(Originally published Jan. 25, 2007)

Her father, brother and husband all served at the front of their churches.

While they preached and counseled parishioners, Rachel Jones Baxter worked diligently in the background, never seeking credit.

She sang in the choir and led Bible studies and the women's fellowship gathering. She kept the buildings humming and the accounts balanced.

Until now.

At 61, Baxter is embracing full-time ministry and the title "Pastor Rachel" as she assumes the pastorate at Maranatha Church of God in Christ -- the first woman to lead any of the six Church of God in Christ churches in York.

Maranatha's congregants have welcomed her, members said.

"The reception has been incredible," said Hope Lord, a Harrisburg resident who serves as Baxter's aide.

"It's not the norm, so you're like, 'Go, pastor! Go, Pastor Rachel!'"

A female pastor in the black church is in no way novel, but male pastors greatly outnumber female ones in historically black churches.

Baxter grew up in the Memphis-based Church of God in Christ, a Pentecostal denomination that dates to 1897 and maintains an exclusively male episcopate.

While in most cases ordination isn't available to women, they aren't kept from preaching or administering Church of God in Christ parishes, and a small percentage of churches nationwide are headed by female pastors.

"It is a trend, but it is only beginning," said David D.


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Daniels III, a church history professor at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago.

Since at least 1970, a growing number of women have taken over the pastorates of their deceased husbands or started mission congregations, said Daniels, who's ordained in the Church of God in Christ.

In a few areas of the country, bishops buck canon law and ordain women. The majority do not.In some other jurisdictions, bishops find ways to appoint women as church heads without ordaining them in the Church of God in Christ. It allows those bishops to respect the church policy against ordination but still appoint women as pastors.

Such was the case for Baxter, who holds other ministry credentials, such as a license in evangelism.

"I'm ordained by God, that's for sure," she said.

Maranatha's outgoing pastor, the Rev. James W. Smith, sought and received permission from the church's bishop in Philadelphia for Baxter to serve as pastor, he said.

What's unusual in Baxter's case was she has no historical or familial ties to Maranatha, Daniels said.Baxter was raised in her late father's church, a booming Church of God in Christ congregation now located in north Philadelphia. For the last 11 years, she has worked as a ministry team with her husband, the Rev. A.B. Baxter Jr., at a small congregation in Coatesville.

Smith knew Rachel Baxter from regional church conferences, but they weren't friends. In August, Smith was praying about new leadership for Maranatha when he felt a strong urge to call Baxter's husband.

Smith asked his permission to talk to Rachel about coming to York to minister. A.B. Baxter said Rachel was well-trained to assume the task.

"Pastor Rachel" has felt called to ministry since she was a child, even before she knew what it was, she said.

She desired to always be at church, to read the Bible and give things away -- clothes, advice, whatever.

So far, Baxter has seeded a men's ministry at Maranatha and has in the works plans for a children's Sunday school, an after-school program and a singles ministry, among other projects.

"Even at my age, I'm very energetic and very enthusiastic," said Baxter, a mother and grandmother.

To her knowledge, no one in the congregation has questioned her pastoral authority.

"For people that have a problem with me as a pastor, I say, 'Hear me as a voice; see me as a vessel,'" she said.

"There are so many instances in the Bible where God used women. If there was a distinction, Jesus would have said so himself."

Smith, who's moving on to a development job with the Pan African Children's Fund, acknowledges the dialogue within the Church of God in Christ about ordaining women. He remains optimistic that the larger church will reconcile "what is inevitable."

"Where opportunities for women to lead congregations are opening, this provides safe passage to honor the quality and integrity women bring to the pastorate," he said.

Still, careful deliberation isneeded to reconcile divergent views on the matter, he added.

Anthea Butler, a religion scholar at the University of Rochester, said church polity will eventually change but probably not under the current presiding bishop, G.E. Patterson.

Ordination is a formality, but a formality a lot of women want, said Butler, who will publish a book, "Making a Sanctified World: Women of the Church of God in Christ," this fall.

In October, Baxter took on the bulk of her pastoral duties, and the 150-member congregation overwhelmingly voted to hire her earlier this month.

Following the vote, Smith hosted a reception at his York home welcoming Baxter to town. Clergymen and women from churches of various denominations around the city attended, as well as community leaders and a city councilwoman.

After Baxter's introduction, she stood next to Smith and said thank you.

"Thank you so much to Maranatha for voting for me," she said. "Thank you to Pastor Smith for hearing the sound of God's voice. . . . God and I promise you, you won't be ashamed."

Reach Melissa Nann Burke at 771-2024 or mburke@ydr.com

PASTOR'S NEW JOB


The Rev. James W. Smith, pastor at Maranatha Church of God in Christ for 20 years, is retiring to work in community development for the Pan African Children's Fund.

His new job will be building a national network of churches devoted to supporting development efforts in sub-Saharan Africa, he said.

The project is a collaboration between the fund and the University of Cape Town.

Smith plans to ultimately relocate to Cape Town, South Africa.

ABOUT MARANATHA COGIC


Anne Grimes, known as "Mother Grimes," organized what is now the Maranatha Church of God in Christ in 1933.

She started a prayer meeting in her home on West Princess Street in York and sometime later became aware of the Church of God in Christ organization.

She met with Bishop O.T. Jones Sr., and a pastor was sent to York to lead the new group, Princess Street Church of God in Christ.

Since then, the congregation has called itself First Church of God in Christ, Holy Chapel Church of God in Christ, New Holy Chapel Church of God in Christ and now Maranatha Church of God in Christ.

Maranatha was an expression used by the apostle Paul meaning "Our Lord cometh" or "Lord Jesus, come."

The church met in a former synagogue on North Beaver Street for many years and moved into a former United Methodist church at 116 S. West St. in 1996.

Source: The Rev. James W. Smith