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Female Baptist pastor debated

Katrina Brooks always felt a calling from God but wasn't sure how to fulfill it.

A Baptist, Brooks spent years as a hospital chaplain and assisted her husband in his ministerial duties, but never felt completely satisfied in those roles. It wasn't until she was in her late 30s that she realized she wanted to lead a congregation as a senior pastor.

"I tried very hard to fill out my call as a pastor through being a wife and a mother and through other staff positions" before determining three years ago that her calling was to become a senior pastor, said Brooks, who is 41.

But Brooks' ministry has stirred up debate among Baptists in Georgia. It's not the first time the work of a female pastor has done so.

Women have long been a rarity among Southern Baptist clergy, and the 2000 revision of the Baptist Faith and Message, the denomination's chief doctrinal statement, took a hard line on female pastors.

It declared that "the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture," based on a conservative interpretation of biblical passages such as 1 Timothy 2:11-14 ("I permit no woman to teach or have authority over men").

Some think the 2000 statement allows for female chaplains, but it certainly opposes women leading congregations. Under Baptist governance, the statement is not binding upon local associations or individual congregations, each of which must debate whether to follow the national body's lead.

Despite resistance from conservative Southern Baptists, Brooks enrolled in the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond, Va., a school outside the control of the Southern Baptist Convention, then found a church that would welcome her and her husband, Tony, as co-pastors. North Broad Baptist Church in Rome invited the couple to lead its congregation last November.

Soon after becoming the only female senior pastor of an existing Southern Baptist church in Georgia, Brooks quickly learned that she wasn't welcomed by everyone in the community. Two weeks after arriving in Rome, several clergy called meetings of the Floyd County Baptist Association to discuss the issue of female pastors.

The association, which had not yet adopted the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message, suddenly was faced with a motion to vote on it _ a move that Katrina and Tony Brooks think was directed at them, although clergy in support of the statement insist it was simply a matter of aligning the local group with the regional and state conventions.

"If we adopt the Faith and Message statement, which I hope we do, it is essentially a statement made by the churches of Floyd County that this is what we believe. It is not meant to force out any church," said the Rev. Tony Cargle of New Antioch Baptist Church in Rome.

In April, the association's executive committee voted 82-22 to recommend that the full body adopt the statement at its annual meeting, scheduled for Monday.

Ratification would mean the Rome church could no longer be affiliated with the local association, and therefore could not be a member of the state convention. But it could still be a member of the Southern Baptist Convention, a spokesman for the national body said.

If the association adopts the statement, it is "basically drawing a line in the sand for any church that does not affirm this message in its entirety," Katrina Brooks said.

About a dozen churches in Georgia that opposed the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message have joined a rival organization called the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, said Frank Broome, a spokesman for the group. Formed by moderates, the fellowship welcomes female pastors.

Critics of the Baptist statement have said it reflects a trend in the convention toward challenging each church's autonomy.

"The main issue with me is the question over whether our association has the power to dictate to the churches what they can do with their pastor situation or any other situation," said the Rev. Steve Skates of Hill Crest Baptist Church in Rome, which is 66 miles from Atlanta in northwest Georgia.

But convention spokesman John Revell said the Southern Baptist Convention always has remained true to its conservative interpretation of the Bible, and the statement simply articulates that.

"That is what the Southern Baptist (Convention) has been from the start and continues to be," said Revell, emphasizing that the statement is "not a creed to which churches must adhere."

Whatever the outcome of Monday's vote, Katrina Brooks said, she has no intention of stepping down, as long as she has the support of her congregation.

"It's enough for me that North Broad thinks that I am the one who God wants to be their senior pastor," she said. "What the Southern Baptist Convention and Georgia Baptist Convention think are all secondary."