Confessions of a Female Seminarian (by Sarah Schwartz)

Sarah

It’s February in Southern California, and winter is decidedly over, with temperatures creeping in to the low 80’s. I make my way, coffee cup in hand, to the right side of the classroom, snagging a seat by the large windows overlooking the lawn, hoping to draw energy for this Saturday class from the sunshine. I’m taking a Historical Theology survey in an online format this semester, which has two required in person meetings, and today is the first.

Other non-traditional students like myself usually populate these online classes; those who work full time, and cannot attend class during the week. I’ve been going to seminary long enough to not be surprised by being one of the only women in the room, and I try not be anxious about it—instead channeling that energy into participating in the morning’s discussion.

My inner monologue goes a little something like this—Make sure you speak up, Sarah, but not too much. You don’t want to be seen as overly enthusiastic. But you don’t want be silent, either. Make sure you are dressed nice, but not too nice. Look professional and pretty, but not like you’re trying to be attractive. Be pleasant, but also fly under the radar. You have to let them know, without acting like you’re trying to let them know, that you belong here just as much as the male students do.

Everything that leaves your mouth today must be perfect—or so spins my mind as I try to navigate my space in a setting that does not seem to know what to do with me.

Gone are the days of my undergraduate experience, where I participated regularly in class discussions as one of my professor’s best and most engaged students, unhindered by fears of not belonging. I spent 16 years in Christian education before I began seminary, where on average women outnumbered men 3-1, but the moment I stepped into graduate school, my female peers all but disappeared.

As one mentor told me before I began my course work, “In this world, you’re going to have to work twice as hard to be taken half as seriously.” And so I do.

Soon, a professor I’ve never seen before arrives—he must be new, as I don’t recognize the name on the syllabus, either. After setting up his laptop, he opens our session by introducing himself—where he grew up, photos of his wife and kids, and as any good academic, where he received his degrees, and has taught in the past.

And it is precisely here, that, beneath the calm and competent persona I am working so very hard to project, my stomach starts doing somersaults.

I imagine that most students in the room, upon hearing the professor list off his alma maters, gave them no second thought—or if they did, simply noted that they were small, well respected, evangelical institutions. But I don’t have that luxury.

You see, when a professor says they did their undergraduate work at (insert university name here), I remember how when I was growing up, they refused one of my female mentors an interview for a pastoral care job, making her sit outside of the room while they interviewed her husband.

I think of another woman I know who majored in Theology at that school not too many years ago, whose department chair actively discouraged her from pursuing the field. I think of how if you were to step on campus today, you won’t find a single Biblical Studies course being taught by a female professor, because that would constitute a woman having spiritual influence or authority over men.

And when a professor says they got their masters degree here, at the school I attend, I think of all the courses I’ve sat through that have told me that women occupying the office of pastor or elder is deeply unbiblical, and nothing more than the church bending to culture—a true tragedy and compromise of the faith.

I think of how I’ve never taken a course from a woman, and how they probably didn’t either. Of how a particularly brilliant friend of mine was recently denied a teaching position here, solely on the basis of her belief that women can teach and lead in the body of Christ.

And when a professor names (insert other university here) as the school where they taught for close to a decade, my first thought is that the only reason I’m familiar with the name is because of the dust up a few years back where Bible classes taught by women were restricted to female students only, and the mass exodus of female staff and faculty that followed.

And while this professor seems kind and approachable, and I’m sure I will learn much from him in this course, I can’t help but wonder what he thinks when he looks out at the class and sees me, in all of my womanness, sitting there.

Claude Steele, in his brilliant book, Whistling Vivaldi, says this about the experience of underrepresented groups in academic settings, “In addition to learning new skills, knowledge, and ways of thinking in a schooling situation…you are also trying to slay a ghost in the room, the negative stereotype and its allegation about you and your group.”

I am trying to complete my masters program in Bible Exposition, yes, but the road there is littered with ghosts to slay.

Silently, I offer my own version of a petition from the Book of Common Prayer.

Lord, you have brought me to this new day: Preserve me now with your mighty power, that I may not be overcome by adversity, or convinced of my own lack of humanity—for I am your child, anointed, equipped, and beloved. In all that I do and say, dear Jesus, direct me to the fulfilling of your purposes. Amen.

Bring on the day.

***

Sarah grew up on a little farm in Oregon that her Mama’s family has called home for over a century. While her heart belongs to the northwest, these days you can find her in southern California trying to finish seminary, love a few people really well, and make her therapist laugh. Find out more at www.sarahchristineschwartz.com.

***

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18 Comments

  • “And when a professor says they got their masters degree here, at the school I attend, I think of all the courses I’ve sat through that have told me that women occupying the office of pastor or elder is deeply unbiblical, and nothing more than the church bending to culture—a true tragedy and compromise of the faith”. – In mid 19th century southern US, many conservative Christians of the day said exactly the same thing about slavery.

  • I’ve got three words for those anonymous institutions: Deb-Or-Ah.

    A judge of Israel in her own right, and even led the army into battle.
    So, can those stupid-stitutions tell me again how a woman cannot lead God’s chosen people…??? (I expect to wait a *looooonnnnggg* time…)

    I’ve also got three words for your lovely guest blogger: Denomination. Your. Leave. (Though, not necessarily in that order…)

  • I love this post. It reminds me of a lot of what I’ve been reading about lately in the book “Presence” by Amy Cuddy (she had an awesome TED talk a few years back). She talks a lot about impostor syndrome and stereotypes, and bringing your best self in the face of adversity. I’m not a shill, I am just really liking it!

    Keep up the awesome work Sarah. We need you!

  • Oh, one more thing for your lovely guest blogger:
    How about you not care what they think and engage away, with your joy of using your mind and intellect and let them worry about themselves? Perhaps you’ll be an example that shatters their pre-conception notions (for that is all they are – more an inheritance of Roman Patriarchy than anything Christian), just like a certain, authentic Messiah did….

    And, for the record: women pastors/elders is “deeply unbiblical” per one hermeneutic of interpreting certain passages in Scripture. That hermeneutic is pretty questionable, given that it flattens Scripture like a pancake (sorta like what a certain some did to passages with Jesus in the desert…)…. I refer again to my comment above regarding Deborah….

  • Sarah! This was so raw and honest that my spirit could feel the struggle. I felt like I was right there with you. The conversations that take place in our minds before a word ever comes out of our mouth in Christian environments are truly burdensome. How liberating it would be to just walk into a church group, a sanctuary, a seminary class, or any other group setting without having to remember you are entering as a woman! Exhausting! We do need you! Stay in the fight.

  • This is my experience exactly coming on staff at a complimentarian church. At this point in my life and ministry I am thankful for the faith, maturity and perspectives I have. HOWEVER this: “Make sure you speak up, Sarah, but not too much. You don’t want to be seen as overly enthusiastic. But you don’t want be silent, either. Make sure you are dressed nice, but not too nice. Look professional and pretty, but not like you’re trying to be attractive. Be pleasant, but also fly under the radar. You have to let them know, without acting like you’re trying to let them know, that you belong here just as much as the male students do”
    So much this. I have had male elders repeatedly the words “little” and “cute” when referring to my ministry and work and feel like I have to be 100% awesome , because if I am not it isn’t because I am an imperfect human, but because I am a woman. Thanks for sharing!

  • I love this post! I can relate to Sarah’s need to be acutely aware of her voice. I am currently a Biblical Studies student at a very conservative complementarian college/seminary . Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood is a required textbook for a class here. I am constantly reminded of how different my theology is from the professors and students. It can be lonely and frustrating but hearing stories of other women (and men) who have gone before is reassuring that it is all not for naught!

  • As I read this, I can say it relates to situations where men seem to “dominate”… And then I am filled with laughter at how many don’t” dominate” at all. I don’t agree with probably 90% of the things that come from TV personality Dr. Phil, but I agree with one idea…..when we play things out in our head “Don’t do this” “be this way” “don’t be that way”… We forget easily that our Creator tells us not to worry about such things…. In the entire vastness of creation, our problems are not problems at all. I in no way am trying to downplay the reality of the situation. Reading your story, I could almost see the squares to the box that was being put around you. There is absolutely no need to worry over what to say, how you dress or what classes you study in….please don’t suffer fools in your mission to do what you were created to do! If God told me tomorrow that I must go work at an oil rig with 50 men and I would be the only woman there, I would do it and own it. A calling is a calling and blessings will come..they will come either in this human life or they will come to you in the afterlife. Please don’t allow your gifts and talents and your calling from your God, be put in a box because of fools and your own worries.

  • I can’t think of a single course I took in my MA of Theology studies program that didn’t have women in it, most of which spoke up in class quite regularly.

  • Oh your heart pain is palpable, Sarah! It is a wonder that you can even survive the presence of such men!

    How can supposed men of God ever expect to lead a congregation if they are so averse to and condemning of intelligent Christian women? I thought there was “therefore now no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus”…didn’t realize Paul excluded women when he said that, although I can’t find the Bible reference to that exclusion…but it must be there or these Biblical men wouldn’t condemn women like this. One might even be forgiven from questioning the reason these men want to spend all they days, only with other men?

    Is it really too hard for these Comp. men to relate to the declaration of Gamaliel, the Pharisee who wisely said: ” Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these (women) alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these women; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.” Acts 5:38-39…

    Is it that the Bible combined with logic cannot not fit into the box of their culturally ingrained partisan worldview…because there is really no argument from the Bible in answer to Acts 5:38-39 that makes sense! These men are required to voice their “Biblical” view (as they see it …and no more) and the leave the rest to God..is that too hard? Are they required to monitor, police and control anyone who doesn’t agree with them? Who made them custodians of all female consciences? With Paul I ask, why is my freedom judged by another’s conscience?

    Complementarianism goes way too far in their belief that they are entitled to their own power and to control the direction of Christ’s church…it is not their church…it is built with your money too Sarah and the money of many women…where is your representative in this church…do you support taxation without representation when your ancestors fought a war under the same circumstances? Is the offering and tithe given to men alone? I thought it was given to God…so who is deciding the use of it? Only men? ….. when will women realize this? It is time to withdraw financial support from churches that take your conscience and trash it…I did a few years back…and at least in this I have a say!

  • I honestly have been taught that women should not be in leadership over men. And have not studied it enough to have an educated position for myself separate from what the Bible says in 1 Timothy 2:11-15 or 1 Corinthians 14:34-35.

    But I feel a deep calling from God to know Him and His word and to share what I learn with others. I can understand that some might disagree with where or how we exercise our teaching, but no one should be prevented from learning more about the nature and direction of God. EVER.

    As Christians, shouldn’t we try to fill EVERY seat? With anyone who wants to be there? I certainly think that prejudice and bias is behavior that doesn’t reflect Christ. The early church had many women who were important and part of the body just as much as the men. In the Old Testament, women were given providence over men when the men were sinful and disobedient, i.e. Deborah.

    You shouldn’t be treated like your salvation or desire to learn is anything less than a divine calling from God.

  • I am reading “Pagan Christianity” and recommend it to everyone here. So far I have gleaned Viola and Barna’s concern is that 1 Cor 14 is not adhered to in any churches from the 4th century onward, and even before. Perhaps if churches were run as Paul instructed there would be no leaders in the sense we have them, but people would gather and face one another instead of being in silent little rows with their backs to one another. The sermon (of pagan origin) would be reduced to sporadic extemporaneous comments by educated ‘leaders’. All believers would converse and share what God has laid on their hearts in orderly fashion, one after another. Men and women would share and help one another, “give a word of exhortation”, share an insight, spontaneously introduce a song or prayer. As churches stand, we are prevented from being priests unto God and ministering to one another and we are ALL silenced in church from expressing any thoughts that come to mind. I am beginning to think this is the curse of the church and it is at the heart of the problem, for if we met in such a way as to share our views and discuss our faith this issue of women in leadership wouldn’t be an issue. Where is the voice of Christ when most of his body, both male and female, is silenced while only one perspective is permitted? Is this not the real issue here? I have been fantasizing about a church ‘in the round’…I went to a meeting once where we were all seated in a large circle, and we discussed our views from the Bible. It was a fruitful time as the ‘leader’ remained largely silent and opened the floor to us all to speak. Yes, there might be difficulties of understanding, etc., but isn’t that what is really needed? Don’t we need to let people speak so there can be understanding, clarification? And the plus side is that people wouldn’t sleep through the whole thing ☺

    Churches, as they are, stifle fellowship. So little time is left for sharing. It has become evident to me that the format, repeated endlessly, is a time waster more than a period for “edification, exhortation and comfort”. 1 Cor 14:3.

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