How Many Female Pastors are in the SBC?

A Call For Action

Pastor Mike Law Jr. recently drew attention to the “rising number of churches employing or ordaining women as pastors.” Law is the only staff pastor at Arlington Baptist Church in Virginia, and in 2022 he noticed five nearby Southern Baptist (SBC) churches employing female pastors. After multiple failed attempts at gaining clarity from SBC leadership,  Law proposed an amendment to the Southern Baptist constitution to define SBC cooperating churches as those who do not “affirm, appoint, or employ a woman as a pastor of any kind.” In the course of advocating for his proposed amendment, Law became aware of at least 170 women who were serving as pastors in SBC churches in direct contradiction to the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 (BFM) which states “While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.” 

By contrast, pastor and former SBC president JD Greear considered statistics from his own state of North Carolina and concluded that the number of female pastors in SBC churches is “not growing, it is shrinking. Anyone who says otherwise is either ignorant, misinformed, or being purposely divisive.” Greear’s conclusions regarding the direction of this trend would further contradict Adrian Rogers when he estimated in 2000 that there were then between 50 and 70 SBC churches with female pastors. To complicate the narrative further, Rick Warren tweeted on Jun 8, 2023, that “at least 1,928 SBC churches have women pastors.”

Such contradictory conclusions from Greear, on the one hand, and Law and Warren, on the other hand, show that clarity on this issue is lacking. This general lack of clarity prompted me and a volunteer team of concerned church members to investigate. If Law is right, then his proposed amendment is urgently needed. If Greear is right, then perhaps the problem is taking care of itself, so to speak, and less aggressive action on the part of the Convention will suffice.

Spurred on by these questions, our team found what any interested and motivated observer could. But the results were nevertheless shocking. Greear is wrong to downplay the issue, and Law’s work uncovered just the very tip of the iceberg.

Our Study

Surveying publicly available church websites, facilitated by the online SBC church database, we discovered that the number of female “pastors” in the SBC is likely ten times higher than the number uncovered by Law, that it has no indication of a downward trend, and that it is closer to Warren’s recent estimate.

To state the obvious, we are not statisticians. I spoke with some experienced statisticians, however, to make sure we used an appropriate process. Again, our all-volunteer team consisted of an assorted group of more than forty lay people from around a dozen SBC churches. The information collected is all publicly available. We checked every church against official SBC listings.

And still, we are confident that the randomized sample can be replicated within the margin of error outlined below. The one limitation of our study was that not every SBC church has a website listed on the online SBC portal. 

The SBC officially lists 47,614 SBC churches. Of these 47,614 churches, around 22,000 have websites publicly listed on the searchable SBC database. We controlled for duplicate and faulty links which brought the number of listed churches down to 20,000. To achieve a 99% confidence level within a 2% margin of error, our sample size of randomly selected churches was 3,847 churches. Within this sample we discovered 99 SBC churches with female pastors and a total of 149 female pastors serving across these 99 churches, some of which overlap Mike Law’s results. But when our team’s numbers are extrapolated to the entire convention of 47,614 churches, we can conclude that there are approximately 1,844 female pastors serving in 1,225 SBC churches.

This is a staggering number, and it dwarfs the previously known information about female pastors by a factor of ten.

Some may attempt to cast doubt on these numbers given the ambiguity of role labeling across SBC churches. In other words, some churches may loosely employ alternative labels such as “minister” or “director” to women in their churches. To address this issue, we limited our data set to websites that listed women as “pastor,” “elder,” “reverend,” or “pastoral staff.” We did not include those churches using alternative labeling even in instances, such as “preaching director,” that signal functional pastoral duties and oversight. In instances of ambiguity, we opted to not include the example so as not to over-represent the data.  

Looking at the data from another angle, some critics may dismiss our conclusions by presuming that most of these female pastors are youth or children’s pastors or women’s ministers and the like who do not teach or exercise authority over men. But when we extrapolate our data through the different categories of pastors, we conclude that the number of female pastors in the SBC fall into the following pastoral categories:

  • Youth/ Children/ Family Pastor: 433 (23%)
  • Assoc./Assis. Pastor: 359 (19%)
  • Miscellaneous Pastor: 359 (19%)
  • Worship Pastor: 161 (9%)
  • Co-pastor with Husband (Lead Pastor): 124 (7%)
  • Senior Pastor: 111 (6%)
  • Elder: 111 (6%)
  • Executive Pastor: 99 (5%)
  • Co-pastor with Husband (Not Lead Pastor): 87 (5%)

While the largest percentage is the Youth/Children/Family Pastor at 23%, the results show that most pastors are in roles that directly relate to the prohibitions in 1 Timothy 2:12–13. The senior leadership roles of “senior pastor” and “co–pastor with husband (lead pastor)” account for 13% of pastors. These numbers bely claims made by many who oppose Law’s proposed amendment and who have dismissed his initial findings.

The point is that our findings demonstrate that the nature of the issue at hand is not merely a semantic one wherein churches apply the title of “pastor” to roles that are not biblically pastoral in nature. Rather, the data suggests that the title is being applied to roles that are functionally ones of oversight, or traditional pastoral duties. Even on the most critical view, it is irrefutable that 13% of the positives produced by our study were either senior or co-lead pastor roles. Stated simply, at least 13% of the SBC churches with female pastors (a number we estimate to be approximately 234) appear to be formally egalitarian and, therefore, in violation of even the most generous reading of the BFM.

One surprising trend in the data was how many female pastors clustered in different states. In Texas, Virginia, North Carolina, California, and Georgia, our data projects over a hundred female pastors for each state, with Texas close to three hundred. When Greear cited his own state of North Carolina, he cited the state as having twenty female pastors. As the graph below indicates, our randomized sampling indicates a far more serious picture, and it also may indicate that Rick Warren is correct when he tweeted that, “State conventions are . . . shielding their churches . . . so they were only asked for numbers, not names. Added together, at least 1,928 SBC churches have women pastors.” This may indicate that states are complicit in obscuring the true number of women serving as pastors in SBC churches, which would then contribute to a perception that the number of female pastors is shrinking.

Concluding Thoughts

In 2006, Wayne Grudem noticed that ordaining female pastors is one of the first steps in a denomination’s slide towards theological compromise that ultimately ends in the ordination of practicing homosexuals. This is in large part because the same interpretive move that says, “this prohibition only applies to the first century” is the same interpretive move that pro-homosexual interpreters make when they consider texts against homosexuality like Romans 1:24–32, 1 Timothy 1:10, and 1 Corinthians 6:9–11. Not every egalitarian supports homosexual practice. However, the hermeneutical trail that argues for God’s blessing on homosexual practice was a trail blazed first by egalitarians arguing for God’s blessing on women pastoring. 

In recent history, we see how the shift from egalitarianism to homosexual acceptance plays out at the denominational level:

  • The American Baptist Churches USA allowed female pastors in 1985 and failed to uphold discipline for churches with homosexual members in 1999.
  • The ELCA ordained women in 1970 and practicing homosexual pastors in 2009.
  • The Episcopal Church USA allowed female pastors in 1976 and homosexual bishops in 2003.
  • The PCUSA allowed female pastors in 1956 and then openly homosexual pastors in 2011.
  • The United Methodist Church allowed female pastors in 1956, allowed for homosexual unions by failure to discipline in 2014, and there is currently a conservative exodus from the denomination that is expected to change their policy to allow homosexual ordination in 2024.

If the SBC allows for female pastors, how long would it be before the convention schisms like the Methodists, not to mention the Anglicans? I can think of few greater blows to cooperative program giving and missionary sending than a conservative exodus out of the SBC. Southern Baptists love the Great Commission. But if the denominational trend from female pastors to homosexual ordination occurred in the SBC over a period of decades, what kind of Great Commission disciples would we be making in the year 2050? They would be disciples deceived into thinking that one can inherit the kingdom of God while practicing major and unrepentant sexual sin, something the apostle Paul warns explicitly against (1 Cor. 6:9–11). When you study the history of denominations, the direction generally goes one way for the unwary, and that is a slow fade to the theological left. Only a few times in recent history has a denomination pulled back from a cliff before their brakes went out. If the SBC allowed for female pastors, the movement to the theological left would not stop merely at female pastors.

As Southern Baptists examine which churches are in close alignment with the BFM, and as they consider providing constitutional clarity with an amendment, they would do well to remember the slope of recent history, the wisdom of God-given gendered distinctions, and the integrity of the Great Commission. The future of the Southern Baptist Convention may depend on it.

*Image Credit: Pexels

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Kevin McClure

Kevin McClure is a PhD student in New Testament at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS) in Louisville, Kentucky. He previously served as an Associate Pastor at Geist Community Church in Indianapolis, where he oversaw pastoral training and discipleship. Kevin was an adjunct professor and board secretary for Indianapolis Theological Seminary, and founded the church planting organization Plant Indy. He resides in Louisville with his wife and their four children.