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The Divine Sisterhood

In male-dominated classrooms, female seminarians find their place together.

The Divine Sisterhood

In male-dominated classrooms, female seminarians find their place together.

I had considered going into full-time ministry for over a decade. And yet, somehow, my arrival on the seminary’s campus felt sudden.

As I stood in the lecture hall doorway surveying seat options for my first class, I noticed a stark gender disparity that would only grow. Not only was I one of the first women to arrive that day, I was one of the few women in the class.

As excited as I was, a sliver of doubt dimmed my joy: They all seem so sure that they belong here. Do I belong here?

Seminaries were originally founded to train men to be pastors. Only in the last 60 years have these institutions begun to accept and graduate female students. Now, each year, thousands of women navigate spaces that weren’t created for them. Unfortunately, culture evolves slowly. For women in seminary, their very presence is a catalyst for change, yet it is their presence that also reveals just how much change is needed.

As introductions began that first day of class, many of my classmates mirrored the men I’d ministered beside. They could state with confidence that they were current or soon-to-be pastors. But my path was—and remains—far less clear.

For me, pursuing seminary was like embarking on a daunting, seemingly impossible trek. I was trudging through the dark with a tiny flashlight, only able to see enough path to take the next step. Going back to school meant leaving jobs, taking on extreme financial stress, and humbly assuming long-forgotten academic responsibilities. The road to seminary had been wearisome and unexpected; I was so happy to have finally arrived, but I was deeply tired.

In his goodness, God sent me sisters, fellow travelers willing to share their resources and wisdom, combining their lights with mine and encouraging me in moments of defeat.

When I met the few women who were also enrolled in my Master of Divinity program, we compared pre-seminary lives—exchanging highlights on our families, secular careers, and ministry opportunities. I had vibrant, supportive friendships outside of seminary, but I was missing women who could relate—those who could share my joy in learning a new Hebrew phrase, match my passion for debating the practical implications of theological concepts, and relate to my anxiety about selecting a seat in the classroom that would help me feel engaged in discussions without drawing attention to myself. Those relationships are exactly what I found in female classmates of varying ages, backgrounds, and denominational affiliations. We were alienated, but we were alienated together—bonded by our common academic pursuit. Only through cultivating a deep and rich community could we thrive along the journey.

Standing together

On her first day of class at Denver Seminary, Maggie Burns assumed she’d eat lunch alone in the student center. Within minutes, a smiling woman sat next to her and struck up a conversation. The two discovered they both loved the outdoors, had thriving careers prior to seminary, and were in the same program. Over the next few years, they took weekly Sabbaths together, signed up for the same classes, and prayed together regularly.

Because of her expanding circle of female friends and the encouragement she received from them, Burns’s love for preaching also grew. She was the only woman in two of her preaching classes. Her close friends helped her practice and affirmed her gift.

Burns began preaching at her church and grew passionate about younger girls seeing female representation. “I wouldn’t have taken another preaching class had those women not been so encouraging, had they not cared for me so deeply,” she said.

Like Burns, over 60 percent of the women I spoke to said they’d been in classroom settings with only one or two other women. Many faced disparaging remarks from male peers. A few never had a class with a female professor. And almost all of these women directly attribute their success in seminary to the cultivation of female friendships.

There is a vast spectrum of experiences for women encounter in seminary, ranging from exceptional to horrifying. Many face intense obstacles and backlash for their presence on campus. They regularly have to defend their vocational goals and carve out space in settings where they are in the minority. Due to the complicated (and even hostile) rhetoric surrounding women in ministry, the experience of loneliness can be profound.

Many of the obstacles female students face may seem small on their own, but, when combined, seem more like a marathon than a single hurdle. Several women I interviewed, for instance, constantly struggle with male classmates interrupting their responses or questions. This is a fairly common problem according to a recent study from George Washington University, which concluded that men interrupted women 33 percent more frequently than they interrupted men. When you’re the only woman in class, this 33 percent effectively works to silence and dissuade you from participation. “We were talked over in class all the time,” Burns said. “And the problem only got worse when classes moved online [due to COVID-19].”

While Burns and her female peers couldn’t solve many of the problems they faced, they could process the effects together. “Is this happening to you too? I’m not crazy, am I?” became a regular refrain.

When a student is vastly outnumbered in a class, the pressure to sound intelligent or offer only fully formed thoughts weighs heavy. Often, women are called on to lend their unique perspectives, with professors or peers asking them to speak on behalf of all women, further amplifying the experience of otherness. It’s a challenge for anyone to thoughtfully defend their theological interpretation in a real-time learning environment. Trying to do so in a way that also validates the right of the speaker to be able to contribute? It’s exhausting.

Compounding factors

When both gender and racial dynamics became challenging, Jaleesa Hall, a graduate of Wesley Theological Seminary, said her friends would call just to say, “Girl, I am tired.” Women of color often experience a compounded loneliness as they navigate theological institutions historically shaped by white men. This systemic struggle is intensified by persistent microaggressions. One woman noted that professors would often rephrase her answers to questions in front of the class. Others expressed surprise that she was a good writer, in spite of the fact that she always performed well academically.

As of 2019, only .06 percent of all students enrolled in theological programs in the United States were black women, .02 percent were either Asian American or Latina women, and only .001 percent were Native American women. Because of these immense challenges, friendships, advocates, and dialogue partners provide safe spaces to process and lament.

“As a black woman trying to understand what Scripture means for my people and for me in my socio-location, black women and black professors helped me think about women in theology, to really understand what that means for me and how I see God,” shared Hall. “It is so critical to find spiritual formation in that.”

While at Wesley, Hall earned a Master of Divinity with a specialization in urban ministry. Through the Community Engagement Fellows Program, she met a group of friends who had the same vision for community engagement that she did.

The women supported one another as conversational partners, forming study groups and helping each other prepare for sermons they were assigned for both classes and ministry contexts.

“These were the women that helped me kind of bring the world into the classroom, finding ways of how we could look at Scripture contextually, and what that meant for our work,” Hall said.

For international students, this loneliness and isolation is compounded by navigating seminary spaces through the lens of a different culture, a different language, different theological perspectives, and even different vocational goals than their peers.

Moe Higa, a current student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (TEDS), saw God’s provision even before her first day on campus. Originally from Okinawa, Japan, Higa was the only Intervarsity Japan staff member on a college campus of 20,000 college students. Higa noted that Christians make up less than five percent of the population in Okinawa, and only one percent of the entire Japanese population.

“I was feeling lonely all the time,” she said. Explaining her desire to go to seminary, Higa recounted, “I just wanted to study the Bible. I wanted to know God more, and I needed that kind of education.”

During the summer before starting at TEDS, Higa attended the Lausanne Movement’s East Asia Younger Leaders Gathering in Korea. There, she met a fellow incoming TEDS female seminarian. Now second-year students, the two women remain extremely close, currently living together on campus. “It’s been a year only, but it has been a life-changing friendship, and I am just so thankful,” she said. “[We love] doing life together. We cook together, eat together, and do homework together. We’ve even been doing spiritual disciplines together.”

Higa’s friendship with this woman has been a safe place to process cultural differences that come with living in a different country. They have been able to share ministry passions, wrestle through challenging theological issues, and even make plans to serve in East Asia together after graduation.

Mentors and partners

Hall never thought she would go into full-time ministry. Long before her seminary career began, she’d developed a passion for community engagement—even founding a campus organization during her undergraduate program at Clark Atlanta University (CAU) to that end. Through the organization, Hall met Valerie Tate Everett, the first female chaplain at CAU. Hall was then invited to become a chaplain’s assistant. “It was [the first female chaplain’s] leadership and her seeing God in me [that caused me] to say, ‘Wait a minute. God is calling me to the church and to the world.’ She was the first person to ever tell me, ‘You’re going to go to seminary.’”

This woman played an important role in shaping Hall’s journey to seminary, even as Hall went on to get her Master of Public Administration at American University in Washington, D.C., before considering attending Wesley. Years later, she is now the CEO of the nonprofit organization she founded while she was still a fellow at Wesley. True to her passions and longtime vision for ministry, Raising A Village Foundation provides education, health, and advocacy to underprivileged communities in the D.C. area.

Like Hall, many women noted the importance of having relationships with faculty and staff members at their institutions. During my seminary career, the female faculty have recognized my academic and ministry gifts and become close friends of mine. They pray for me often and do the same for other female students. They offer us advice about pursuing a career in either ministry or the academy and generously share their own stories of struggling in their vocations. They also support our non-academic endeavors by giving feedback on sermons, articles, and other projects.

Female faculty can point out options that aren’t immediately obvious to female students, opening doors of possibilities that these women have assumed are closed. For some women, female faculty are the first women they see preach in chapel or write for mixed audiences. They lead by example, modeling career paths for female students as challenging vocational questions arise along the way.

Lifelong support

Sarah Bruins, a graduate of Western Theological Seminary, said friendships were essential not only in school but also in the early days of her ministry. As the first female pastor at her church and the only woman on the leadership team, Bruins was a pioneer. Her seminary friends helped her feel less isolated and invited her to process challenging relationships and other pastoral dynamics.

“It was critical for me to have those relationships during that time, to have people who understood it," she said.

Bruins’ closest seminary friendships came from a group of both men and women. The women in the group intentionally maintained a regular rhythm of connecting with one another after graduation. “We realized in that transition that we valued that support of other women clergy,” she said. “We formed this network of six women, and we’ve continued to meet monthly, over the phone, or now online.”

“Friendship gives you the reminder to come back to yourself,” Hall reflected. “Because when you’re a woman and you’re a leader, it’s still a lonely place, especially in male-dominated spaces. Friendship reminds me that I’m doing good work because I have the support to do it.”

Empowered as women

Knox Women's Theological Society, a student-led group originally created by Debby Viveros and female seminarians from Knox Theological Seminary, offers a setting where women dialogue about theology and academic concepts and support one another. At the groups first function, one of Viveros's classmates, who had determined to quit seminary altogether, decided to push through because of encouragement and support from the Knox Women's group.

The women I have come to know as peers, colleagues, and close friends have demonstrated what it looks like to empower one another as women in ministry who find themselves in the minority. They have lamented with me and grown alongside me as I plan a future after graduation. These women taught me to better love God, his Word, and his church.

Like our foremothers, female seminarians will faithfully pioneer challenging spaces and persevere through obstacles and self-doubt. We hope for a day when women will be equally celebrated as valued members of the body of Christ, joyfully pursuing our vocations and welcomed in all spheres and conversations. Until then, we will continue to walk through the door and take our seats, confident that we belong.

Lauren Januzik is an MDiv student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. She is the youth director at her church and is passionate about the areas of discipleship and cultural engagement.

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