To My Sisters in Seminary (and those who want to be)

Sharon Church, Women's Ministry 12 Comments

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Sisters in seminary, I’ve been thinking about you.

More specifically, I’ve been thinking about those of you enrolled at evangelical seminaries. You came to mind last week, when the internet exploded with discussions of authority and accountability and whether or not you need a degree to be a leader in Jesus’ church. Many voices weighed in with a variety of perspectives, but you were the ones who kept coming to mind.

I’ve been thinking about you, because you’re in a unique spot. You probably know exactly what I’m talking about, but for anyone else tuning in, let me give you some background:

Behind the entire debate about leadership in the church, is the reality that God calls people to ministry in many different ways. God takes our varied experiences and talents and interests, our abilities and our inabilities, and somehow He mixes them all together to point people to the gospel. It makes for a glorious kaleidoscope of witnesses, and it also means there is no single lane to ministry. Some of us go to school and some of us do not, because there are as many paths of preparation as there are people in the world. The only limitation is God’s imagination.

Unfortunately, we are broken people with a limited vocabulary and a clumsy use of our words. Instead of celebrating the diversity of callings, we often swing in two opposite directions:

On one side, we over-emphasize education. This error celebrates and spotlights those who earned extra credentials for ministry, and it gives their opinion extra weight. As a result, it ignores and/or belittles those who came to ministry a different way, and it limits the authority of the Spirit to those with a diploma. It’s an arrogant, elitist view of leadership, and one which would exclude almost all of Jesus’ own disciples.

However, in an effort to avoid this mistake and to dignify those with other paths to ministry, we can make a second mistake:

We over-emphasize experience. In the same way that some churches make education THE authority, this perspective makes practical experience THE authority. And sometimes, it does this over and against education. In some churches, it manifests as a blatant anti-intellectualism which is suspicious of theological training and the effects it can have on your faith (when I went to seminary, people warned me not to lose my faith!). In other churches, it manifests as a gradual drift, such that fewer and fewer pastors have formal theological training. These churches are not necessarily opposed to seminary education, but it seems unnecessary to them, so long as you have experience.

Churches engaged in this second error–of elevating experience–spend a lot of time reinventing the wheel. They also become steadily unmoored from the historic church.

These two “swings” represent the tension in our conversations about qualified leadership. When we look at Scripture, however, this tension isn’t there. God called the uneducated disciples, but he also called educated men like Paul, and this diversity of life experience and academic training was for the benefit of the church. We need both. But for some reason, we struggle to articulate this need well. Sometimes, affirming one path to ministry unintentionally dismisses the other.

That’s why I’ve been thinking of you. Women at evangelical seminaries are in a precarious spot. No matter what tradition you came from—one which emphasized education, or one which didn’t at all–neither one has a history of cultivating the gifts of women. Your training has, historically, been viewed as non-essential.

In spite of that, you still went. You answered God’s call. You took the leap when it didn’t make sense and it was financially risky and you didn’t know if you would have a job after graduation. You went to seminary because you are passionate about Scripture and theology, and you love the church, and you see a need, and you want to serve.

But it’s lonely work. In my doctoral research on this topic, I visited seminaries where women constituted 8%, 10% and 16% of the M.Div. student body. Nationwide, evangelical seminaries average around 20%, and while some of these women find community with one another, many of you feel terribly alone.

I sat down with many women like you and I heard their stories, stories which were inspiring and awesome and full of grit. God is raising up some amazing women, and it was such a gift to preview His plans. But I know that right now, for many of you, it doesn’t feel amazing. It feels confusing and hard. There is a lot of uncertainty in your future.

And so, at a time when evangelicals are not articulating ourselves well, when we are grappling with the right language to describe the value of theological training, at a time when you might hear statements like, “It doesn’t REALLY matter if you have a degree because God calls ANYONE,” while you’re busy writing a paper on the Trinity, and budgeting out your financial aid, I want you to know:

It does matter. Your calling matters. And your education matters.

Not because a diploma makes you more qualified for ministry, but because we need diverse leaders with diverse backgrounds and diverse qualifications, and for far too long, we haven’t had it. Until recently, women in the church didn’t get formal training. Just a generation or two ago, women didn’t go to seminary. They read and they learned and they did the best they could, but you, sisters, are trailblazers. You are the first ones. And that’s why your work matters doubly. Not only are you stewarding your gifts for the Kingdom of God, but you are making a way for the women behind you. You are making it easier for other women, like yourself, to follow God’s calling.

That’s why I’ve been feeling like a mama bear toward you this week. It’s also why I will keep on cheering for you and imploring you to keep going. I know many of you are struggling with questions. You are staring down the barrel of loneliness and risk, and the last thing you need is one more seed of doubt implying your sacrifice doesn’t really matter. But if I could have a megaphone straight to your heart, I would shout into it again and again: Your education matters. Your calling matters. Your role in the church matters.

I hope there will come a day when Christians don’t feel the need to defend the path of their calling. I also hope there will come a day when we honor and affirm the many ways God leads people to ministry. But until that day, I hope you will not grow weary in doing your work, because God didn’t call you on a whim. God called you to make the church healthier and stronger and brighter. Dear sisters, if God calls you, go.

Screen Shot 2013-10-01 at 9.59.09 PMSharon

Sharon

Sharon

Comments 12

  1. Rachelle Cox

    Hey there, I actually have never heard of this blog until a friend sent me a message with the link. Thank you SO much for this. I just started at Boyce/SBTS with the intention of doing the 5 year M.Div program. It’s a really unique spot, because while quite a few of my female friends at church have associates degrees from Bible colleges, there are no women in my church who have gone to seminary.

    My church elders and husband all encouraged me to go, my Pastors even wrote letters of recommendation for me! But there are so many things that I worry about that are unique to being a woman in seminary, and I don’t have anybody to talk to about it. We need a support group or something. Haha. 🙂

    Thanks so much for this encouragement sister, it’s cool to see somebody who has made it out alive!

  2. Kelly King

    Thank you for these articulate words. As a ministry leader with lots of experience, I’ve also been enrolled in seminary the past couple of years. In fact, I stopped to read your blog while finishing a paper for my New Testament class! There is value in education and experience and I’m living proof that the two can exist!

  3. Sandy

    I wondered if anyone noticed last week that for those of us who do want a seminary education, the arguments felt like they were shaming and discounting our callings. No one should have to defend their desire for an education of any kind, especially a theological one. Thank you for writing this.

  4. Kellie

    Grateful for your blog, Sharon! I’m hoping to get into seminary soon. Thank you for sowing and encouraging the younger generation. We need you!

  5. Karen

    I SO resonated with this post, but due to a family crisis, clearly missed out on the internet exploding about this. I’d love to read more, if someone can direct me.

  6. Rhonda

    Thank you Sharon. Your encouraging words and affirmation brought tears to my eyes. The struggle is real! Some wonder why I have come to seminary, some won’t affirm a leadership call because I am a woman without education, some applaud my desire for education then assure me that there really won’t be a place for me as a woman even with the education. At the end of the day the important thing is that I am doing as God has called me. He will place me where He wants me to serve. He will call, I will follow.

    We must affirm each other to follow in the steps God has called us to walk. Some of us will blaze the trail as mothers and others and minsters with still others becoming professors. Regardless we must affirm one another’s call, not criticize it because it isn’t the same as our own. Thank you for your blog!

  7. Lee Taylor

    Wow – just Wow! God ‘s timing is so perfect. I clicked on your website after reading your devotion today for She Reads Truth. My daughter, Ellen, did an internship with them this Spring and is now working there for the summer. She will be headed 1,000+ miles away from all she knows to Yale Divinity School in August. I clicked on your blog and was just glancing over the topics and clicked on this post. I am forwarding this to her now as she needs to hear this. Thank you for the encouragement for me and for her! Blessings to you!

  8. Christy

    I love this! I listened to your interview on Lead Stories podcast and it made me want to go back to school. 🙂 So glad I found you here and am thankful for your message!

  9. Julie

    Thank you! I just enrolled in an online Master of Divinity program at Regent. I start in 3 weeks. Your post has lifted me up. I will definitely come back for more! I am also blogging as I go to share my experience.

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