Reviews

Breaking Free: The Story of a Feminist Baptist Minister

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Katie Cook

Baptist Peacemaker

“I was once, decades ago, in a conversation with Jann Aldredge-Clanton in which she was pulling a tiny bit farther to the left than I was really sure I wanted to go.  I respected Jann, agreed with her most of the time, and tried to do my best to support her efforts to teach people about the power of language—and I certainly didn’t want to be one of her detractors.  My dilemma must have shown in my face, because her son Brett leaned over and said, in an understanding voice, “Just smile and nod, Katie; just smile and nod.”

This sentence somehow speaks to what Jann was and is about during all these years.  “I have a truth,” she seems to be saying, “I have a truth,” in that gentle, cultured voice.”  “And I won’t stop until everyone has heard it.”

In her autobiography, Breaking Free: The Story of a Feminist Baptist Minister, the Dallas, Texas minister relates the story of her awakening and her subsequent journey as a leader in the Christian feminist movement.  Those who know that her formal education was originally in English literature won’t be surprised that the book reads with the page-turning intensity of a novel.

Feminist Baptist ministers are still somewhat few and far between in the U.S. South.  Jann was one of the first.  Beginning her pilgrimage into true Christian feminism in the 1970s, Jann has run into a variety of roadblocks.  But she has never backed down from a stance, and she has never looked back.  She is one of the few who have embraced feminism without abandoning their Baptist identity.

Breaking Free is a fascinating study of a woman who never gave in when she felt strongly that personal freedoms were being compromised.  Jann almost lost her job as a professor at a Baptist university because she refused to sign a fundamentalist statement of beliefs.  While living in Waco, Texas, she was labeled “Waco’s Give ‘Em Hell Minister” for her outspoken opinions and action on social issues, and often she has been called a heretic (or worse) for referring to God as “She” and “Mother,” and for daring to utter the words “Christ-Sophia” in public.   

Jann starts with a somewhat typical story for a girl growing up in Louisiana.  As a pre-teen she almost starved herself trying to fit into the culture’s feminine mold.  In high school, even though she graduated at the top of her class, she felt inadequate because she never won a beauty crown.

Through theological education, however, she began to awaken to new ideas about women—women’s worth in the eyes of God, women’s roles in the Church.  In the book she reveals how her awareness of gender issues began to develop:

In Systematic Theology class. . . as I studied complex doctrines of the Trinity established by church councils during the first five centuries of Christian history, I slowly realized that all our language for deity is metaphorical.  I understood that those early church councils formulated the Trinity in an attempt to articulate the richness and fullness of the divinity they had experienced.  The question came to me, “If God can include three persons, can’t God include two genders?” ... It came as a personal revelation of great power and freedom.

What followed in her quest to share this awareness was adversity, dissension, and ridicule.  Nevertheless, her genteel Southern voice has continued to quietly speak of God as feminine and of women as fully-qualified ministers—and rocking the Baptist world with every word.

She has organized innovative liturgical groups around themes of inclusivity—groups that end up being moved around within and among churches for dubious reasons.  She has written hundreds of justice-oriented, gender-inclusive hymns, adapting them to familiar hymn tunes.  Her books In Whose Image? God and Gender and In Search of the Christ-Sophia have been both embraced and vilified.

With support and encouragement from her husband and sons (her son Chad talked her into writing this book), as well as her mother, who has answered the call to ministry herself, Jann has opened new doors for women who seek equality without sacrificing their religious beliefs.  Breaking Free is a remarkable memoir that shows the liberating power of faith combined with feminism.”

Steve Blow

The Dallas Morning News

“I’ve had a book on my desk for months now.  And almost everyone who stops by for a chat reacts to it in some way.

Some laugh.  Some look perplexed.  Some ask, “Is that for real?”

The book features a woman on the cover, standing in front of a stained-glass window.  The title:  Breaking Free:  The Story of a Feminist Baptist Minister.

And yes, the Rev. Jann Aldredge-Clanton, Ph.D., is for real.  Yes, she’s a real minister and a real Baptist—licensed, ordained, seminary trained, deep-water dunked and everything.

Dr. Aldredge-Clanton is a chaplain at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas.  Her recently published book has been on my desk because I kept intending to pay her a visit.  She does break a lot of stereotypes we hold firmly.

I finally called her after a comment the other day from Dr. Paige Patterson, the new president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth.

In his first news conference, Dr. Patterson was asked if he would consider hiring women to teach theology.  “No,” Dr. Patterson replied, the Bible is “crystal clear that pastors are to be men.”

Ironically, Dr. Aldredge-Clanton sat in theology classes at that very same seminary and came to the crystal-clear conclusion that God calls all sorts of people to ministry.

“We are called by grace, not by gender,” she said.  “How can we say to our daughters and our sons that over half the people don’t have the opportunity to respond to God’s calls for ministry or to use their gifts, no matter what they are.”

I won’t attempt a biblical exegesis here.  In brief, opponents will cite verses such as the one from 1 Timothy:  “I permit no woman to teach or have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.”

Dr. Aldredge-Clanton, on the other hand, said her studies convinced her that such writings were cultural and specific to that time.  She believes the Bible’s timeless teaching is found in verses such as this from Galatians:  “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Dr. Aldredge-Clanton’s Baptist roots run deep.  Her father, grandfather and great-grandfather were all Baptist ministers.  And if there’s a streak of a crusader beneath her gracious Southern charm, she comes by it naturally.  Her father, the pastor of First Baptist Church in Minden, La., was an early advocate of racial equality.  “I’ve got a background of freedom fighters,” she said.

Her definition of “feminist” is pretty simple.  “It all goes back to Genesis 1:27—that male and female were created equally in the image of God,” she said.  “If we’re all created in the image of God, we have equal worth and creativity.”

Though she has served as a church pastor in the past (in a Methodist church), she feels no call to the pulpit at the moment.  She likes the intensely personal ministry of hospital chaplaincy.

And she likes pushing for change on a larger scale through writing.  In earlier books, she challenged Christians to expand their concepts of God by using feminine as well as masculine references.

“Everyone will agree that God is spirit.  And everyone will agree that God is not literally male,” she said.  But when she invites folks to start a prayer “Our Mother,” bottoms start to squirm in the pews.

“God is so much more than we can ever name or imagine,” she said.  “We put so many limits on God in our churches and in our culture.  Putting those limits on God puts limits on human beings, too.”

And thus the title of her book—Breaking Free.

“It means breaking free to be all I’m created to be in the image of God,” she said.  “It means breaking free of the cultural taboos that limit women and their gifts.”  “And this is not just about women,” she said.  “This is about everyone’s breaking free of cultural traditions that keep us from using all the gifts God has given us.”

Nancy M. Wood

United Methodist Review

“When I received a delivery of several books for review, I quickly put Breaking Free:  The Story of a Feminist Baptist Minister aside, looking for another which might be more to my liking. 

I am, after all, a United Methodist minister—not a Baptist.  Furthermore, exposure to feminist theology in seminary, while raising my consciousness a bit, did not lead me to become an avid member of the feminist movement, either theologically or socially.  Nevertheless, by the process of elimination and (who knows?) some divine intervention, I found myself reading and, on several levels of my inner being, relating to this poignant memoir of a woman’s call to ministry.

Jann Aldredge-Clanton can be viewed as a heroine whose goals set her on a rough road filled with seemingly insurmountable obstacles.  Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, she meets each challenge with optimism, creativity and a genuine desire to bring out the best in all the varieties of people whom she meets along the way.  Even her enemies are treated with respect and kindness.  Also like Dorothy, Ms. Aldredge-Clanton expresses herself in music:  in her case, with hymns which affirm the role of women in the church.

This woman’s journey parallels the evolution of the feminist movement in Christianity.  It begins in a traditional setting solidly infused with discouraging subliminal messages about the proper “place” of women in the church—a “place” which didn’t include becoming a pastor.  The manifestations of those messages have caused deep pain for women for centuries in the Christian church.

However, as you read the author’s story, you’ll be impressed with a revealing sense of balance as she encounters supporters and mentors at each crucial step of her adventure.  Even her husband, who didn’t fully understand every part of her struggle, encouraged her.  He behaved much like her father, who would often say with great pride, “I’m busting my buttons!” when Jann accomplished a difficult task.

She also found strength in other women, whose presence and writings motivated, inspired and affirmed her on her path to peace and fulfillment of her call.  Like the feminist movement itself, the author’s experiences are an exciting mix of great highs and deep caverns of creativity, success, failure, controversy and all of the elements of positive progression toward greater inclusiveness in resistant settings.  Her indomitable spirit is inspiring, to say the least!  For me, this book was a primer on the rationale for the feminist theological movement in the church.  Amidst all the shouting on both sides of this issue, I had never before taken the time to seek the truth about its principles and its proponents.

Using her own experiences as stepping stones, the author seeks to educate her readers as to the history, basic tenets and goals of this movement.  She tackles such intensely debated subjects as the ordination of women and the use of feminist language and images in worship—and even addresses herself to some of the smaller issues like the hyphenation of a woman’s last name.  In the face of much controversy, she seeks to find resolution and peace between the “warring” factions.”

Roxanne Renee Grant-Atkinson,

Folio: Baptist Women in Ministry Newsletter

“In Breaking Free:  The Story of a Feminist Baptist Minister, Jann Aldredge-Clanton shares her journey of becoming an ordained Southern Baptist minister and feminist theologian.  She tells her story in an honest, conversational style and weaves inclusive hymns and thought-provoking quotes into the text.  She does an excellent job of explaining different situations; you do not have to be a Baptist to understand this book.  As I read, I was struck by the concrete details she described, details which give the reader an authentic sense of her personal experience.  I was reminded of a discussion of the gospel of Mark during seminary when our professor pointed out that eye-witnesses include such specific details.  In Breaking Free, we are able to read the eye-witness account of one who has overcome powerful barriers of culture and religious tradition in order to be faithful to her call.  Jann Aldredge-Clanton, through her writing and her deep commitment to justice, lived out day-to-day in her ministry, has helped prepare the way for the next generation.

Various people and forces molded Aldredge-Clanton’s character.  Her father was a Baptist pastor who loved her deeply, who supported her proudly, and who died too young from cancer.  Aldredge-Clanton’s mother is a gifted preacher who has spent her life doing pastoral work with no institutional title or validation other than “pastor’s wife.”  Aldredge-Clanton’s brilliant sister has encouraged and challenged her.  Growing up in Louisiana, her life was shaped by the predominant cultural attitudes toward women and people of color, but Aldredge-Clanton did not accept the status quo.  Her commitment to social justice led her to become a feminist.  Her intelligence, education, hard work, and passion birthed several important books on issues such as inclusive language and feminine imagery in worship, Christology, and pastoral care.  Her commitment to the Baptist ideals of religious liberty and soul freedom, as well as her sincere desire to be an agent of positive change, keep her from leaving the Baptist denomination.  She is one of our prophets.

I can relate to certain aspects of Aldredge-Clanton’s journey.  I share her frustration at being labeled a “male-basher” and her fervent statement that three of the people she loves most in the world are men—her husband and two sons.  She does not denounce men, but rather seeks to change the social paradigm which limits both women and men.  I also understand, sadly, the “Superwoman-is-betrayed” dynamic in which women seminary students excel at their studies and in ministry practice, all the while working one or more jobs and being wives and mothers, only to find upon graduation that they cannot find jobs, that even men with questionable ethics and below-average grades find positions more easily than their female peers.  Furthermore, I know what it is like to be unable to feel at home in a worship service because the imagery and language are exclusively masculine, regardless of the feminine imagery and inclusive language that have always been available in Scripture.  Sometimes you just stop singing; it is too painful.  Finally, I deeply appreciate Aldredge-Clanton’s honesty in presenting her struggle, self-doubt, and learning experiences alongside her hopes, dreams and victories.  That kind of honesty is merciful; it gives permission for others to be real and therefore move toward wholeness.  Aldredge-Clanton continues her father’s legacy of leading others to freedom through the truth.”