Though Flat Rock Baptist Church recently lost fellowship with the Surry Baptist Association over its decision to select a female pastor, the church is moving forward with higher attendance and an outpouring of support from around the world.
The Rev. Bailey Edwards Nelson took over as senior pastor of Flat Rock Baptist Church around a month ago, and shortly after her arrival the Surry Baptist Association voted to disfellowship the church since many of the association’s members believe scripture reserves the role of pastor to males. Both groups said they are now moving forward and carrying on their missions.
Nelson said good has come out of the situation. Attendance has been solid at Flat Rock, with the church running close to 200 visitors on Sunday. The Sunday after the vote by the association, the church saw 18 visitors. Several former members have come back to visit the church, and several new visitors have also come.
A graduate of McAfee School of Theology, Nelson has experienced tension before over being a female minister. But she was surprised by the vast number of positive e-mails and phone calls she received after word got out about Flat Rock being expelled due to her pastoring. Nelson said she has received e-mails and phone calls from across the nation and the world after the Associated Baptist Press picked up her story. She has been contacted by Christians and members of the clergy from Kenya, the Philippines, the Dominican Republic, and other places.
“That part really has been overwhelming,” she remarked.
Nelson took over as pastor in early July. She said not long afterward the church was invited to a private meeting with the Surry Baptist Association to discuss the association’s concerns. Dr. Billy Blakley, director of missions for the association, said the association’s messengers or delegates from its churches felt that Flat Rock’s action to select a female pastor was contrary to scripture. He said the association wanted to work through the issue with the membership committee and the church first. Nelson said the church felt the only solution that would be accepted by the association would be for her to leave the church. Since the church was not willing to do that, it declined the invitation for a private meeting.
So at the association’s last meeting in July, the group took the action. Blakley said about 80 percent of the churches represented at the meeting voted in favor of removing fellowship. He said there are 65 churches in the association.
Nelson said she received a call from a friend after the meeting to notify her that the church had been removed from the association. She said the church was not notified that it was going to be discussed at the meeting, or members would have been in attendance.
“It saddens me that issues like that come to the forefront,” Nelson remarked. But she added, “We’re not dwelling on it. We are doing well and we are thriving. There’s an excitement here that hasn’t been felt in a while.”
Blakley said of the controversy, “It is not about women in ministry.” He said women are free to be teachers, workers, missionaries and other positions, and that the church could not function without them. He just believes scripture prohibits women from senior pastorship, having authority over men.
Nelson noted that part of the Baptist tradition is the churches have freedom to read the Bible and interpret it as they feel led. She noted that many churches in the South feel the Bible limits women when it comes to ministry, but she obviously interprets it differently. She noted that there are more female pastors that are Baptist in North Carolina than in any other state in the South. She thinks there are four or five female ministers in the state with churches affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention.
Nelson said she knew from the time she felt called by God that she might face some opposition as a female minister. She said, “But for me, the calling of God to be a pastor was so clear, I could not ignore it.” She felt it would be more wrong to ignore God’s calling than to ignore what people thought she should do.
Of pastoring, Nelson said, “It’s something I’m passionate about and love.” Her husband, Justin, is a chaplain at Mountain Valley Hospice. They have one son, Aidan.
Richard Starr, a deacon at Flat Rock, was chair of the search committee for a new pastor at Flat Rock. He said the church received 70 resumes. Of Nelson, he said, “We thought that she was a fit for our church.”
Though Starr noted that it is unusual for a Baptist church in the area to choose a female pastor, he said, “We looked at her credentials, her preaching, and how she carried herself. We just went past the gender thing.”
He added, “Attendance is up, visitation’s up, contributions are up. I’m thinking it’s very well accepted in the community.”
He said there is a lot of love in the church now, and he feels positive about the church’s future.
“We just happen to have a pastor that’s female,” Starr remarked.
Tim Watson, chairman of the deacons at the church, said he has been attending the church for around 35 years, and when he came as a teenager the church had female deacons. Watson remarked, “I think we’ve been more progressive in that regard all along.”
He said Nelson is smart, faithful and has a calling. He said, “I thought it would be ridiculous not to consider her just because of gender.”
Even had he known the controversy the selection would cause, Watson said, “I would do it again.”
Now the church is moving forward with its new pastor. Nelson said, “I think we are looking for the opportunity to grow our offerings for families.”
She said the church is starting new Sunday school programs for children and also starting children’s choirs and mission opportunities on Wednesday nights. Nelson said the church has seen an influx of children coming in lately.
Watson said, “There’s been an excitement and enthusiasm that I’ve not seen in years.”
Nelson said she also wants to see the church grow its opportunities with the community and non-profit and mission organizations. The church is still a member of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and the state’s Southern Baptist Convention at this time.
Blakley said the Surry Baptist Association is also moving forward and that the recent action is really not an issue. He said the issue of a female pastor has not come up before with the association.
Contact Meghann Evans at 719-1952 or firstname.lastname@example.org.