A little over a year ago, I sat down with women at three evangelical seminaries across the country, and posed this question: Why are you here? I quickly learned I wasn’t the first to ask.
Over half the women I interviewed said they’d been asked, “Why are you here?”—more or less verbatim—by at least one of their male classmates. Some women believed the question was posed in earnest, while others felt alienated by it. The subtext was not always “where is God calling you?” but instead “you don’t seem to belong here.”
It’s troubling that women would be so dogged by this particular question, but it’s also strangely fitting. “Why are you here?” encapsulates the challenges facing evangelical women called to ministry today. Where do they belong? Where should they seek training—if at all? Is the cost of seminary worth the investment if a paying job is not guaranteed?
It’s because of these questions and many others, that few evangelical women attend seminary. According to the Association of Theological Schools, women make up approximately 20 percent of Master of Divinity (MDiv) students at evangelical seminaries, and at some seminaries that percentage is much lower.
There is a lot to learn about why the percentage is small, but I was curious about the opposite: despite the obstacles, why do some women still go? Especially when so few of their peers do the same.
What I discovered was a strand of three cords: a sense of calling, supportive community, and experience in ministry:
All of the women I interviewed described some sense of calling—whether to seminary or ministry. Some women were confident, others less so, but not a single woman woke up one morning and suddenly decided to “try” seminary. Instead, it was typically a long, fraught process of discernment. Some of the women fled their calling for years.
Because of the challenges they faced—not the least of which was financial uncertainty—many of the women doubted their calling. They questioned it, or tried to reason their way out of it. They used words like “illogical” and “impractical.” But God always had the last word. The certainty that God had pursued them and would not be denied gave them enough courage to overcome their fears.
The second factor I encountered—a supportive community—is related to the first. Only one or two women described hearing God’s voice audibly calling them. Instead, God usually communicated their calling through people. All of the women I talked to described at least one pastor, family member, mentor, professor, or friend who identified their gifts, cultivated their gifts, and encouraged them to pursue ministry further. Even in churches that did not ordain women, there were pastors who named the gifts of women in their church and provided them with opportunities to use them.
When these women finally enrolled in seminary, their supporters’ voices cheered them on in their heads. A supportive community—even a distant one back home—was enough to sustain women through the lonely experience of seminary. It was the affirmation they turned to when asked by yet another classmate, “Why are you here?” The support of their community was, in some sense, their Ebenezer.
The last factor that encouraged women toward seminary was ministry experience. All of the women I interviewed had experience working as a church intern, leading in a parachurch ministry, serving on the mission field, or volunteering with a Christian non-profit. Each experience was formative in developing their sense of calling because it helped identify their passions and gifts. They also learned what they liked and didn’t like. Ministry experience was also the environment in which they received feedback about their strengths.
What is significant about ministry experience is that, like calling, its power comes from its context. Meaningful ministry experience doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and neither does calling. Calling gets its power, and ministry experience its meaning, from the people of God.
To put it another way, the most important factor behind women going to seminary is churches. The women who pursue ministry typically come out of Christian communities that identify their gifts. In short, the story of these women is the story of the church being the church.
The evangelical women who are in seminary today are the church’s success stories. They are the fruit of stewardship in action. Pastors, leaders, parents, and friends all rallied around these women and gave them strength. Many times, they were quite literally the voice of God, calling women into their created purpose.
However, the experience of these women is also a chastening reminder. The small number of women currently pursuing a MDiv suggests that these success stories are few and far between. Women with ministry gifts will not decide, out of the clear blue, to go get training. They need a supportive church community with a culture of social stewardship. They need leaders who can help identify their gifts and cultivate them.
In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul tells us that God gave each of us gifts for the good of the whole. Each of us serves an essential role in the church, and if even a single one is missing, we are a crippled body. The churches raising up women and sending them into ministry get this. They’ve caught Paul’s vision, and they’re living it. But we need more churches to catch it too. If we want to be the body of Christ in all its fullness, let’s commit to being good stewards of all our resources—and that includes the gifted women among us.
Sharon Hodde Miller is a writer, speaker, pastor's wife, and mom. She earned her PhD on the subject of women and calling. You can read more of her writing at SheWorships.com.