and supported herself as a bi-vocational pastor by working in a bank. Nahm's experience was also typical in that her work met resistance from the male Korean pastors in MNYBA. Yet, she found great support from association and convention leaders like Quinn Pugh, former executive of both the MNYBA and the Baptist Convention of New York. Pugh wrote warmly of Nahm:
 [Among] women pastors who stand out in my memory of Metropolitan
 New York is the Reverend Esther Nahm. Sharing in her ordination was
 a very special moment for me. I am often shamed by my own
 ineffectiveness when remembering her dedicated determination to
 see people come to know Christ. She was not deterred by presumed
 male dominance. She did not consider secular employment as a
 hindrance to her ministry, but rather a means to accomplish it.
 Her patterns of prayer were overcoming to those of us who find it
 difficult to spend the pre-dawn hours in petition before the
 Heavenly Father. I was deeply grieved at her untimely death in
 Washington, DC, where she had taken her vacation time to spend
 bearing witness to the Evangel, and where she was bludgeoned to
 death outside her motel room. Sharing in her memorial service was
 a genuinely humbling experience. (15)

The Woman's Missionary Union

Much of the work done by women in the MNYBA was done through the WMU. Helen Long Fling was one of those women who worked with WMU in order to minister within the local churches of MNYBA, the regional Baptist Convention of New York (BCNY), the SBC, and the Baptist World Alliance. In 1968, Fling was elected as the national WMU president. That same year, she and her husband, Robert C. Fling, moved from Texas when he was sent by the Home Mission Board to be pastor-director in Westchester County, New York. Helen Fling moved from national WMU president back to doing "basic church work including keeping the nursery and making peanut butter sandwiches for Vacation Bible School." (16)

Soon Fling found new avenues for ministry. She began teaching the English language and American culture to Japanese wives and enlisted other women in this ministry. She got involved in the WMU work in her area and was president of the state WMU from 1971 to 1976. Fling also was active in the work of the Baptist World Alliance, including its North American Baptist Women's Union and was a trustee of the American Bible Society. Within her own church, Fling worked with her husband and together they "led the Westchester church to own its own building. The church became fully self-supporting. It ... launched a variety of ministries to an international assortment of business and diplomatic leaders. [Helen] Fling admitted she invited more non-Christians for meals in those years than in forty years prior." (17)

Other Metro-area women who were president of the BCNY's WMU from 1970 to 1995 included Mildred Boisture, Barbara Nesmith, Bonita Leary, Fairy Harpe, and Zully Maldonado. These volunteer leaders were competent speakers, capable organizers, and gifted motivators of women, youth, and children.

The presidents of MNYBA's WMU from 1970 to 1995 were Mildred Boisture, Mavis McCrary, Fairy Harpe, Bonita Leary, June Andrews, Katie Hill, Karen Eberhardt, and Kay MacVicar. (18) Most of the ministries in the New York area organized by women can be traced to the foundational work of early WMU promoters, especially Ava Leach James and Aileen Morgan) (19) James sowed seeds that would later blossom and result in the organization of a strong and vital WMU, and Morgan would become its first president in 1962. (20)

Three Black Baptist Ministers

The presence of a significant number of black Baptist women who were ministers is not surprising given the ethnic diversity found in Metro New York area. Three such women, from varied geographic backgrounds and with varied ministry positions, served effectively for many years in the MNYBA. David F. D'Amico, MNYBA's executive director from 1985 to 1989, wrote of these three women: "If I were to [send] an epistle to the brothers and sisters of the churches of MNYBA I would head the list with the names of Maisie Bruce, Miriam Dennis, and Elaine Thomas." (21) All three women were born in the Caribbean: Bruce in Jamaica, Dennis in Panama, and Thomas in Haiti. All three women were ministers of the gospel, but only Dennis was ordained.

Bruce, a missionary appointee of the Home Mission Board, was the founder and director of the Wake Eden Christian Academy in the Bronx. The academy consisted of an elementary school and preschool.

Dennis was the minister of education and choir director at Bethel Baptist Church in St. Albans, Queens, but she also worked for the state of New York in the area of employment insurance. Dennis actively participated in the association as a leader in WMU work and as a member of the Christian Life Committee. She also was a "mother figure" for the young women of the Bethel church. In October 1986, Dennis preached the annual sermon for the association's fall meeting at the Trust in God Baptist Church in Chinatown, Manhattan. Her powerful sermon, based on Joel 2:28-29, was well received. In 1993, following the death of her husband Alwyn Dennis, she succeeded him as pastor of Bethel Baptist Church.

Thomas, whose husband Jean Baptiste Thomas is the pastor of the largest Southern Baptist church in the Northeast, directed the Boyce Bible School Center in Brooklyn. She also assisted in planning and implementing many church activities and ministries.

Of Bruce, Dennis, and Thomas, D'Amico wrote:
 I pay tribute to these ministers of the gospel, my sisters in
 Christ, my colaborers in the Kingdom, my encouragers for mission,
 the workers who sustain ministry with their energy, creativeness,
 patience, long suffering, deprivation, and constancy. I thank God
 for many women like these who are urban ministers. They have the
 stamina to do what many men cannot do. They are intelligent and
 contextual in their ministry. They would make Priscilla, Lydia,
 and Phoebe very proud of being servants--diakonos in the
 churches. (22)


What accounts for the prodigious ministries in Metro New York by women, both ordained and unordained? First, I believe that their presence and their contributions can be attributed to the work of the Spirit of God hovering over the region, calling persons to faith in Jesus Christ and urging all Christians to exercise their gifts in building up the church. Multitudes of women are answering the Spirit's call to salvation and the call to use their gifts in the global missions arena that is Metro New York.

Second, the constituencies of the churches of the association vary greatly in national and ethnic backgrounds. Because of this diversity, the churches seem to have a greater than usual openness for women to exercise gifts for ministry. Many MNYBA churches have exhibited respect toward women in ministry and have provided ministry opportunities for them. Third, several key leaders of the association and the Baptist Convention of New York as well the Home Mission Board had positive attitudes toward women in ministry. These denominational leaders provided support, both in finances and personal affirmation, to women in ministry. They encouraged the involvement of women in missions service in the city. The attitude of leaders is reflected in the statement of Lisa Chilson Rose, director of volunteers for MNYBA: "My thoughts are that Jesus used women as much as he used men and valued them in the ministry of the gospel." (23) It is my understanding that the current policies of the North American Mission Board prohibit the appointment of ordained women as missionaries and the endorsement of ordained women as chaplains.

From 1970 to 1995, numerous Southern Baptist women in Metro New York ministered in churches, schools, hospitals, and the military. Southern Baptist churches ordained many of these women, and they along with countless other women, who were never ordained, served faithfully in a variety of ministry positions. The positive influence of these ministering women continues to shape the lives of people in the Metro New York area. Their stories are indeed remarkable.

Pastor 9 6
Associate Pastor 5 3 7
Minister of Education 4 15 16
Evangelist 3 2
Deacon * 17 6
Campus Minister and
Chaplain ** 10 1

* Seven women were deacon chairs in their churches.

** The number includes 7 campus ministers, 3 hospital chaplains, and 1
military chaplain.

(1.) Annual, Metropolitan New York Baptist Association (MNYBA), 1970, 52.

(2.) Agenda Items and Book of Reports, MNYBA, 14 October 1995, B-12.

(3.) The World Almanac and Book of Facts, 2000 (Mahwah, N J: Primedia Reference Inc., 1999), 389.

(4.) Primary resources for research include the annum minutes of MNYBA, 1970-1984; 1984 was the last year annual minutes were published. Supplemental resources include the annum minutes of the BCNY, 1970-1995, and the SBC, 1970-1993; 1993 was the last year these annuals reported ordinations of ministers. Other research methods included interviews, e-marl correspondence, church bulletins, and newsletters.

(5.) Categories of ministries were selected arbitrarily to reflect the variety of tasks in church leadership. Not every kind of ministry is reported, nor did all the churches of MNYBA send annual reports. Lists were supplemented by this writer's acquaintance with many of the ministers.

(6.) David Dean, e-marl message to author, March 6, 2003.

(7.) T. B. Maston, "Personal Perspectives on Ordination," Southwestern Journal of Theology 11, no. 2 (Spring 1969): 112-14.

(8.) Directory of Churches and Missions of the MNYBA, December 1999.

(9.) H. Leon McBeth, Women in Baptist Life (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1979), 159-62.

(10.) Nancy Hastings Sehested, "We Have This Treasure," in A Costly Obedience, ed. Elizabeth Smith Bellinger (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1994), 4.

(11.) Annual, MNYBA, 1971, 16, and Annual, MNYBA, 1972, 22-23.

(12.) McBeth, Women in Baptist Life, 156.

(13.) Sarah Frances Anders, "Woman's Role in the Southern Baptist Convention and its Churches as Compared with Selected Other Denominations," Review and Expositor 72, no. 1 (Winter 1975), 33.

(14.) Ken Lyle, e-mail message to the author, February 22, 2003. CHANCE is the Central Harlem Area Neighborhood Church Endeavors. CHANCE was a community ministry organization that with MNYBA became involved. CHANCE provided day camps, Seminary Extension courses, a food bank, and training for local youth.

(15.) R. Quinn Pugh, e-mail message to author, February 11, 2003.

(16.) Catherine Allen, Laborers Together with God (Birmingham Woman's Missionary Union, 1987), 127.

(17.) Ibid.

(18.) June Andrews, So Generations Will Remember: A History of Woman's Missionary Union, Baptist Convention of New York, 1969-1994 (East Syracuse, NY: Woman's Missionary Union, Baptist Convention of New York, 1994), 254-64.

(19.) James's husband, Paul S. James, was pastor-director for Southern Baptists in the Northeast from 1957 to 1969. Morgan's husband, David A. Morgan, pastored First Baptist Church of Brooklyn.

(20.) Nancy Blevins Ryals in History of Woman's Missionary Union, Auxiliary to Metropolitan New York Baptist Association, 1963-1983 (New York: Woman's Missionary Union, Auxiliary to Metropolitan New York Baptist Association, 1983), descried early missions ministries conducted by Baptist women, youth, and children.

(21.) David F. D'Amico, unpublished article e-mailed to author, February 12, 2003.

(22.) Ibid.

(23.) Lisa Chilson Rose, e-mail message to author, February 18, 2003.

DeLane M. Ryals, a retired Baptist minister, was director of Church Extension, Metropolitan New York Baptist Association, 1974-1995. He now lives in Nashville, Tennessee.
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Author:Ryals, DeLane M.
Publication:Baptist History and Heritage
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Mar 22, 2004
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