What happens when you discern a call to ministry that seems totally impractical? What happens when you enroll in seminary without any assurance of a future job?
Those are the uncertainties facing the women I interviewed for my doctoral research last year. I sat down with female seminary students at three conservative, evangelical seminaries for the primary purpose of understanding "what worked." What encouraged them to enroll in seminary when so few of their peers do the same?
Throughout the course of my research, I discovered numerous encouraging findings about how church leaders are identifying the gifts of women and equipping them for ministry. However I also uncovered a surprising obstacle. In addition to the expected hurdles of tuition costs and lack of job prospects, I found that over a third of the women wrestled with an abiding sense of guilt.
One woman confessed, "I thought maybe I was being selfish by wanting to attend. Like, I wanted to prepare myself for my career, instead of supporting my husband's." Another woman also admitted to feeling selfish for enrolling, that she ought to "give to people instead of giving to [herself]." One student described her own feelings of "guilt and shame," while another expressed her fear of attending seminary "for the wrong reasons."
Due to the nature of my research, my interviews focused on the positive factors rather than the negative, so I was struck that this particular obstacle emerged, unprompted, again and again. Why would evangelical women feel guilty about going to seminary?
I hope to research this question more in the future, however another section of my findings might shed some light on it. Among the motivating factors of the women I interviewed, half of them articulated a "felt need." These women believed their gifts and callings addressed particular gaps or weaknesses in the church, and it gave their educations a sense of purpose and urgency. In short, they felt needed by the church.
What was interesting about this finding is that, with the exception of one participant, the women who expressed a "felt need" did not express feelings of selfishness or guilt. The two groups were all but distinct. Among the women with the "felt need," knowing their gifts fit a need in the church produced in them a mental freedom.
What does all of this mean for churches? I would like to suggest two takeaways. First, there is something wrong when women feel guilty about cultivating their gifts through education. No Christian tradition denies the goodness of women equipping themselves to better serve God, so this sentiment is terribly misplaced. Granted, every individual who is called to ministry must search his or her motives, but the link between guilt and impracticality is what places this finding outside the purview of that normal process.
Throughout our churches are women who worry that educating and equipping themselves for ministry is inherently selfish. This points to a theological blind spot in our teaching.
Having identified the problem, the second takeaway is practical: what do we do about it? The solutions are virtually endless, but the findings about "felt need" point to one answer. In addition to providing more paying jobs for women with ministry gifts, church leaders need to be intentional about how they talk about gifts—not only the gifts of women, but men also. Scripture teaches us that gifts are never given for personal enrichment alone, but for the good of the larger body of Christ. Cultivating those gifts is not selfish work, but instead good, loving stewardship.
As for the gifts of evangelical women, I hope churches can be more intentional about communicating the reality that we do, in fact, need them. Not just in the nursery, not just as greeters or event planners, but in the broad spectrum of Christian ministry. Whatever gifts God has given women to use, the church is a weaker body without them. We are counting on women to identify their gifts and cultivate them, because we will be a crippled body without them.
As a final word to any women out there who are considering seminary, I want you to know how much you are needed! The church needs more women who are gifted and trained. We need teachers and mentors and leaders to equip themselves as good stewards of their calling. You are not selfish for having this dream, and you are not alone. You are simply called.
Sharon Hodde Miller is a recent doctoral graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. She is a wife and a mom and blogs at SheWorships.com.
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