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United Methodist clergywoman serves Baptist congregation
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A UMNS photo by Annette Bender

The Rev. Betty Shirley, a United Methodist, is serving as associate pastor of Rutledge (Tenn.) Baptist Church.

Oct. 24, 2005

By Annette Bender*

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS) — The Rev. Betty Shirley uses the word “ironic” to explain how she, a United Methodist, became associate pastor of a small-town Baptist church.

Last spring, the local pastor was projected for an appointment within the United Methodist Church’s Holston Annual (regional) Conference, but the appointment didn’t work out. Since all the other appointments had been made, Shirley found herself without a church.

When the senior pastor of Rutledge (Tenn.) Baptist Church asked if she would consider joining the church staff, eyebrows surely lifted. The significance was heightened when the Baptist congregation voted unanimously to extend a call to Shirley, and Holston Bishop James Swanson appointed her to the church under the “extension ministries” category.

“It’s rare,” says the Rev. Robert Kohler, a staff member of the Division of Ordained Ministry at the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry, in Nashville, Tenn.

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The Rev. Robert Kohler

Although the United Methodist Church has a long history of appointing ministers to ecumenical, shared ministries, Kohler says he is unaware of any other United Methodist clergywomen serving as pastors in Baptist churches. “This may not be the only occurrence, but it’s fairly unique,” he says.

Shirley’s appointment wouldn’t have been possible before the 2004 General Conference, which permitted appointment of local pastors to extension ministries for the first time.

“Prior to that, you had to be an elder to be appointed to an extension ministry,” Swanson says. The Holston Conference comprises east Tennessee and parts of Virginia and Georgia.

Swanson says he made the historic appointment because the Baptist congregation asked, and because “I know (Shirley) wants to serve the church as best she can.

“Not only is this an affirmation of Betty Shirley, but an affirmation of the quality of clergy that we give birth to in the United Methodist Church,” Swanson says. “The barriers to progress in other denominations are not as formidable as you might think. We can work together across other denominations.”

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A UMNS photo by Annette Bender

The Rev. Betty Shirley visits with Rutledge Baptist Church members at a covered dish luncheon.

Shirley greets worshippers as they arrive at the 11 a.m. Sunday service. She prays during worship and visits parishioners on Tuesdays.

She’s clearly at home in Rutledge Baptist Church, because as she says, “I’m a hometown girl.”

“These are friends of mine,” she says. She has lived in Rutledge since 1965, when she married Wayne Shirley. Her husband has been a banker in town for many years, and her son, George, is president of Citizen’s Bank and Trust.

Shirley believes she is accepted in the Baptist congregation because of her family’s long residence within the community. The Shirleys attended Rutledge United Methodist Church for 34 years, until Betty entered the ministry. She took her first appointment at Fowler’s Grove United Methodist Church in June 2002. Rutledge Baptist is her second appointment.

“They know I am not there to make Methodists of them,” she says of her current congregation. “We can do ministry together without being identical.

“I do watch myself,” she adds. “You won’t catch me preaching doctrine. I am not going to preach that they’re missing the point on infant baptism. I’m not trying to prove that women should be in the pulpit. That serves no purpose. I’m here to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

In fact, Shirley says she’s less willing to “push the envelope” than her senior pastor, the Rev. Kerry Layne Bond.

“It’s true that few Southern Baptist congregations would have a female pastor,” says Bond, who has a doctorate from Memphis Theological Seminary and has served Rutledge Baptist for 19 years. “I suppose churches in east Tennessee — both Methodist and Baptist and others — are fairly conservative. There probably are few opportunities for women in ministry. Our church happens to be one that’s open to women in the ministry.”

‘Our own decisions’

While some Holston Conference congregations still resist the appointment of female pastors, the United Methodist Church has nearly 50 years of full clergy rights for women under its belt. Baptist clergywomen do exist, says Bond — primarily in large, city-based congregations — but they’re the exception rather than the rule.

Rutledge Baptist is not large or city-based. Founded in 1892, it has 30 to 50 people in worship each Sunday. The church is located behind the courthouse in this small Grainger County town, within Holston’s Morristown District.

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A UMNS photo by Annette Bender

The Rev. Betty Shirley enjoys fellowship with her congregation.

The difference between Rutledge Baptist and many other Southern Baptist congregations, Bond says, is Rutledge’s interpretation of Scripture. He cites Galatians 3:28. “We believe in ordaining people who have been called to ministry by God, whether male or female,” he says. “God doesn’t make the distinction.”

Southern Baptist churches call and ordain their own pastors, Bond explains. “Baptist churches are autonomous. We make our own decisions.”

Although he contacted Shirley after hearing that she wasn’t appointed to a United Methodist church this summer, he emphasizes that calling her to Rutledge Baptist was not his decision, but the church’s.

Bond has only heard a couple of dissenting voices within his denomination. A Mountain City, Tenn., congregation sent an e-mail to the Tennessee Baptist Convention, complaining that Rutledge was “in error” for having a female pastor.

A fellow Baptist preacher later questioned Bond about having a United Methodist clergy person on staff, but his question was based on a misunderstanding that United Methodists receive salvation through works rather than by grace, Bond says. “I corrected him on that.”

Bond says he doesn’t expect any follow-up on the complaints. “The Tennessee Baptist Convention and the Southern Baptist Convention are not in authority over us,” he says. “They don’t make our decisions. It’s up to us.”

A tremendous witness

Shirley acknowledges that her appointment is a “wonderful opportunity,” but “I have to be very careful,” she says. “I feel a heavy responsibility to represent both my denomination and women at large.”

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Bishop James Swanson

Although she is serving a Baptist congregation, she remains “under the auspices of the United Methodist Church,” Bishop Swanson says. “She is still accountable to her district board of ordained ministry.”

Shirley is serving as a “tremendous witness” for the United Methodist Church, Swanson adds. “When people see quality ministry being done by our United Methodist clergy, they want them to be part of their churches.”

Rutledge Baptist Church seems to agree.

“We’ll try anything new,” a parishioner says good-naturedly, during a recent Sunday covered-dish luncheon. “Betty is the best thing we’ve tried yet.”

“Betty has an excellent reputation in Grainger County,” Bond says, over a spread that includes the tomatoes for which Grainger County is famous. “She has been faithful in her church work. She is a very giving person. Now she feels called to join us.

“Even though Betty is United Methodist and we’re Baptist, we have enough in common to work together.”

The topic of Bond’s sermon that day: “unity.” 

*Bender is editor of The Call, the newspaper of the Holston Annual Conference.

News media contact: Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or

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