In 1992, 42-year-old Kathy Manis Findley was ordained by Southern Baptists in El Paso, Texas, after members of her own congregation in Arkansas repeatedly declined to do so.
The debate split Lakeshore Drive Baptist Church in Little Rock. One state denominational leader labeled the effort an "abomination," Findley recalled.
Since then, the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant denomination, has made its opposition to women's ordination more explicit.
"While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture," declares its statement of faith, adopted in 2000.
Now 73, Findley remains convinced that God calls women as well as men to prophesy, preach and proclaim the gospel.
Her testimony and others like it are included in "When God Whispered My Name: Stories of Journey Told by Baptist Women Called to Ministry."
The concept for the book pre-dates covid-19, though it wasn't completed until 2022.
"It was a dream of mine, for a long time, to gather some of the stories that are in it," Findley said. "I was having a chat with a friend and she said out of the blue, 'Why don't we do this and capture some of these stories before we all die?' And I said, 'Okay, let's, let's go for it.'"
"I started calling my friends and, oddly enough, some of them turned me down," Findley said. "They just didn't think that they had the emotional energy to write that story, because most all of them have difficult stories."
It took Findley and her friend, fellow Baptist Kay Wilson Shurden, roughly a year to collect and edit the 19 stories contained in the book. (Shurden is an author and former professor at the Mercer University School of Medicine; her husband, Walter B. Shurden, was founding executive director of the Center for Baptist Studies at Mercer University and briefly pastored a church in the Arkansas Delta.)
A Macon, Ga., company helped get it into print.
"As a publishing house, Smyth & Helwys has always celebrated the calling of women into all forms of ministry. With "When God Whispered My Name," we are pleased to help Kathy Manis Findley and Kay Wilson Shurden bear witness to this call to future generations of female pastors," said its publisher, Keith Gammons.
Among the featured women is former Pulaski Heights Baptist Church Associate Pastor Carolyn Yeldell Staley, ordained in 2002, and Dr. Anika Whitfield, a podiatrist and minister ordained by Little Rock's New Millennium Baptist Church in 2012.
After sharing her own testimony, Whitfield encouraged women to "mute the voices that attempt to bring you to your knees; [and] listen intently to the voice of God who created you and called you by name ..."
It was "disheartening," Staley wrote, that the criticism she encountered as she sought ordination "was mostly from women."
A renowned musician, a 1964 graduate of Hot Springs High School and the daughter of longtime Southern Baptist pastor Walter Yeldell, she was ordained while living in the Washington, D.C. area.
"The simple advice I would give to any women feeling called to ministry would be to stay true to God's call. That will always prove to be a rock of ages for you in overcoming self-doubt and criticism," she added.
Staley's onetime classmate and longtime friend, former President Bill Clinton, has praised the book, writing, "Women ministers ... have enriched my life and the lives of countless others. I hope their stories will encourage others who feel the call to follow it with humility, peace and love."
In an interview, Staley said she hopes the book will be an encouragement to other women feeling the call to ministry, including those who hear the summons later in life.
"I like how it gave a variety of women from different ages and ethnicities and geographical locations an opportunity to voice their call," she said in an interview.
"It really is true that God calls us and God whispers throughout our lives," she said.
In an interview, Whitfield said the obstacles aren't insurmountable when God is directing the path.
"Most people feel like 'I'm not worthy. I'm not able.' But if God called you to it, God has already made the provision so that you can do the work ... that God has already equipped you," she said.
Initially, Findley was one of two ordained female Baptist ministers in Arkansas, and the only one to lead a congregation, according to a 1993 article in the Democrat-Gazette.
Others are now following the path she helped blaze, though not in Southern Baptist pulpits.
Before seeking ordination, Findley had been a Southern Baptist missionary to Uganda and a hospital chaplain. She had earned a Master of Divinity degree from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.
A FEW ALLIES
Though spurned by many, she had a few prominent allies as well, including former Arkansas Baptist State Convention executive director Charles Ashcraft. His El Paso congregation, North View Baptist Chapel, hosted her ordination service.
Soon thereafter, she and her husband, Fred, founded Providence Baptist Church in Little Rock, serving as co-pastors.
Unwelcome in some Baptist quarters, it met, initially, at Carmel of St. Teresa of Jesus, a small Catholic monastery.
After nine years, Findley served as pastor of Mt. Ida Presbyterian Church, later serving as minister of worship at New Millennium Church in Little Rock.
She also founded Safe Places, which serves victims of violence, and was named Arkansas Business Non-profit Executive of the Year.
In 2015, after encountering health challenges, she moved to Macon, Ga., to be near family members there. She subsequently underwent a kidney transplant.
Thirty years after she was ordained, Findley says women aren't allowed to lead Southern Baptist congregations and face barriers even among members of the Baptist Cooperative Fellowship, which was launched by moderates in the early 1990s. (Supporters called the convention's rightward shift the "conservative resurgence." Critics banded it the "fundamentalist takeover.")
While ordination is now possible, pulpits are often unobtainable, she said.
"Some of the women are pastors of churches, but they're few and far between. It would be hard to build a ministry career on what's available," she said.
Despite the obstacles, Findley said she's certain that God has called and will continue to call women to ministry.
"I have no doubt in my mind," she said.
The book was created, in part, "so that children and young girls would grow up knowing that this is possible for them, but they would have to be persistent and just keep pushing the door until it opened," Findley said.