Growing up in conservative Baptist homes in the South, Sally Sarratt and Maria Swearingen remember feeling called to serve in the ministry one day as pastor’s wives. It was the highest role in the church they could see for themselves.
“Sometimes we laugh at the way in which the spirit works,” Swearingen said.
The couple from Greenville, S.C., is among a growing number of spouses — and one of the first gay married couples — to share a pulpit. Co-pastoring has emerged as a leadership model as mainline Protestant churches have begun ordaining women and gay people, yielding a greater number of two-pastor households — gay or straight.
Some churches choose to have unmarried co-pastors with different backgrounds, an effort to model and promote diversity in the church from the top down. Many say the round-the-clock demands and multidimensional skills required for the role make it well suited to share.
“We were looking for the best candidate for the job, and it turned out to be two candidates,” said Courtney Miller, an attorney from Takoma Park who was on Calvary’s search committee. The couple were selected from a field of about 100 applicants.
Sarratt, an associate chaplain for the Greenville Health System and an associate minister at the Greenville Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, has unusual experience with budgeting and management from a career in the business world. And Swearingen, now an associate chaplain at Furman University, is the daughter of a minister who grew up bilingual in English and Spanish, a key advantage that can help her minister to the church’s Latino members.
The fact that they are gay also was seen as an asset. “We are excited about the opportunity to be an example in the world of a progressive and welcoming staff and church,” Miller said.
Calvary, founded more than 150 years ago by abolitionists, has a reputation for pushing the limits of its Baptist tradition. The church formally began allowing women into the leadership in the 1980s and welcomed openly gay leaders in 2008. It cut ties to the Southern Baptist Convention in 2012 over differences on these and other issues.
Sarratt and Swearingen fill a vacancy left by Amy Butler, who took over a church in 2003 with less than 100 members. Butler, Calvary’s first female senior minister, was able to revive the church by knitting together a congregation that included immigrants and a growing number of young churchgoers who were inspired by her honest talk about faith and doubt and intolerance as well as her strong social justice vision. The church now has about 275 members.
Butler’s success at Calvary brought her widespread recognition. In 2014, she became the first woman to be named senior minister at Manhattan’s historic Riverside Church, one of the most prominent pulpits in the country.
In an interview, Butler called the co-pastor model “innovative,” and she said that Calvary is positioning itself well to succeed with two talented leaders at a “watershed” moment in the institutional church and in U.S. politics as Donald Trump becomes president.
“I cannot think of a more urgent time in our nation’s history for a 150-year old, justice-making institution like Calvary Baptist to be strong and vital and speaking out for the most vulnerable communities among us,” Butler said.
Calvary has had a series of interim pastors since Butler left, including one who is transgender.
Churches like Calvary that push limits can have “ripple effects,” said Michael Castle, president of the Alliance of Baptists, a network of liberal churches with a Baptist tradition.
“When churches can demonstrate this kind of inclusion and the sky doesn’t fall in, it causes conversations to happen and can lead to change,” he said. “It can also be difficult. Relationships can be broken between churches and ministers, and parishioners can leave.”
Swearingen, 31, said their new shared job is a “dream that has unfolded.” It was a job that did not exist when the women were growing up and that they could not have imagined.
Swearingen said it wasn’t until she was in college at Baylor University that she uttered aloud the idea of pursuing a life in the ministry by following in her father’s footsteps. She went on to seminary at Duke Divinity School.
Sarratt, now 42, was a religion major in college and spent two years in New York City doing community service work with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship before switching gears and pursuing a business degree at the University of Virginia. She built a career in the corporate world before returning to school for a master’s degree in theological studies from Emory University.
The women met in the summer of 2008 at First Baptist Greenville, a church where Swearingen was doing an internship and Sarratt was a member.
Swearingen said the “seeds” of co-pastoring were planted from the beginning of the relationship. They struck up a friendship over long conversations about theology and the church that eventually deepened into romantic love.
The couple married three times. The first time, it was a private exchange of vows in the summer of 2011. The two women with deep Southern roots — Sarratt is from Spartanburg, S.C., and Swearingen grew up in Woodville, Tex. — were not ready for a public ceremony. But in May 2014, they exchanged vows on a farm in western North Carolina, surrounded by their “beloved community.” They described cattle grazing nearby and a light rain shower that brought a full rainbow.
Finally, in November 2014, they got married legally on the same day that South Carolina began issuing marriage licenses to gay couples under a federal court order.
Less than a year later, they were ordained at the church where they met, after the congregation adopted a nondiscrimination policy that enabled openly gay people to participate in all aspects of the church.
It’s an experience they treasure. “Every member of every church should have an ordination,” Swearingen said. “We should lay hands on them and say, ‘Whatever you are doing in the world, we call you “Beloved” and this church blesses you.’ ”
Ann Quattlebaum, a member of First Baptist since 1960 who was there that day, called the event “jubilant and affirming.” She has gotten to know the couple well and said the Greenville congregation will be sad to lose them. “They are gifted in almost every pastoral way imaginable,” she said.
They began looking for opportunities to co-pastor, partly as a way to deepen their own relationship. Sarratt recalled how she “froze” when she read the posting for the job at Calvary last winter. “It was so strongly lined up with who we are and the gifts we bring to the world,” she said. The bottom of the posting said: Co-pastors are welcome to apply.
Last week, they stood before the Calvary congregation and preached their first sermon together. Afterward, the congregation voted unanimously to call them to lead the church.
The couple plans to rotate preaching responsibilities and will divide the work of the church according to their strengths. Swearingen will likely plan worship services, oversee social justice efforts and support the Latino fellowship, and Sarratt will focus on pastoral care, religious education and church administration.
Both say they are excited to continue the progressive legacy of the church and to keep the door open wide to all kinds of people.
“Theologically, the work of the church has been and always will be to set the table of hospitality for all people,” Swearingen said. “Right now people around the world are asking, ‘Is the table set for me?’ I want to be part of a community that clearly answers back, ‘Yes. It always has been and it always will be.’”