Our world sometimes feels like a battleground caught between polar opposite viewpoints. Everything from race, to gender, to politics has its own peculiar tribal stamps and markers. The church hasn’t been able to extricate itself from these debates. Whether it’s the role of the church with regard to politics, or the role of women in ministry, the church finds itself grappling with these topics as its people do.
With that in mind, one topic that still seems to have plenty of misunderstanding and even, at times, stigma, is the idea of women attending seminary. On the one hand, many who come from staunch conservative backgrounds aren’t sure seminaries even admit women. On the other, many women might not have ever considered the intense value and blessing a seminary education can bring.
For the purpose of this article, I reached out to a friend of mine who recently graduated from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, in Louisville, KY for her thoughts on her journey.
Editor’s Note: This piece was written in mid-May, before the revelations concerning Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Paige Patterson came to light. But with those shocking things revealed, this piece carries a heavier, perhaps more emphatic tone.
What was your journey to seminary like?
“Seminary was not a natural next step. I had no intention of going to seminary. I thought it was just a school men attended to become pastors. I was planning to get my Master’s/PhD for Clinical Psychology at the University of Montana.
During my last semester of my undergrad, I started feeling a lot of discontentment. I had no idea what I was supposed to do, but I felt like it wasn’t the psychology route. I decided to read my Bible which inspired me to pursue missions.
However, after seeking that for a few months, I realized I had no idea how to tell people about what I believed. I went online to a couple of seminaries and downloaded what syllabi I could find. Then I bought the books in the assigned reading. I began reading some books about the Bible, theology of missions, introduction to hermeneutics, etc., but I had a lot of questions.
Then my step-dad, a pastor, told me I should go to seminary. I explained to him that women don’t go to seminary. He was adamant they do.”
What were your fears or concerns about attending a seminary?
“I wasn’t too concerned going into it, because I didn’t really know enough about what seminary was.
Mostly in the beginning I was just concerned about the normal stuff, like moving and my new roommates. Once I got started, my major concern was that most of the people in my class had attended Bible colleges or had some prior biblical education and I knew nothing.
I had a very basic understanding of the Bible and did not understand a lot of the jargon. I was comforted when in my first class my hermeneutics professor told us that if we did not understand some of the material in the textbook to just read it, move on, and not to get stuck trying to figure it out. This was helpful, because the week before I had been reading the book and had no idea what half of it meant.
I was also concerned about not having a plan. Almost everyone I spoke to in my classes knew exactly what they wanted to do after graduation. They were going to seminary for a specific reason (to be a pastor, missionary, biblical counselor, etc.). I had no plan other than to learn. I felt like I was spiritually immature compared to my classmates and a fake for being there. That they were the real deal Christian leaders and I was just a wannabe…and sooner or later they would figure me out.”
In attending seminary, what was the culture and attitude towar women?
“The culture toward women by the professors and administration was very supportive and encouraging. There was a clear effort by the Student Life Team and the Shepherding/Mentoring group leaders to really affirm women’s role in ministry/the church and make sure our needs were met.
The weirdest part of the culture were the guys in my classes. The majority of them were married and they seemed to make sure the women around knew it. They appeared to intentionally not speak to the women in classes and would not make eye contact in the halls. It was as if the culture of the institution made them acutely aware of sexual sin. It is spoken of often that Satan will attack God’s workers and there were quite a few stories told of how sexual sin caused a pastor’s entire ministry and family to crumble. I think this really put all of the married men on the alert, because they rarely interacted with the women in my classes.
Also, I have heard from one single guy that he felt like anytime he did talk to a girl she seemed to assume he was interested in dating her. He would regularly comment that just because he was having a conversation with a girl did not mean he’s looking for marriage. There was A LOT of talk about marriage and a lot of people from my first semester were married to one another by the start of my second year.
I had one class where there was a discussion about whether a woman could read the Bible in front of a congregation. Some men in the class felt that it would be better to have any aged male rather than a woman reading in front of the congregation in case there was an issue about her coming across as preaching to the congregation. That just seemed silly to me. Everyone should be able to read the Word of God. Consequently, situations like that contributed to an uncomfortable feeling, but those situations were few and far between. For the most part, I felt respected and like I was a real asset to the team.”
Having graduated, what do you feel is the most valuable aspect of your journey there?
“The relationships I made there were so valuable. I had never experienced godly friendships like I had there. I had friends who regularly challenged me to be more like Jesus as they themselves openly dealt with their sins and helped me deal with mine. I had male friends who truly demonstrated what having a brother in Christ should be like. Guys who spoke truth to me, who shared their sins and fears openly, and who supported me in multiple ways. It felt like we had each other’s backs and we knew where we were all struggling. It was a great environment for developing true friendships. One friend in particular, a very mature female Christian, really demonstrated how a godly friend should model Christ to their friends. She set the bar high.”
Do you have any other thoughts that you think might be critical to this article, for any woman thinking of attending seminary? Anything you want to leave our readers with?
“For me, one of my most difficult experiences was when I told my pastor and church that I was going to seminary. The pastor seemed uninterested. I received a comment from someone that was along the lines of, “Oh you’ll definitely find a man there.” Yes, there was encouragement from friends and family, but there was no celebration within the church. A couple of months after I had told the pastor I was going to seminary, a young man announced he was going to attend seminary. The pastor gave the announcement, the man came up on stage with his wife, the church prayed for them, and sent them out. I had not received any of that from the church and I was, at least on the surface, much more involved in serving in various church ministries than that man had been. I was treated differently for some reason.
Young men are often viewed in the church as not stepping up to lead as they should, so the church was genuinely excited to have another man who was openly saying he would step up to be a leader. But I don’t know why they weren’t that excited for me. Maybe it’s because they knew I would never be a pastor? I don’t know…but that experience was the first time I really noticed that although the church vehemently teaches that men and women are of equal value, if the church had to choose between a man or woman to receive spiritual education they would probably choose a man.
I believe too often men are told they should be leaders and women are told they should be servants. I think both men and women need to first learn that they should be servants and then taught how to lead. Too many men see leadership in the church as meaning a pastor or professor. Missions, for example.
At seminary, most of the students studying missions were women. When I went on my trip to Jordan and Israel the entire group was women. I believe this is because women in the church have been taught to serve and missions is primarily all about service. Rarely can a missionary go over on the mission field and start teaching. It takes years of serving others and the community before a missionary is trusted as a leader. Men who view their role as primarily a preacher don’t want to spend that time serving others. I saw this situation at seminary. I heard a conversation between two men where they said they would never go to a country that did not speak English, because it would be a waste of time to spend years learning another language. They would only go to English speaking countries or stay in America, because then they could preach right away. For them, the preaching was the most important thing (obviously, I am not saying this is how all men are).
But to wrap this up, seminary was great. I would recommend it. I learned a lot. I matured a lot. I read the Bible way more than ever before. I wish everyone in the church could take seminary classes. Although, to me, more benefit than the classes was getting to know the professors and the students. I was able to observe Christian fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, daughters, sons, and friends living out their faith in a way I had never really seen before. There was such an intentionality to walk in the Spirit on that campus, because you knew everyone around you was also striving towards that goal. It was glorious and joyful. My current job is not ministry related, but my entire life has been changed because of my time at seminary.”
For women seeking to attend seminary, the world is changing. Biblical education is open to all, and with the light of the gospel shining on the distinctly wrong abuses of the past, more women than ever can see their place there. To learn more about Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, visit their admissions page.
Are you a seminary-educated women? Leave a comment and share your experience!