April 1, 2010— -- The co-pastor of an Atlanta Baptist church said she has no interest in stepping down, even though state and national leaders threaten to cut ties with her congregation because it is led by a woman.
"I know this is hurting people, so I'm saddened," the Rev. Mimi Walker said. "I'm not so much offended but saddened for the path they're taking."
Walker and her husband, the Rev. Graham Walker, co-pastors of the Druid Hills Baptist Church for two years, were told in late January that the Georgia Baptist Convention would recommend "defellowshipping" the Walkers' church unless Mimi Walker stepped down or the church admitted that her husband was more senior than she.
The couple, backed by their congregation of about 100 active members, refused.
The Georgia Baptist Convention "wouldn't do it if they didn't think it was helping their cause somehow," Walker said.
That cause, she said, is following a conservative set of regulations, adopted by the national Southern Baptist Convention in 2000, that include doing away with women in leadership positions.
Defellowshipping means the Georgia Baptist Convention would no longer accept the church's donations for mission work and that the church would no longer be welcome to use GBC resources for things like Sunday School materials and ministry conferences.
"Our first indication was in December they had just done the same to First Baptist Church of Decatur," she said. A local newspaper reporter, she said, told them GBC officials were saying "we would be next."
The Rev. Julie Pennington-Russell, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Decatur, Ga., said the Southern Baptist Convention's policy toward women in leadership positions "hobbles the effectiveness and vitality of the church." Her church was defellowshipped by the convention last year over the same issue.
"A lot of unrepeatable time and energy went into the creation and adoption of this policy," she wrote in an e-mail. "It just seems so peripheral and small-visioned compared to the life-affirming work that God is doing in every corner of the world"
Leaders from the Georgia Baptist Convention, one of 42 state conventions under the Southern Baptist Convention, are saying little about the recommendation, made formally two weeks ago.
The GBC has 3,600 affiliated churches in Georgia with an estimated 1.2 million parishioners. There are about 42,000 churches affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention.
"The GBC has never been opposed to women serving in ministry positions other than pastor," convention executive director J. Robert White said in an e-mailed statement. "We are keeping faith with the Baptist Faith and Message with regard to women serving as pastor."
GBC spokesman Eddy Oliver told ABCNews.com that he was unsure how leaders were made aware of Mimi Walker's position at Druid Hills.
"We don't keep track of every single pastor," Oliver said.
Roger "Sing" Oldham, spokesman for the Nashville-based Southern Baptist Convention wrote in an e-mail to ABCNews.com that "I would think the majority of Southern Baptists view the ordination of woman as a modern cultural innovation that is at odds with both scripture and Christian history and would affirm this action by the Georgia Baptist Convention."
But Pennington-Russell said she's confindent many would believe otherwise.
"Druid Hills has been making a difference in the Atlanta community and in the world for a long, long time," she said. "The Georgia Baptist Convention may be finished with them, but God didn't get that memo."
Strict Southern Baptist Bylaws Discourage Women Leaders
A formal decision will be made regarding Druid Hills at the GBC's annual meeting in November. It's a meeting the Walkers plan to attend.
"It's not that we want to fight it as much as we are supposed to have a right ... to speak to it," she said. "I don't think it will change their minds, but hopefully it might inspire some women who are struggling in Southern Baptist churches."
Walker said she sees that struggle often at Mercer University's McAfee School of Theology, where both she and her husband teach.
Under the more conservative tenets now favored by Southern Baptist leaders, she said, "women should never be over men, teaching in the church."
That line of thinking comes from a choice to take a much more literal view of scripture, including a letter the apostle Paul wrote to Timothy saying women shouldn't speak so much.
But Walker said she doesn't subscribe to that kind of interpretation. Neither does the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, a group that has grown to about 1,800 churches since its inception in 1991 to offer Southern Baptists a more moderate way of worship without having to leave their faith.
Most of the fellowship's churches are dual-aligned with the Southern Baptist Convention -- as Druid Hills is for at least the time being. They believe in upholding what spokesman Lance Wallace said is one of the principles of the denomination -- the autonomy of the local church to worship as they choose.
"For us, Druid Hills are doing exactly what they are free, and frankly have the responsibility, to do for themselves," Wallace said.
The move toward conservative worship, he said, has been damaging to women Southern Baptists who have been led to believe their desire to lead is wrong.
"They feel very just kind of tormented, they struggle with what they're supposed to do with their lives," he said. " They feel a call, but if they grow up in these churches they feel they aren't supposed to do that."
Druid Hills was not even the fist church Mimi Walker has led. Raised Presbyterian before joining a Baptist church in college, Walker and her husband did 12 years of missionary work in the Philippines before she was ordained in 2003.
She held pastoral positions in two Atlanta-area Southern Baptist churches before coming to Druid Hills.
Pastor: Convincing Southern Baptists of Value of Women Not Worth Energy
Pennington-Russel said that she has not identified herself as a Southern Baptist for about 20 years even though her church was affiliated with the denomination until it was defellowshipped over her leadership last year.
She was notified through a Fed Ex letter that her congregations's relationship with the Southern Baptist Convention, dating back to 1862, was terminated.
First Baptist Decatur has given several million dollars to Southern Baptist efforts through the years," she said. "I assumed that a 146-year relationship was worth, at very least, a personal conversation. "
Like Mimi Walker, Pennington-Russell, ordained since 1986, said she never considered stepping down as pastor.
"Withdrawing relationship from our church, and recently from Druid Hills Baptist Church, seems entirely beside the point to me," she said. "I have chosen to invest my time, gifts and energy in other ways than trying to convince them otherwise. That is not the way I want to spend my one and only life."
If the GBC goes forward with its plan to cut ties with the Druid Hills Baptist Church, the Walkers will follow Pennington-Russell's lead and affiliate only with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
"It doesn't change what we're doing much," Mimi Walker said. Currently, and in the past, worshippers have been given the option to direct their donations either to the GBC or the fellowship.
If the church is cut from the convention, all donations will go to the fellowship. Wallace said only about 300 of their churches are aligned solely with the fellowship.
"The church has been very supportive," she said. "They've taken the stand that they appreciate our ministry as co-pastors but they would also be open to looking at a woman senior pastor in the future."