By Brenda Lynn Kneece
After graduating from seminary in 1978, I was called to be the Chaplain of Oxford Orphanage, a children’s home with 250 children and youth and 50-60 adult staff. When I told a professor– whom I knew to be an encourager of female seminarians– he said, “That’s great. Just remember, if you are successful you will open a door for one other woman in ministry; but if you fail you will close seven.”
In college and seminary, I served as a Youth and Children’s Minister for three congregations. Opportunities open to female students were more limited than those of our male peers. Men were asked to preach, I was asked to speak. Men were expected to state their opinions, I had to guard against appearing uppity. Men could preach, teach, evangelize, serve in missions, and whatever– the full-range of ministry. Women were expected to work with children, youth, music, counsel, teach, or serve in missions. Men were allowed to speak from the pulpit, women were often consigned to a lectern. Men had many role-models in many ministry fields. There were only one or two for me, and not one was a “preacher” or a “pastor.”
A male peer in my CPE cohort group confessed to the group that he had thought of me as an “uppity female” during a class in seminary simply because my work had been acknowledged as being well done. Once, the Director of the Field Service office at seminary called me on a Wednesday afternoon to ask if I was available to preach for a little church on Sunday. His ask included this disclaimer, “I’ve already asked all the men.”
The congregation I served during seminary asked me to “speak” in worship because the pastor had been sick and they had depleted their pulpit supply funds. Since I was going to be there leading youth and children activities, would I speak on Sunday without extra compensation? One Sunday became six. The first two Sundays the sermon was described in the order of worship as “Morning Speaker.” The next two Sundays that same part of worship was titled “Morning Message.” The fifth and sixth Sundays, the worship order said “Sermon.” For six weeks, I preached, visited, and served in other ways while taking a full load of classes and working 20 hours in the seminary cafeteria. It was an exhilarating time and wonderful opportunity. I think the church gave me a love gift. More importantly it gave me an opportunity of inestimable value.
The first Sunday, I hummed “God of Grace and God of Glory” as I dressed. I had preached a few times before, but this was my first time to preach without the pastor present and I was nervous. Imagine my surprise to see in the bulletin that “God of Grace. . .” was the opening hymn. Imagine my wonder when I picked up the hymnal– on the front pew where I was to sit until time for the sermon– and folded at that hymn were two Kleenexes. The nervous tension I had felt early that morning disappeared as we sang the hymn. God was gracious, God was glorious, I felt God’s power in that hour.
The sixth Sunday we had a remarkable worship experience. I can remember the sermon and its title “Stretcher Bearers.” I had lunch with a church family and made a visit. Then, I went back to the church to be sure it was locked up. Leaving, I met two Deacons in the hallway.
They asked if we could talk and opened the door to the toddler room of the nursery. I sat in one of the child-sized chairs, they sat on a table towering over me. They told me the Deacons had met with the Pastor after worship, and had decided to ask me if I would let the church ordain me.
Only once before had I thought about being ordained. It was several months earlier. My seminary suitemates and I had all preached on the same Sunday morning in the churches we served as children, youth, or music ministries. I suspect this was one of the first Sundays that four female Southern Baptist seminarian suitemates had all preached in Sunday morning worship on the same day.
That evening during our regular Sunday night game of Spades we shared our experiences and the conversation drifted to ordination. One told us that her home church had recently voted to ordain her. Then, just two weeks later one of her family’s dearest friends, a Deacon in the church, had led the congregation to reverse that decision. She was deeply hurt, yet asserted that she would eventually be ordained. Another told about an experience which affirmed to her that she would be ordained to pastoral ministry. The third said she probably would be ordained, but she wasn’t going to push it. I flippantly said, “I’ll be ordained when a church asks me.”
Now, in the fall of 1977, the Deacons of Providence Baptist Church, Oxford, North Carolina, asked if that congregation could ordain me. The thought was new and unrehearsed in my heart and mind. I asked for time to think and pray before I answered. I was fearful and exhilarated at the same time.
That night I called my parents. Mom answered. I said, “Mom, Providence wants to ordain me. What do you think about that?” After a pause she said, “I don’t know.” Dad wasn’t at home, so I asked, “What do you think Dad would say?” She said, “I cannot speak for your father.” She assured me they would talk and pray about it and call me back. It was a brief conversation.
In fairness to all my family and friends, I had talked about serving as a Missionary, becoming a counselor or chaplain, serving in Youth Ministry, or being a Minister of Education. Ordination had never been mentioned.
As a college student I had dated a man somewhat seriously. We participated in both BSU and Wesley Foundation activities, we played in the college band. When we talked about our future work, where we might live, and how many children we would have. One evening we were in one of the dating rooms—no door, I told him that I was thinking about going to seminary to get an MRE Degree while he finished college. We had a two-year gap between graduations because he had served in the military after High School and we had agreed not to marry until he graduated. I thought I could teach and serve a small church as its Education Director. He looked at me as if I had confessed to some deep betrayal. After what seemed to be a long time, he said, “I can’t be married to a minister.” I immediately said that’s okay I will just teach. But he knew me better than I knew myself. We never dated again. I was hurt, but my tears were quickly shed. I did not look back, so strong was the Spirit’s leading.
Even then I did not equate being a “minister” as being ordained. The thoughts of that last conversation and those lost dreams remind me that giftedness is often called out by those around us, by those who know us even better than we know ourselves. He saw a future for me that I had yet to envision.
Now in the early fall of 1977, Providence Baptist under the guidance of Dr. Bill Farrar, its pastor, had affirmed my giftedness for ministry and wanted to ordain me. I waited for my parents to call. I waited and waited. I thought and prayed and I sought the counsel of a few trusted friends, a professor, and one other family member, my sister, Cindy—with whom I had shared my thoughts and who had always been supportive.
Mid-week, I got a call from Roger Lovette, pastor of Clemson Baptist Church. Cindy, had talked with her in-laws, Sookie and Lewis Malphrus, members of Clemson Baptist, about my being ordained. Even though I had transferred to Winthrop for my junior and senior years, the Malphruses, the Clemson congregation, and I remained close. Clemson Baptist had even given me a large scholarship, the Arrington Scholarship, when I entered seminary because I had been active while a student at Clemson. Dr. Lovette said, “Brenda, if you want to be ordained, Clemson Baptist will ordain you.” I stammered a thank you for the offer and the affirmation.
The next Sunday, Bill Farrar was strong enough to preach, and I led worship. After worship, he and I talked. He asked if I had made a decision. I said I was waiting to hear from my parents. He asked, “Do you need their permission?” “No,” I said, “not their permission, I want their blessing.” Either way, I assured him, either way, the Spirit had led me to be ordained.
Late that Sunday evening, I was called to the pay phone in the hall of the dorm, I did not know who was calling. I answered, “This is Brenda.” My dad, who had never called me before, said, “Brenda doll, if you’re going to be ordained we want you to be ordained at Bethel.”
The Reverend Dr. Lon Knight, whom I did not know, was serving as the interim pastor of my home church, Bethel Baptist, in Monetta, South Carolina. Mom and Dad had sought his guidance. He had led them through scriptures and Baptist polity so that they came to see that a woman Called by God should be ordained. He did the same with the Deacons. When my parents called me, the Deacons had already agreed to recommend me for questioning by the Associational Ordination Council.
Just months before I had said, “I’ll be ordained when a church asks me” without thought. Now in eight days, three congregations had offered. It took a hymn and two Kleenexes to assure me that God’s grace, glory, and power could and would be present in my preaching. The Spirit led three congregations who had witnessed my giftedness for ministry to ask or offer to ordain me. I was certain that if I refused, I would have as Jonah ended up in a place as uncomfortable as the belly of a whale.
The Associational Ordination Council met during my Thanksgiving break in November 1977. None of these men had ever been my pastor. Most of them I did not know. I knew Rev. Marion Webb because he served congregations near to my home. I had met Rev. Marion Aldridge several years before when my sister, Cindy, and her finance took me with them to visit Marion, Dan’s college roommate, in Augusta. I did not know any of the other five. The Ordination Council questioned and talked with me for about two hours. I was dismissed and asked to wait for them to make a decision. The first room I came to was the toddler room in the nursery. I sat in a rocking chair and waited.
While waiting I remembered having been examined before at Bethel in that same toddler room. Mrs. Sallie Sims and Miss Ela Asbill, leaders of Woman’s Missionary Union, had sat in the rockers and listened as I recited scriptures and other materials I had learned for GA Forward Steps (Girl’s Auxiliary of Women’s Missionary Union). The toddler room was once again associated with an important step in my life. Three times it was the same room: when I was a GA at Bethel, as I talked with those two Deacons at Providence Baptist Church, and as I waited for the Ordination Council’s decision.
The Council unanimously recommended me to Bethel Baptist Church for ordination. The service was Sunday, December 4, 1977. Clergy and friends important to my development as a person of faith and a minister participated. My parents stood behind me and prayed the Ordination Prayer, Mom first and then Dad.
People are gifted for ministry. For decades women have been prepared for ministry. The greater struggle is for congregations. God Called me to a relationship. I have struggled at times to know and understand my role in that relationship, God has been faithful. Congregations have called me (or not) to ministry positions. The roles have been many: youth and children’s ministry, orphanage chaplaincy, seminary staff, volunteer police chaplain, nursing home chaplain, pastoral ministries, missions education, and ecumenical advocacy ministry.
During the laying on of hands in my ordination service, a beloved former pastor whispered in my ear, “Remember: if you know where you’re going, you may not be following.” I certainly did not know the way ahead when I said in late 1976, “I’ll be ordained when a congregation asks me to be.” Yet, the assurance that God’s call is clear has given me more than enough grace in the journey.