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)

By David Waters

Members of First Baptist Church formally welcomed their new senior pastor on a Sunday morning in November.

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.”

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