The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Missouri (CBFMO) will offer cash incentives to any member church that is willing to consider hiring a female pastor.
CBFMO leadership decided in September to pay interview, travel, and other expenses incurred by search committees that include a woman in their list of candidates in hopes of expanding the number of women in church leadership.
None of the 50 CBFMO churches have female senior pastors.
"The whole idea behind it, honestly, is to reduce the anxiety or risk that churches feel," CBFMO associate coordinator Jeff Langford told Christianity Today. "Search committees don't want to break new ground or rock the boat."
There already is a lot of anxiety surrounding searching for a pastor, he said. Search committees want to make a good decision but not one that is too progressive, so often they choose what feels comfortable to them—a male candidate, he said.
Paying expenses is a way to lessen that risk of opening the door to a woman pastor, he said.
"Then once they open that door, I really believe that they will be surprised by the quality of candidates they're going to see," Langford said. "They will surprise themselves by how open they actually are to the idea. I hope both of those things happen."
Where some see the move as giving churches a hand to help them over the gender divide, others see the initiative as a sign that women in church leadership just isn't working.
"To me, it's very telling," Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Al Mohler said. "This reveals a sincere level of frustration on their part."
While the Southern Baptist Convention does not allow women to be pastors, affirmation of women in ministry was one of the founding principles of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF).
"It's easy to look across the theological divide and say, 'Look at those hypocrites,'" Mohler said. "They aren't hypocrites at all. The leadership is just not where the churches are on this."
Those who are avidly egalitarian would say the lack of women pastors is a remnant of gender discrimination, Mohler said. "But I think it's actually the basic sense of biblical memory that keeps congregations from moving in that direction."
It is unlikely that a woman would believe this is a real step forward, he said. Some have voiced concern about raising false hopes with a female candidate who was never considered a serious candidate.
And as seminaries graduate more and more women, the problem grows.
"If churches aren't going to call them, they really are facing a crisis of sorts," Mohler said.
And that's why Central Baptist Theological Seminary President Molly Marshall called a meeting with CBFMO leaders—out of concern for finding churches for the seminary's graduates, half of which are women. The Central Baptist Theological Seminary serves the Midwest for the CBF.
The idea for the incentive grew out of that meeting, and was a way of trying to shift the paradigm, she said. Marshall compared the incentive to the Rooney Rule, which requires National Football League teams to interview minority candidates for head coaching opportunities.
"If we can pull away the crassness of, 'We'll pay you to put up with this and hold your nose and interview a woman,' it's meant to encourage churches, even if the church may not be at a point of being ready," she said. "They will never be ready without exposure to competent women."
The incentive may be clumsy, but it has been a tool to get churches discussing the idea, Marshall said.
"When I was in seminary I had to put myself out there," she said. "That's how change happens—when a church hears a competent woman offer the word of God in a thoughtful manner. Change happens when the issue wears a face."
There are so few opportunities for female Baptist pastors in the Midwest that many leave Baptist churches for denominations like the United Methodist Church to find work, she said.
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Associated Baptist Press first reported the incentive program last week.