It’s been almost ten years since I moved to North Carolina to attend seminary. At the time, I thought the Lord might be calling me to be a missionary. I talked with my parents, friends, and a missions sending agency, trying to figure out what I should do with this calling. It was ultimately a timely conversation with another family member, who pointed me towards seminary. I determined that the best next step for me would be to pursue training and equipping at a seminary before going overseas.
I received my undergraduate degree in business from a public state school, so I was completely unaware of any perspectives or positions on women in seminary. Now, between my own experience as a student and now employee of a seminary, conversations with other female seminary students (both friends and strangers), and observations of social media and other platforms, I’m certainly no longer ignorant to the many conversations surrounding women in seminary, ministry, and the Church.
In light of this, I want to share some advice with women who may be considering a seminary degree or starting seminary this year. I do not represent all females in seminary, but this is a perspective I have developed over almost a decade of conversations, observations, and my own experience as a female. I simply hope that my anecdotes will help other women get a positive start in seminary.
For Context: My Own Experience
I attended a Southern Baptist seminary and earned an MDiv in Missiology. As I mentioned, I came to school with no preconceived notions about how I would be accepted as a woman earning an MDiv. I just wanted to be a missionary.
I loved seminary. I always felt welcomed and affirmed by my professors, accepted by my classmates. I had professors go out of their way to speak words of encouragement to me. Though I did not end up going overseas, I have been encouraged by and thankful for the opportunities my seminary degree has afforded me.
The environment for females in seminary has evolved even in the few years since I graduated. Though I’m sure some women would disagree, I’ve observed a landscape that has become both more openly hostile towards women on a broad level (i.e. the loud voices on social media), but more welcoming at the ground level (i.e. in the local church and on seminary campuses). Of course, this is not a hard and fast rule and there are always exceptions.
As an increasing number of students earn their degree from a distance, my experience on campus will be different from the many women who earn their degrees online. I also realize that as a missions student, I was likely spared the skepticism that many women earning theology, Bible, or other degrees might face. However, regardless of which degree you may pursue, here are three pieces of advice that I would give any woman attending seminary.
1. Don’t let others create your narrative for you.
I consider this the most important piece of advice I can give. I believe it has the power to make or break the seminary experience for a woman.
In my time at seminary, I talked with some women who came to school pre-jaded. They already assumed they were not welcomed by their male professors and peers. Most felt this way because of things they had been told by others. Sometimes, it was a well-intentioned friend trying to prepare her to be met with resistance. Sometimes, it was a former female student whose own negative experience caused her to want to “warn” other female students about what they might face. Regardless, I’ve seen new female students allow their narrative about seminary to be negatively defined before they even step foot into a classroom.
My seminary experience was great, but I did have some weird experiences. There was the professor who had students pray before class, but skipped over all the women on the roll. There was the student who was surprised that I was earning an MDiv because he thought only males earned that degree. There were the unnecessarily weird or awkward interactions that came from being both female and single (but fortunately, nothing inappropriate or traumatizing).
Yet, I’m convinced that a large part of my positive experience came from my initial ignorance to others’ perceptions of women in seminary. I didn’t begin seminary expecting to be stereotyped, reduced, or rejected. Because of this, those weird encounters I mentioned above became the exception, not the rule. They did not negatively color my view of seminary, but simply became funny memories.
Others may try to “warn” you about being a woman in seminary. But don’t accept their warnings as your own narrative before you even arrive. Instead, expect that your experience will be enriching, edifying, and rewarding. Rest and be confident in the Lord’s soveriegnty over placing you in seminary, regardless of how others might receive you.
2. Practice humility.
There’s a common trope known simply as, “that guy.” In seminary, “that guy” was frequently outspoken and often challenged the professor, failing to recognize the professors’ decades of study and experience. He seemed intent on demonstrating his own prior knowledge of the subject at hand, as opposed to taking the posture of a learner. In other words, humility was not his strong suit. Almost every class I took had “that guy” and it was pretty obvious who it was from the first or second day of class. During my time in seminary, “that guy” was always male.
But I’m afraid that many of us—females, that is—are becoming “that guy.” I’ve struggled with this, particularly since I graduated seminary. Whether overtly or in our hearts, our quest for a seat at the proverbial table may have caused us to trust our own interpretations of Scripture too much. We quickly dismiss those who disagree with us on interpretations of 1 Corinthians 11:2-11, 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, 1 Timothy 2:12, and other passages like these.
However, the people (often men) with whom we disagree on these interpretations have likely spent years arriving at their conclusions and like us, are genuinely trying to be faithful to the inerrant Scriptures.
Take, for example, the professor I mentioned above. I remember the day I thought it would be my turn to pray for the class, only to realize he was skipping over every female on the roll. I was taken aback, to be sure. However, as the class continued on over the weeks, this same professor was extremely encouraging to me as I demonstrated an affinity for the subject. I realized then that his view of whether a woman should pray over a mixed gender seminary class did not also mean that he thought I shouldn’t be there at all. This is the experience that I remember any time I feel rejected or underappreciated as a female in the Church.
To be clear, there are exceptions to this. I have been dismayed by the disrespect and dishonor some men (and even some women) have demonstrated towards their sisters in Christ because they disagree about a woman’s role in the church. I have observed how some women have been treated on social media and other platforms by men who claim to be pastors. I was at the Southern Baptist Convention when grown men booed at a woman on the stage. I have heard stories from women who have been objectified, patronized, or worse, in seminary and in their own churches.
There is no excuse for this kind of behavior. Scripture is clear on how we should treat each other, even in disagreements. To behave in a manner so contrary to Scripture in the name of being faithful to the inerrancy of Scripture is backwards and shameful.
Humility doesn’t always mean being silent when you think your view is right. However, it does mean being gracious with others and not assuming that anyone who disagrees with you is one of the bad guys.
In general, I think we should not be insulted or offended by those whose interpretation of Scripture leads them to a more limited view of women’s roles in the church. Let this be an encouragement to all of us to practice humility and realize that in our sinful nature, our interpretation of Scripture is limited. We may disagree, but we can do so in a way that is humble and respectful. Regardless of how others may receive us, we can trust the Lord to be faithful to us, guide us, and give us wisdom.
3. Lean in.
In the grand scheme of things, your time in seminary is short. There will not likely be another time in which you can focus so deeply on studies of God’s word, doctrines, ecclesiology, and practical theology.
Take advantage of it.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions in class. To the best of your ability and within the parameters of your syllabus, choose paper topics on that which you are most excited about researching. If you are able, buy your class textbooks and keep them after the class is over. Don’t choose a degree based on avoiding the biblical languages.
If you are an on-campus student, join and serve a local church, even if you plan to move after you graduate. Your seminary education should never replace or distract you from meaningful membership in a local church. Rather, your seminary classes will work in tandem with your local church as you gain practical experience of what you are learning in class.
It is a blessing and privilege to receive a seminary education, one not afforded to many church members and one that’s also not for everyone. However, if the Lord leads you to receive a theological education, you can be confident He will not waste your time there. A woman’s experience in seminary is unique and the Lord may choose to use your time there in a plethora of ways. But my prayer is that you will consider it a blessing—an invaluable experience worth your investment of time and money.
Photo by Eliott Reyna on Unsplash