DALLAS - A former Southern Baptist missionary who got her start as a church secretary is likely to become the first woman president of the Baptist General Convention of Texas.
If Joy Fenner wins the election as expected at the end of this month, it will widen the gap between the conservative Southern Baptist Convention and the moderate Baptist General Convention of Texas, which has been distancing itself from the national denomination for years.
The Southern Baptist national leadership says that women shouldn't be pastors and that a wife should "submit herself graciously" to her husband. Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth just started a homemaking program for women to reinforce what the school president calls biblical family and gender roles.
But Baptists are fiercely independent and emphasize local control over their churches, and moderate Southern Baptists like the Texas group are more open to women's leadership. Fenner has been endorsed by Texas Baptists Committed, an influential group that led resistance to a conservative takeover of the state convention. A rival state group, Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, was formed in 1998 and remains loyal to the SBC.
Fenner, 72, worked as a secretary in the 1950s at First Baptist Church in Marshall and spent 13 years with her husband as a missionary in Japan. She served as the state convention's first vice president last year, putting her in position for the top job.
Her only announced opponent for the one-year presidential term is the Rev. David L. Lowrie Jr., a West Texas pastor who says the convention is headed in the wrong direction. He pledges to support Fenner if she wins.
"I think as society itself has come to represent diversity in leadership, I kind of wish the church had led the way," Fenner said. "But maybe as it is happening in professions and businesses, that some of it is spilling into the church."
If she wins, Fenner won't be the first woman in the country to lead a state Baptist convention. The Baptist General Association of Virginia has had five woman presidents, said Pam Durso, of the Baptist History and Heritage Society in Atlanta.
But female convention leadership is rare in the South. And the Texas group, with a $50 million annual budget and 2.3 million members, is the nation's largest state Baptist convention.