Image: Joy Fenner
Eric Gay  /  AP
Joy Fenner is expected to win the election at the end of October to be president of the Baptist General Convention of Texas.
updated 10/4/2007 8:50:30 PM ET 2007-10-05T00:50:30

A former Southern Baptist missionary who got her start as a church secretary is likely to become the first woman president of the Baptist General Convention of Texas.

If Joy Fenner wins the election as expected at the end of this month, it will widen the gap between the conservative Southern Baptist Convention and the moderate Baptist General Convention of Texas, which has been distancing itself from the national denomination for years.

The Southern Baptist national leadership says that women shouldn’t be pastors and that a wife should “submit herself graciously” to her husband. Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth just started a homemaking program for women to reinforce what the school president calls biblical family and gender roles.

But Baptists are fiercely independent and emphasize local control over their churches, and moderate Southern Baptists like the Texas group are more open to women’s leadership. Fenner has been endorsed by Texas Baptists Committed, an influential group that led resistance to a conservative takeover of the state convention. A rival state group, Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, was formed in 1998 and remains loyal to the SBC.

Fenner, 72, worked as a secretary in the 1950s at First Baptist Church in Marshall and spent 13 years with her husband as a missionary in Japan. She served as the state convention’s first vice president last year, putting her in position for the top job.

Her only announced opponent for the one-year presidential term is the Rev. David L. Lowrie Jr., a West Texas pastor who says the convention is headed in the wrong direction. He pledges to support Fenner if she wins.

“I think as society itself has come to represent diversity in leadership, I kind of wish the church had led the way,” Fenner said. “But maybe as it is happening in professions and businesses, that some of it is spilling into the church.”

Would not be first to lead a state convention
If she wins, Fenner won’t be the first woman in the country to lead a state Baptist convention. The Baptist General Association of Virginia has had five woman presidents, said Pam Durso, of the Baptist History and Heritage Society in Atlanta.

But female convention leadership is rare in the South. And the Texas group, with a $50 million annual budget and 2.3 million members, is the nation’s largest state Baptist convention.

David Currie, executive director of Texas Baptists Committed, doesn’t expect Fenner will face opposition based on her gender, because “hard-core fundamentalists — theologically and emotionally — have supposedly left the state convention.” Still, as of last year, only 12 of the 5,600 churches affiliated with the Texas group had women pastors or co-pastors, Durso said.

Lowrie, pastor of First Baptist Church in Canyon, said he wasn’t running out of opposition to a woman becoming president. He said he was concerned about keeping the ties that remain between the Texas group and the national denomination.

Many Texas Baptist churches are affiliated with the moderate state convention and the national denomination. Lowrie said churches affiliated with the Texas convention gave the SBC $13.9 million in donations last year.

“I didn’t enter this race because I was concerned with us having a woman president,” he said. “I was more concerned about the direction of the convention. If she were elected, I’d be very supportive of her and the convention.”

Lowrie said staff layoffs announced Tuesday at the state convention offices could throw support to his candidacy. The Texas convention plans to cut 29 positions by the end of the month to decrease spending.

SBC has more than 16 million members
Starting in 1979, theological conservatives began to consolidate control over the 16.3 million-member Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant group in the country.

Eventually, disenfranchised moderates left and formed their own national group, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, based in Atlanta, which affirms women in ministry. But, just like on the state level in Texas and elsewhere, many churches that belong to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship have also kept their connection to the SBC.

The meeting where the Texas election will be held is set for Oct. 29-30 in Amarillo. In past years, the convention elected its first Latino and African-American presidents. Fenner said that if she wins it will be an acknowledgment of a long history of contributions by Baptist women.

“Women have been a part of the founding and the history of our convention, they have just not had that leadership role,” Fenner said. “The Baptist General Convention of Texas would not be where it is today without the women of our churches standing alongside our men.”

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