(RNS) — On Saturday (Nov. 4), the American Baptist Churches USA became the last of the major mainline Protestant denominations to appoint a female leader by naming the Rev. Gina Jacobs-Strain as its general secretary.
Jacobs-Strain was selected unanimously by the ABCUSA’s Search Committee after an 18-month-long process, said the denomination’s president, the Rev. James Wolfe. Jacobs-Strain will begin her two-year tenure in February.
“We believe she has the skills and the gifts to enable us to do the mission of ministry to which we’ve been called,” said Wolfe.
In June, the denomination also named the Rev. Nikita McCalister as the new president. McCalister will start her yearlong tenure in January; for now, she works on ABCUSA’s Transformed by the Spirit team, helping congregations tackle the challenges they face.
Jacobs-Strain will lead one of the nation’s most diverse denominations, with 1.3 million members and almost 5,000 churches. Among the numerous challenges that await her, she will be in charge of continuing the denomination’s ecumenical work and fostering partnerships with other regional ministries. She will also coordinate the Burma Refugee Commission, a joint effort by different Baptist organizations to advocate for Myanmar refugees’ rights.
Before her nomination, Jacobs-Strain was executive director of American Baptist Women’s Ministries, which aims to empower “women and girls to live into the fullness of who they are created by God to be.”
As Jacobs-Strain described it in a 2019 interview with Baptist Women in Ministry, ABWM is a “Christ-centered ministry that encourages and empowers women, young women, and girls to serve God and to be leaders in their churches, communities, and beyond.”
Her background makes a statement for a denomination in which only 13% of churches are led by women, and in which 86% of women in Baptist churches still report facing obstacles in their ministry because of their gender, according to a 2021 report, “The State of Women in Baptist Life.”
Established in the early 17th century, the denomination known as the First Baptist Church in America split in 1845 over northern churches’ increasing abolitionist beliefs. (Southern churches would later found the Southern Baptist Convention.) Forming as the Northern Baptist Convention in 1907, it became the American Baptist Churches USA in 1972.
Today the fifth-largest Baptist denomination in the country, ABCUSA is still congregational in structure, with churches encouraged to decide on their own doctrine, missions and style of worship in autonomy.
Jacobs-Strain grew up in a Pentecostal church and gave her life to God when she was in elementary school, at 9 years old.
She served as a transitional pastor at First Baptist Church of New Market (Piscataway, New Jersey), interim pastor at St. Paul Baptist Church (Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey), and associate regional pastor for ABC women in ministry in New Jersey.
She earned her master of divinity degree from Drew University Theological School and her doctor of ministry degree from Duke University.