In a last-ditch effort, longtime Southern Baptist churches expelled for women pastors fight to stay

The Rev. Linda Barnes Popham, right, hugs a member of Fern Creek Baptist Church after a service on May 21 in Louisville, Ky. (AP Photo/Jessie Wardarski)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The robed choir performed a rousing missionary chorus, the worshippers sang from the Baptist Hymnal, and the pastor preached on the need to listen to God before inviting people to come forward and profess faith in Jesus.

If there was ever a blueprint for a traditional Southern Baptist worship service, Fern Creek Baptist Church followed it to a tee on a recent Sunday.


Except for one key detail.

The pastor is a woman.

And because of that, Fern Creek is no longer a Southern Baptist church.

In February, the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee voted to oust Fern Creek for having a woman pastor — the same issue it cited for expelling four other churches, including the massive California-based Saddleback Church. All Baptist churches are independent, so the convention can’t tell them what to do, but it can decide which churches are “not in friendly cooperation,” the official verbiage for an expulsion.

Fern Creek and Saddleback are appealing the decision to the SBC’s annual meeting being held Tuesday and Wednesday in New Orleans.

The Rev. Linda Barnes Popham has been pastor of the modest-sized Fern Creek in Louisville for the past 30 years, and involved in church work since her teen years in her native Alabama.

“When I was 8 years old, I knew that God was calling me in some sense,” she recalled.

The SBC’s official statement of faith says the office of pastor is reserved for men, but this is believed to be the first time the convention has expelled any churches over it. Both of the congregations say Baptists should be able to agree to disagree — while making a common cause for evangelism.

Some members questioned whether there are other agendas at play — whether the denomination was seeking to divert attention from its struggles to address a sex abuse scandal, or if their removal was part of a wider political effort to push the conservative denomination even further to the right.

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