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.