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JOE LAGUARDIA: Women play vital role in church leadership

Every February, Baptist Women in Ministry encourages churches to celebrate women ministers and invite women clergy to preach. It is a time to recognize that women and men alike, equal in partnership, are critical in spreading of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

I'm not sure when my own enthusiasm for celebrating women in ministry came about, but I know why it did. I have two older sisters who are heroes in my life. One, an editor-in-chief in New York, is ever an inspiration. The other, an entrepreneur, taught me confidence. Both are all-round great moms, strong and independent.

When I came to Baptist ministry late in life (after spending most of my high school years in a Presbyterian church that valued women in ministry) I was awestruck by the diversity of beliefs and controversies surrounding women in the Baptist tradition.

Some churches do not recognize women pastors and believe that the pastoral role is reserved for men alone. Other churches acknowledge the full inclusion of women in the life of the church and the Spirit's anointing on female preachers and prophets.

The biblical record is just as diverse. Writing to the Corinthian community, Paul encouraged women in the community to "be silent in the churches" (1 Cor. 14:34). Likewise, he informed his pupil, Timothy, "I permit no women to teach or to have authority over a man" (1 Tim. 2:12).

Other scriptures make it clear that women played a central role in the early church and that these two verses may have shaped specific communities rather than the church at large.

Lydia was a wealthy entrepreneur in Philippi who hosted a church in her home; Phoebe was Paul's fellow missionary and deacon in Rome. Two strong believers in Timothy's life -- his grandmother Lois and mother Eunice -- introduced him to the Gospel (2 Timothy 1:5).

Women were the first to preach the Gospel about the Risen Christ. Women received the spirit of prophecy on Pentecost; and they helped spread the Gospel throughout Europe.

The early church benefited from women in ministry. Early records report that the church included women in leadership and preaching and women filled the office of deacons within the first century.

Desert mothers and, later, monastic matriarchs such as Hildegard of Bingen and Theresa of Avila guided disciples of both genders. St. Brigit of Kildare followed St. Patrick to Ireland to spread the Gospel; the Moon sisters, Lottie and Edmonia, Baptist missionaries to China during the late 1800s.

Baptist Women in Ministry (BWIM) encourages churches to celebrate this heritage and support women in clergy and staff. The organization takes its cue from a preacher close to home: Martha Stearns Marshall, who was an 18th century Separatist Baptist missionary who co-founded a Baptist church in Kiokee, Ga., with her husband. She is the namesake for BWIM's Martha Stearns Marshall Month of Preaching every February.

In 2007, Martha Stearns Marshall Month of Preaching saw over 50 churches invite women to the pulpit at least one Sunday in February. By the year 2012, nearly 217 Baptist congregations had a woman preach for the occasion. Nearly half a dozen churches have women fill the pulpit for the entire month.

Some churches have even called women to be pastors, like Macedonia Baptist Church here in Conyers, which recently called a first-class preacher, the Rev. Billie Boyd Cox, to fill its pulpit.

With two sisters for heroes, a young daughter who is a preacher in her own right, and a wife whose ministry takes her into some of the neediest public schools in Atlanta, I appreciate women in ministry and the dedication of churches that support women in all clerical roles.

If you are looking for some unique inspiration and wish to celebrate women in ministry, I encourage you to visit the BWIM website, www.bwim.info, and find a church near you that is observing this special event. You are also invited to join us this Sunday, Feb. 24, as we host the Rev. Laura Foushee of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

The Rev. Joe LaGuardia is the senior pastor of Trinity Baptist Church, 301 Honey Creek Road, Conyers. Email him at trinitybc3@bellsouth.net or visit www.trinityconyers.org.