Carol Seeley knelt before the maroon altar in the slightly darkened chapel as members of the congregation lined up behind her. One by one, they embraced her and offered quiet congratulations. They wished her luck. The children told her she was awesome.
But it wasn't until her father, a deacon in Seeley's family church in Richmond, approached and told her that he was proud of her that she lost it. Her shoulders shook as she sobbed. She wiped her eyes to stop the tears.
A few years ago, Seeley, 42, could not have imagined this moment. After years of pondering and then acting on her dream, she finally had become a minister, the first woman to be ordained in the 100-year history of Heritage Baptist Church in Annapolis.
"I don't think of myself as a woman doing this job," said Seeley. "I just think that I'm here to continue doing the good work that I have been doing."
On a Wednesday afternoon after her April ordination, Seeley entered the stately brick church on Forest Drive. In her mind, she carried a to-do list: Get the carpet replaced and walls painted in the youth room; replace the worn furniture with updated and comfortable pieces.
Seeley is in charge of Heritage Baptist's youth program. She works with the church's pastor of education, Dub Pool, to develop Bible programs for children and teenagers. She also organizes Bible study, recreational activities, outreach programs and fundraisers, and summer Bible camps.
The children respect her, said a parent, Kara Maddox of Cape St. Claire, because she respects them.
"She has a lot of creative ideas," said Pool, adding that she uses different methods to engage the church's young people and get them involved in Bible activities.
A bubbly and optimistic woman, Seeley loves her work and the path she's chosen. But the road to becoming a minister, she says, was not easy. Nor was it the path she initially had chosen, but she has always had a strong sense of faith.
"I can remember her declaring her personal confession of faith at 8 years old," said her father, Harry Seeley. "But she was also a very successful businesswoman. I never thought she would be a minister."
Neither did Seeley, until five years ago.
A Friend's Encouragement
While she was having lunch in 1999 with a close friend who was a theology student, they began talking about ministering. Seeley started thinking about going into the ministry. She had just returned from a trip to Bolivia, where she and members of her church had taught the scriptures to children.
"I had done something that I considered so significant," Seeley said. "It was sort of a letdown to return to my life as it was. I needed something more. And I needed someone to tell me to go for it."
A year later Seeley, who was living in Manassas, left her job as a project manager for a data systems firm to enroll in the theological seminary at Gardner-Webb University in North Carolina.
Her tuition was paid for by Centreville Baptist Church, in Virginia, which she had joined and become active in as an adult. In December 2003, Seeley graduated with a master's degree in divinity.
Although she had only positive experiences while studying to be a minister, Seeley said, she was mindful of the stories she had heard about women being discouraged from becoming ministers. For Seeley, the stories were not surprising.
Only four years ago, she noted, the Southern Baptist Convention, the Nashville-based umbrella organization of churches, issued a statement on the role of women in the church. The statement read, in part:
"While Scripture teaches that a woman's role is not identical to that of men in every respect, and that pastoral leadership is assigned to men, it also teaches that women are equal in value to men."
In short, the convention said women should not be ministers.
Seeley did not let that statement discourage her. Nor have dozens of other women.
Stan Hastey, executive director of the D.C.-based Alliance of Baptists, said about 20 of the senior pastors in its 150 churches around the country are women.
Twenty years ago, Hastey said, there were few women working in churches in the South. Organizations such as the Atlanta-based Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, a more liberal offshoot of the Southern Baptist Convention, have helped put women in leadership positions.
It was the Baptist Fellowship that sent Seeley's resume to Heritage Baptist Church.
"One of the things that we do is take a view of the scripture and a view of the church that says, 'be supportive of whoever God calls to ministry,' " said Terry Hamrick, coordinator of leadership development for the Baptist Fellowship.
The fellowship does that by collecting resumes from applicants for ministerial and other positions in Baptist churches.
Hamrick said he often asks churches if they will accept resumes from women. Some won't, he said. Only in the past few years have a growing number of Baptist churches started to think about putting women in the pulpit, he said.
"We are trying to be more proactive and encouraging," Hamrick said. "I don't want to give the impression that everything is great, because it's not. The number of highly gifted female preachers who are being trained in our seminaries has gone up. But we've got a long way to go. This kind of thing takes time."
At Heritage Baptist, at least, the time has come.
"We just decided that we were not going to be controlled by someone else's bad biblical interpretation," said Henry Green, pastor of Heritage Baptist and a member of the church's selection committee. "The bottom line was she was the most qualified person for the job. We didn't hire her to make a statement about women being able to serve in ministry." Green said the church had considered other women for openings in the past.
Seeley acknowledged that years ago a woman's ordination would have been a long shot, and Green said that churches are more inclined to ordain women today. Broadneck Baptist Church in Annapolis, which Heritage started in 1982, Green said, has a female head pastor, Melanie Vaughn-West.
At Heritage Baptist, parishioners are proud of their first female minister. Her work shepherding the church's young people and teaching them about the Bible has impressed them most. The children, especially, are happy when Seeley is around.
"I think she's great," said Courtney Maddox, 16. "She's really fair; she pushes us. She cares about us learning the scripture and the Bible."
Seeley said she hopes that she can be an example for girls like Maddox.
"At least they can see," she said, "that ministering is an option."
In the weeks before her ordination, Seeley spent her time preparing for Easter.
At the church, she cleared out a multipurpose room, placed a television and VCR in the center of the room and filled the rest of the space with fluffy pillows and lighted candles.
She dimmed the lights and turned on a movie about Jesus's last days. A group of children sat calm and attentive, even enthralled.
The movie was good, the children said later. But it was how Seeley presented it -- the dark room, comfy pillows and flickering candles -- that made the evening, once again, awesome.