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City’s oldest baptist church makes history, installs first female pastor

Rev. Kathryn Kimmel — at the First Baptist Church pulpit Sunday, Nov. 7, 2021 — is the first woman to lead the congregation since it was established in a log cabin near the Mississippi River in 1839. (Louis Tucker/Special to The Daily Memphian)
Rev. Kathryn Kimmel — at the First Baptist Church pulpit Sunday, Nov. 7, 2021 — is the first woman to lead the congregation since it was established in a log cabin near the Mississippi River in 1839. (Louis Tucker/Special to The Daily Memphian)

Members of First Baptist Church formally welcomed their new senior pastor Sunday morning.

Rev. Kathryn ‘Kat’ Kimmel was installed as the congregation’s fifth senior pastor since the church first graced the corner of Poplar and East Parkway in 1951.

More notably, Kimmel is the first woman to lead the congregation since it was established in a log cabin near the Mississippi River in 1839.

“God has given you a song to sing in this community that only you can sing. God has given you a witness to offer this community that only you can offer,” Rev. Paul Baxley, executive coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, told the congregation. “That’s a calling for your congregation. That’s a calling for my friend, Kat.”

Kimmel’s installation marks another milestone in First Baptist’s long history of demonstrating its religious freedom.

In the early 1990s, First Baptist was one of the first congregations to leave the Southern Baptist Convention and affiliate with the more theologically and politically moderate CBF.

Affirming women in all roles of ministry was one of the CBF’s founding principles.

The SBC limits the role of women in ministry, and restricts the office of senior pastor to men.

“Only we can determine our leadership, our direction, our actions in community in conversation and prayer together,” said Cathy Wilhelm, who led First Baptist’s search committee for a new pastor.

“We cannot be subject to the opinions or rulings of those who do not know us or live among us,” said Wilhelm, who joined First Baptist in 1970. “We would rather not judge or be judged. We seek to do what God would have us do. Ordaining women is something we decided was right for us a very long time ago.”

Ordaining woman and hiring them to lead congregations remains a complicated and controversial issue among Baptists.

None of the SBC’s 47,000 congregations are led by women, but only about 7 percent of the CBF’s 1,400 congregations are led by women.

Earlier this year, two high-profile Southern Baptists brought the issue of women in the pulpit back to the forefront.

In March, Beth Moore, a popular Southern Baptist speaker and author, told  opens in a new windowReligion News Service she is “no longer a Southern Baptist.” A month later, she apologized for supporting complementarianism, which teaches that God put men in charge of church and home.

“Let me be blunt,” Moore tweeted. “When you functionally treat complementarianism — a doctrine of MAN — as if it belongs among the matters of 1st importance, yea, as a litmus test for where one stands on inerrancy & authority of Scripture, you are the ones who have misused Scripture. You went too far.”

In May, Saddleback Church in California, the largest church affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, ordained three women as ministers. Three days later, on Mother’s Day, Kay Warren, wife of Saddleback’s senior pastor, Rick Warren, delivered a sermon.

The SBC’s credentials committee has been asked to  opens in a new windowconsider whether the denomination will continue its “fellowship” with Saddleback.

Kimmel is a lifelong Baptist, a religious tradition founded on faith and fellowship, but also independence, liberty and dissent.

“Some will see my work as senior pastor as breaking with some sort of tradition,” said Kimmel, who started working for First Baptist in August. The congregation has been without a senior pastor for more than two years. “But we are sticking up for Baptist tradition, for what is historically Baptist.”

‘Why not senior pastor?’

Kimmel grew up in a church in North Carolina that was “dually aligned,” affiliated with both the SBC and the CBF.

Her spiritual formation was profoundly influenced by women in ministry.

Her church’s youth minister, a woman, helped her recognize her own spiritual struggles and gifts.

Two chaplains, both women, who helped her grandfather and great uncle showed her how to care for the spiritual needs of others.

“My grandfather was in hospice and needed to talk about dying,” Kimmel said. “No one in the family wanted to do it. No one in the family wanted him to die. The chaplain could talk to him.”

Kimmel began to feel a call to ministry, but the lines between the pastor and other the ministers were clearly drawn. “We had women deacons, but for the most part, all you saw up behind the pulpit were men,” Kimmel said.

When Kimmel was in high school, she visited nearby Meredith College, founded as Baptist Female University in 1899. She was thinking about majoring in religion.

“I was talking to a woman who worked in the college president’s office,” Kimmel said. “I was saying that I didn’t know if I wanted to be a youth minister or some sort of chaplain. She said, ‘Why not senior pastor?’ Oh, I thought. This is where I should be.”

Kimmel went on to earn a Master’s from Duke University Divinity School, and a Doctorate from Candler School of Theology at Emory University. Both are Methodist colleges affiliated with the CBF.

She worked as an associate minister at a church in South Africa, then as a hospice and hospital chaplain back in North Carolina.

She spent the past eight years on staff at University Baptist Church in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, the past four as co-pastor. She also was serving as CBF moderator in Mississippi. She’s married to singer/songwriter Tom Kimmel.

“I don’t get much pushback about being a pastor from church family anymore,” Kimmel said. “But out in the world, it still surprises a lot of people. ‘Oh, you can do that?’ I get that quite often. Yes, as a matter of fact, you can.”

‘Why has it taken so long?’

Rev. Rick Bennett receives communion from Rev. Kathryn Kimmel (front) and associate pastor Rev. Holly Hatton at First Memphis Church on Nov. 7, 2021. (Louis Tucker/Special to The Daily Memphian)
Rev. Rick Bennett receives communion from Rev. Kathryn Kimmel (front) and associate pastor Rev. Holly Hatton at First Memphis Church on Nov. 7, 2021. (Louis Tucker/Special to The Daily Memphian)

The first woman to be ordained by a Southern Baptist church was  opens in a new windowAddie Davis by the Watts Street Baptist Church in Durham, North Carolina in 1964.

Davis couldn’t find a single Southern Baptist church that would hire her as senior pastor. So she took a job as pastor of an American Baptist Church in Vermont.

That challenge continues.

By the mid-1980s, Southern Baptist churches had ordained nearly 500 women. Only 18 served as pastors.

Today, more than 2,500 women have been ordained by CBF congregations. Only about 175 serve as senior pastors. More than 800 serve as chaplains.

First Baptist is only the second historically Southern Baptist Church in Memphis to hire a woman as senior pastor. Prescott Memorial Baptist Church hired Rev. Nancy Hastings Sehested to be senior pastor in 1987.

Eight years later, Rev. Dr. Gina M. Stewart became the first woman to become senior pastor of an African-American Baptist congregation in Shelby County, Christ Missionary Baptist Church.

“It’s exciting and gratifying to see First Baptist call its first female senior pastor, but it’s also frustrating that it’s taken so dadgum long,” said Rev. Sarah Jobe, who was ordained by First Baptist in 2006.

Jobe is a senior chaplain at a woman’s prison in North Carolina. She attends Watts Street Baptist Church in Durham, where Addie Davis was ordained in 1964.

”When will we be at a point where we stop celebrating the baseline inclusion of women in ministry?” Jobe asked.

Southern Baptists aren’t the only people who ban women from leading congregations.

So do Roman Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Latter-day Saints (Mormons), the Church of God in Christ, some Lutheran and Presbyterian denominations, Muslims and Orthodox Jews.

Today, about 20 percent of clergy in America are women, up from 2.3 percent in 1960. But only 10 percent of U.S. congregations are led by women.

‘Lest confusion reign’

The push to ordain Southern Baptist women began in 1983 when Sehested and dozens of others  opens in a new windowformed Women in Ministry, SBC.

The group’s purpose was to “provide support for the women whose call from God defines her vocation as that of minister … and to encourage and affirm her call to be a servant of God.”

The pushback began the following year at the the SBC’s annual meeting. Delegates approved a  opens in a new windowresolution that “Women are not in public worship to assume a role of authority over men lest confusion reign in the local church.”

That didn’t settle the matter.

Prescott Memorial in Memphis, and other congregations that hired women as senior pastors, were “disfellowshipped” by local and state SBC associations.

SBC professors and agency leaders who supported women’s ordination were removed from their positions.

SBC seminaries barred women from classes in preaching and pastoral care. Agencies stopped appointing women to equal positions with men.

Finally, the exclusion of women from the pulpit became official Southern Baptist doctrine.

“A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ,” Southern Baptists declared in 1998.

In 2000, they added another restriction: “While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.

‘Written by men’

Both statements were added to the  opens in a new windowBaptist Faith and Message, a nearly 100-year-old confession of generally shared beliefs written and rewritten by Southern Baptist men.

The confession begins with this sentence:

“The Holy Bible was written by men divinely inspired and is God’s revelation of Himself to man.”

The men who lead the Southern Baptist Convention lean heavily on about two dozen Bible verses to support their view that women should not be pastors.

Most are attributed to the Apostle Paul.

“Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness … I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet,” Paul wrote in I Timothy.

“The women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says,” Paul wrote in I Corinthians.

Egalitarian Baptists also cite Paul to support their belief that woman can lead churches.

“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” Paul wrote in Galatians.

They also point to other Bible references that show women in positions of leadership as prophets, apostles, deacons, and house church leaders.

“Paul started a church with Lydia,” Kimmel said.

In his sermon Sunday, Baxley reminded the congregation, “on the day you’re going to install a woman preacher … of the first circumstance under which the first woman was ever called to preach.”

According the gospels, the first person to see Jesus in His resurrection and the first person sent to tell others of the resurrected Jesus, was a woman, Mary Magdalene.

“”So, Kathryn, my sister,” Baxley said, “Go and preach,” 

‘Hoped for dream’

Since 1951, First Baptist Church has been at its current Midtown location, where Cathy Wilhelm leads the Lord's Prayer on Nov. 7, 2021. (Louis Tucker/Special to The Daily Memphian)
Since 1951, First Baptist Church has been at its current Midtown location, where Cathy Wilhelm leads the Lord’s Prayer on Nov. 7, 2021. (Louis Tucker/Special to The Daily Memphian)

First Baptist began ordaining women as deacons in the early 1990s, and as ministers in 2001.

Rev. Carol McCall Richardson, a lifelong member of the church, was the first. She was ordained in 2001 and served as associate pastor until she retired in 2012.

“Rev. Dr. Kimmel’s unanimous selection as our senior pastor has been my long hoped for dream for the church,” said Richardson, who attended Kimmel’s installation Sunday.

“It is with gratitude to this church that this congregation has called such a gifted woman to serve as the first senior pastor of First Baptist Memphis. It’s a day of great rejoicing for all of God’s people,” she said.

Rev. Holly Hatton, the church’s associate pastor, was ordained in May. Richardson and Jobe helped lead the service.

“As female pastors we appreciate the significance of this milestone in our church’s and the Church’s history, but we don’t sit around high-fiving each other and saying, “Look at us! Girl Power,” said Hatton, who led communion with Kimmel Sunday.

Like Kimmel, Hatton’s spiritual formation was influenced by men and women in ministry.

She watched her father, Rev. Ray Hatton, lead the congregation’s music ministry and saw his joy.

“He is the ultimate example for me of someone who is doing exactly what God has called them to do,” she said.

She also watched her mother, Trudy, Carol Richardson, and other women in the congregation lead by example.

“It has always been my experience in the First Baptist Church of Memphis that women were the ones who did work of the church,” Hatton said before the service. “It just took a while for them to be voted deacon chairs, affirmed as ministers, and now, installed as the senior pastor.”

‘Inclusion and social justice’

Associate pastor Rev. Holly Hatton leads the children's sermon at First Memphis Church on Nov. 7, 2021. (Louis Tucker/Special to The Daily Memphian)
Associate pastor Rev. Holly Hatton leads the children’s sermon at First Memphis Church on Nov. 7, 2021. (Louis Tucker/Special to The Daily Memphian)

The earliest Baptist preachers were radical reformers, 17th-Century protesting Protestants who stood for religious liberty and freedom of conscience.

They looked the established church in the eye and said all believers are priests, equally responsible for evangelism, service and discipleship.

They discarded the regal robes and rituals of the established church and said all souls are competent to know and respond to God’s will.

They grabbed a Bible and proclaimed their local congregational autonomy, saying preachers are called by the Lord, not licensed by state oligarchs or approved by church patriarchs.

“Our understanding of Baptist faith and practice is expressed by our emphasis on freedom in biblical interpretation and congregational governance, the participation of women and men in all aspects of church leadership and Christian ministry, and religious liberty for all people,” the  opens in a new windowCooperative Baptist Fellowship declares.

Members of First Baptist Church, the earliest Baptists in Memphis, among the first CBF-affiliated Baptists, have never been shy about demonstrating their Baptist distinctiveness.

The congregation was among the first Southern Baptist churches to welcome African-Americans in the 1970s.

The congregation began ordaining women as deacons and ministers in the late 1990s, and gay deacons and ministers in the 2010s.

“Some may see this as quite the bold move — for First Baptist Church to call a female senior pastor, but it is actually fully in line with who they have been,” said Rev. David Breckenridge, the church’s senior pastor from 2008-2019.

“Every time over the last 30-plus years First Baptist has had an opportunity to move forward on a question of inclusion and social justice, they have not failed to do so.”

This story first appeared at under an exclusive use agreement with The Institute. Photos reprinted with permission of The Daily Memphian.

Written By

David Waters is Distinguished Journalist in Residence and assistant director of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis.

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