While most seminarians are men, as are most seminary professors, women make up a significant part of the typical seminary student body. The Association of Theological Schools reports that women account for around a third of students for all seminaries, and about a fifth of the student body at evangelical seminaries.
Women at seminary report that the environment can be challenging. Particularly at seminaries or in denominations which hold a complementarian position on gender roles, women can meet occasional overt opposition to their presence at seminary, but more often, subtle suggestions that women can’t or shouldn’t lead in ministry.
At the same time, even in complementarian contexts, there is increasing openness to freeing women with leadership gifting to pursue their calling in the church.
The following suggestions are based on input from a survey of women in seminary and personal interviews with women serving in ministry.
Be absolutely sure of your calling
Women called to ministry have, in the words of one veteran ministry leader, an “uncommon heart.” Women, even more than men, need to lean heavily on their sense of calling to ministry. You need a strong internal sense of call, undeniable and secure, deep in your bones. This inner sense also needs to be affirmed and recognized externally, by other believers. In moments of opposition, frustration or self-doubt, the inner conviction and outer affirmation that God wants you in ministry will be your anchor.
Expect to encounter critics. In seminary, some raw students will wield a male leadership standard to establish their theological credentials or to win an argument. People who hold a mature conviction that God wants men leading his church, however, will realize that standard is not a blanket exclusion of the leadership of godly women, as even a cursory reading of the New Testament will demonstrate. Women who are residential students seem to encounter criticism more often than distance or online students.
Many women ministry veterans repeated the same mantra: Do not be intimidated. Rest in your calling. Stay the course. You do not have to explain or defend your calling to anyone. Ignore others and focus on your own preparation. If God has called you, then he has a place of ministry for you. There are some churches that will not have you, but that’s ok. You wouldn’t want to serve there anyway.
There will be people at your seminary who value and appreciate the gifts and callings of women, and who are sympathetic to the unique challenges you face. These friends might be fellow students or a professor or other staff member. You will likely find support at your local church. Assemble for yourself an encouragement squad.
Advocate for Yourself
Many times, seminary classes will be taught in a way that aims at male students aspiring to be a preacher / lead pastor. It’s a bias of sorts that neglects other people and callings, particularly women.
Press past that neglect and advocate for yourself and others like you. Raise your hand and ask your professor to suggest applications for women in ministry leadership. Ask questions. Speak up. First, it will benefit you and other female students. Beyond that, virtually all of the men in these classes will have women as part of their future ministry teams. Your perspective and input can help prepare them to lead female leaders.
Develop Solid and Clear Convictions
Many of the women responding to our survey exhorted women to think clearly and carefully through the Bible’s teaching on gender roles. The more prominent and effective your leadership, the more often the issue will come up and you’ll be asked to explain your position. Women need to be prepared to offer a thoughtful, biblical theology of gender and leadership.
Priorities and Seasons
Women face a more acute struggle than men when trying to balance family life and ministry, because in most (but not all) families, they are the primary nurturer of kids and administrators of the household. Married women especially need to order their priorities according to what season of life they are in. One ministry leader suggested that women in the early decades of family life who are bearing and raising young children, might need to de-prioritize ministry or seminary during that season. Balance, she said, is the wrong way to think about it. It is a matter of priority. If you are raising young children, that may be a season where ministry needs to drop lower on your list of priorities. As the kids grow and become more independent, ministry can rise to a higher priority.
Lead like a Woman
The women most successful in leadership do not try to lead like men. One woman in ministry I know leads a small army of male volunteers—the burly, truck-driving type—but empowers them not by emasculating them or trying to out-man them, but by appealing to their manliness. She’s secure in her identity as a woman, and celebrates their identity as men. They’ll do anything she tells them to. It’s remarkable.
If you can, find a woman who has successfully led in ministry to mentor you.
Don’t Be Discouraged
The church needs godly women leaders who are deeply theologically grounded. I commend you for taking the uncommon step to pursue seminary education. Press on, secure in your calling, and trust God to guide you at each step.
Author’s note: this is a draft chapter from The Complete Seminary Survival Guide (forthcoming). The content is based on surveys and interviews of female seminary students and grads. Your feedback can help improve it, so I invite you to comment below!