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A church in Louisville is standing behind its female pastor, despite controversy

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

The Southern Baptist Convention voted at its annual meeting in June to uphold the expulsion of two churches that were led by women pastors. One of them is Louisville's Fern Creek Baptist Church, where congregants say the decision by the umbrella organization has strengthened their faith in their female leader. Here's Louisville Public Media's Divya Karthikeyan.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Glory, glory...

DIVYA KARTHIKEYAN, BYLINE: On a Sunday morning at Louisville's Fern Creek Baptist Church, Reverend Linda Barnes Popham moves from one corner of the sanctuary to another, playing the piano and delivering the sermon.

LINDA BARNES POPHAM: Our sermon text today comes from 2 Chronicles, chapter 7, beginning with verse 11.

KARTHIKEYAN: One thing that's consumed her over months - the future of her small conservative church where she's been a pastor for 30 years. In February, Fern Creek was disfellowshipped when the Southern Baptist Convention voted to keep women out of leadership positions. Popham's appeal to be reinstated in June was rejected.

POPHAM: I'm loyal. So I've been loyal to Southern Baptist, to probably a fault. I just never expected it to go this direction.

CHRIS TOWLES: We kind of felt like we got kicked out of the family.

KARTHIKEYAN: That's Chris Towles. He's a deacon here. Before the SBC's decision on Fern Creek, congregants voted on whether they wanted Reverend Popham to continue as pastor. The vote was a unanimous yes.

TOWLES: I don't think it really mattered as much to us as we thought. We've always felt that Linda had been the best pastor we could possibly have.

KARTHIKEYAN: Churchgoers remain puzzled over the convention addressing the issue of women in leadership, something they thought was a thing of the past. Valerie Montgomery moved to Louisville 13 years ago. As an immigrant from Liberia, she wanted to find community and start a family, but she wasn't sure if this was the right place for her. She walked into Fern Creek Baptist Church and was welcomed with open arms.

VALERIE MONTGOMERY: When we came over here, it just felt so warm. The pastor, like - she came out to you, and spoke to you after church.

KARTHIKEYAN: When she saw Popham at work, she was amazed at all the roles she played in running the church - from music director to Sunday school teacher.

MONTGOMERY: She doesn't take breaks, and she's not the fancy pastor. She doesn't want a big house and the cars and all of that.

KARTHIKEYAN: Before coming to Fern Creek, Mary Sharon Thompson only worshipped under male pastors. Watching Popham take on church duties besides preaching made her realize women were indispensable to the practice of the faith.

MARY SHARON THOMPSON: We wouldn't have enough people to even run this church if the women didn't participate. And they participate heavily in this church - not just Linda but all the women in this church.

KARTHIKEYAN: And the work of women in the church is welcomed by the SBC - just not as pastors, says Denny Burk. He's a professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He says that churches have to mirror what he calls the leadership economy of a home, where men are the leaders, and a woman's role is to affirm their leadership.

DENNY BURK: It would create a conflict in the church if you had husbands called as leaders in the home, but at the church, they're following their wives as leaders in the church. It wouldn't work.

KARTHIKEYAN: But it works at Fern Creek, where Popham's husband also worships. Fern Creek's decision to stand by Reverend Popham is a sign of hope for Baptist Women in Ministry. The group is not associated with the SBC. Reverend Meredith Stone is its executive director. She calls Fern Creek's support for Popham a rebellion against an ultraconservative church culture.

MEREDITH STONE: When these communities come together and they provide affirmation for the women who are a part of them, they represent who God could truly be.

KARTHIKEYAN: Small churches, she says, can make a big difference.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORGAN PLAYING)

KARTHIKEYAN: Reverend Popham says Fern Creek's disfellowshipping felt unexpected, but it hasn't dissuaded her from finding a new path forward for the church.

POPHAM: I don't believe we left Southern Baptist roots, traditions or teachings. They left, and they think they've won. But in all of this, no one has been a winner here.

KARTHIKEYAN: The Southern Baptist Convention could shed more churches over its policy to bar women in pastoral roles. Before it becomes part of the SBC's constitution, there has to be one more vote, taken next year.

For NPR News, I'm Divya Karthikeyan in Louisville. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Divya Karthikeyan