Pioneering Pastors: Learning from Women in History

Written by Dr. Melody Maxwell, Associate Professor of Church History
With contributions from Samantha Diotte, MDiv Student

As a young woman, I felt God calling me to ministry, but I didn’t have many women role models to show me what that might look like. Nearly two decades later, I felt God urging me once again to follow that call by being ordained by Atlantic Baptists.

As I went through the ordination process, I began to wonder about previous generations of women ministers in the Atlantic Baptist world.

What was ministry like for them? And what might I learn from their experiences?

These questions led me to conduct an oral history project over the past two years. Through interviews with eight pioneering women ministers, I discovered their perseverance and the role that ADC played in their training.

Samantha Diotte and Tracey Wooden, Master of Divinity students, assisted me in this project. We talked with eight women who were ordained by churches within the United Baptist Convention of the Atlantic Provinces between 1976 and 1987.

Overcoming Challenges

Samantha and I conducted interviews in person and online using Zoom. It was inspiring to us both to hear these women’s stories. We learned firsthand how they overcame personal and institutional challenges that they faced as women in ministry.

“The most surprising part for me was the amount of peace that these women had over the various aspects of their ministries,” Samantha said, recalling the experience. “Especially when they were recounting times of uncertainty or adversity along their journeys before and after ordination.”

In her interview, Ida Armstrong-Whitehouse described how a deacon in the church where she served disapproved of women in ministry. Rather than being hostile toward him, she responded with empathy and a determination to follow God’s call on her life.

“You will be the very first person that I will tell if I feel that God is no longer calling me into ministry,” Armstrong-Whitehouse told the deacon. “But you’ve got to be faithful to where you are, and I have to be faithful to where I am.”

In the years that followed, Armstrong-Whitehouse baptized and married several of the deacon’s family members and eventually heard him encourage his daughter to preach if she felt called.

“I don’t have to feel like I have to prove [myself],” she explained. “I just have to be faithful.”

Other women involved in the oral history project had similar attitudes. They focused on God’s call to help them get through difficult situations. Their perseverance provides an example for my own ministry.

ADC’s Influence

The women I interviewed also talked about the impact of Acadia Divinity College on their ministries.

“I felt totally accepted as a woman preparing for ministry,” recalled Chris MacDormand.

According to Miriam Uhrstrom (pictured, right), ADC’s leaders said to her, “If God has called you, this is the right place for you, and we will help you be the person God has called you to be.”

Joyce Hancock affirmed, “The professors were extremely encouraging.”

The women especially noted the influence of Andrew MacRae, Harold Mitton, Allison Trites, and Maxine Ashley on their lives. Even in the 1970s and 1980s, ADC’s professors were deliberately working to equip both men and women to serve in ministry in the local church and beyond. That commitment continues today.

The eight women I interviewed for this project served long and varied careers in roles such as pastor, associate pastor, chaplain, and missionary. Together, they have left a legacy for female—and male—pastors among Atlantic Baptists and beyond. Their stories continue to inspire me as I minister today, and they continue to inspire the students who worked with me on the project.

“There are still times that I hear others say that women shouldn’t be in ministry, and I often think back to these women during those times,” Samantha says. “Listening to their stories, I was often reminded about what it truly means to be a Christian and to walk with Christ, because you could hear in their voices that their hearts were always focused on what God wanted for them.”

Besides those named above, the women interviewed as part of this project included Sharon Budd, Elizabeth Legassie, Kathy Neily, and Sara Palmater. The oral history recordings and their transcripts are available in the Atlantic Baptist Archives at Acadia University.

Get Involved

I am now conducting a second oral history project, this time through the Acadia Centre for Baptist and Anabaptist Studies. Anyone involved in Atlantic Baptist life is invited to record and submit their recollections of their churches and denomination.

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Rev. Dr. Melody Maxwell serves as Associate Professor of Christian History at Acadia Divinity College, a role she has filled since 2018. Alongside other courses in Christian history and Baptist studies, her favourite course to teach is Women in the Christian Tradition.

Melody’s research interests include Baptist history, women in ministry, missions history, and global Baptists. She is the author of numerous articles as well as two books: Doing the Word: Southern Baptists’ Carver School of Social Work and Its Predecessors, 1907-1997 (co-authored with Laine Scales) and The Woman I Am: Southern Baptist Women’s Writings, 1906–2006.

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