Since this is a good month to talk about women’s issues…
It’s a well known secret that I attended a well-regarded (well…in evangelical circles) seminary for two years. I won’t say that I regret the experience but I will say that it had some very unintended consequences in terms of my growth, development, and self actualization.
I decided to go to seminary, not because I had preaching or pastoring on my radar, but simply because I had a hunger for knowing more deeply what I believed. That sounds admirable enough, right? To be honest, I never thought seminary would be a part of my educational experience. After I graduated from Penn State, I was working at a very good federal government job, making good money, and trying to figure out my next steps. Seminary still wasn’t close to being on my radar until I saw a friend post on Facebook about wanting to attend this particular seminary. Curiosity killed the cat and I went to the seminary’s website.
I saw the array of programs that catered to ministers and lay folks alike. I saw smiling faces on the webpages and lots of information about the different programs. I excitedly told my father that I was considering seminary and he happily nudged me in that direction. I applied and…didn’t get accepted. I should’ve taken that as a sign to move on. But no. I called and asked for an explanation. I was given an explanation and after clarifying some things, I was notified that I was accepted. Cool story.
My first year of seminary was online so I breezed through it. I was learning and I was excited about what I was learning. I knew, based off the program specifications at the time, that I would eventually have to move to Dallas to finish the program on campus. I readied myself for what I knew would be an adventure but I had not a piece of a clue what was ahead.
I moved to Dallas and moved into the institution’s housing for single folks. This was the beginning of my discomfort. There were several initiatives in place to foster a sense of community. I can’t blame them, I guess. But this was so weird for me. Strict rules in place for grown folks who are paying rent and utilities. Pressing conversations and obsessions about marriage. Weird looks from folks who look different than me. Folks who were these great people around campus but refused to speak to me in person. I don’t know what I expected but maybe I expected more? Because ya know, Christians? Right?!
I could get over that though.
But then I started talking to people and with my ear to the ground, I started to hear more and more ugly stories about how minorities had been treated (people of color, women, etc). And these weren’t back in the day stories; these stories were fresh…and disturbing. I guess on some level I expected for their to be a certain conservatism regarding women at an evangelical institution, even with women’s enrollment numbers climbing and more women ascending to the ranks of professors and committee chairs (though not over committees or departments that were for men i.e. almost everything besides women’s ministry and children’s ministry). And I heard of how certain professors would not have women students in their preaching classes, even with the preaching class being a requirement for the flagship Th.M. program. This was in 2012.
I silently brewed about it all. I was complicit because though it really did affect me, it did not directly do so. No one had [yet] told me I couldn’t do anything because I was a woman. No one had limited my ability to get through my program. But all around me people were sharing their experiences, and while completely uncomfortable with them, they continued to dig their heads further in the ground for the sake of the kingdom. Or maybe because that is what they assumed to be the right thing to do because it is written…
That all changed in the Spring of 2012. I had already set my sights on changing schools. I liked my program well enough (MA in Christian Education) but it was the program my father directed me towards more than the program I felt strongly about (MA in Biblical Counseling). Without telling anyone, I applied for another program at another school. I wanted to do Counseling without the “Biblical” part, but I wanted a program that taught integration of Christianity and Psychology. I hadn’t even been accepted into the new program yet when I attended one of my classes whose focus was on Acts and the Pauline Epistles. On this particular day, we discussed 1 Timothy 2. Many people know how problematic 1 Timothy 2 is. For years, it has been used to subjugate women and to give men an excuse to lord over women in church and para-church settings. My professor, a graduate of the institution and pastor of a conservative Baptist church in Oklahoma, sat in front of the class without wincing and explained his interpretation of this Scripture to mean that women should not teach men. To him, this command extended from the church to the home as well. I sat there in the front row, the only person of color and one of a few women in a room full of men, floored. I can’t lie – after about 10 minutes, I mentally blacked out. I looked around the room to see the other women’s faces in varying shades of red and with different degrees of sadness and lack of surprise. The question that kept resonating in my head was “Well what the hell am I here for?”
That was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I would not spend another red cent in a place that thought all I was good for doing within the Church was baking cookies for hospitality, welcoming people at the door, and running women’s and children’s ministries. I do not say that in anyway to degrade those who feel called to do any of that but I will not be reduced to that either.
For years, the Church has perpetuated such harmful theologies that have silenced and continuously done damage to women. There is no doubt that much of theology has been interpreted as it has because it has largely been done by men and it’s easy to agree with a theology from which you inherently benefit. That’s why when men, in particular, tell me that they are aware of other “kinds” of theology but still adhere to what they call a conservative reading of the Scriptures, I can’t afford to be surprised. Who wouldn’t want to believe that God believes you’re the stronger of the two sexes, should be the beginning and ending of all decisions, and should be the only ones to lead in “worthwhile” leadership positions? Would you easily give up that privilege?
Yet, I still must raise my voice to advocate for responsible theology – a theology that is, to the greatest extent possible, less about who we want to make God to be and more about who God really is. In other words, I am for theology that doesn’t make God into a jerk. Because God is not. God is complex, God cannot be fully comprehended, God is love and God is justice, but I don’t believe that God is a jerk. Unfortunately, the way we represent God makes it seem that way and the ways in which we box God into our understandings, our leanings, our prejudices, and our biases are not how I believe this theology thing should be done.
I left seminary because the God in me could not agree with a watered down version of my destiny as a woman in Christ. I left seminary because of my discomfort with the dissonance between what was said to be valued versus what was really valued. I left seminary because, at that point, seminary wasn’t what I needed – I needed a super personal encounter with God. Seminary was a necessary pit stop on the journey but it could not have been the end. That is my journey; some folks feel led to stay in those spaces and cause change from within.
With that said, I’ll always believe in people’s ability to evolve and grow. I’m still growing and evolving in my personal theology, too. And though I hear things in the Church and seminaries that still make me cringe, I am hopeful that strides will continue to be made so that the Church (and consequentially seminaries) will truly be a place where the imago Dei is truly honored and what everyone can bring to the table is embraced and valued, not blindly limited because of bad theology and personal preferences.