BETH SPRING AND KELSEY MENEHANKelsey Menehan is associate editor of Today’s Christian Woman and a free-lance writer, living in Bethesda, Maryland.

A casual stroll across any evangelical seminary campus would indicate there are now substantial numbers of women in those schools. To learn about this significant change, CHRISTIANITY TODAY surveyed 60 schools, receiving replies from 34.

During each of the past two decades, the percentage of women enrolled in these seminaries has increased twice as fast as that of the total student population. The current census at these 34 schools is nearly one-fifth female, up from less than one-tenth in 1965.

To find out what these numbers mean in the lives of women and seminaries, CT interviewed more than two dozen seminary students and officials. The findings of the survey and interviews follow. In addition, the October 3 CT Institute will explore the role of women in the church.

The résumés Ruth and Stephen Strand are sending to Wesleyan churches might cause some search committees to think they are seeing double. He is applying for a pastoral position. So is she. The Strands hope to become copastors, serving in the same church—sharing the pulpit and counseling together. As Ruth pursued a master of divinity degree at Asbury Theological Seminary, she searched her own motives and calling. Was she just grasping at personal recognition or competing with her husband? But Stephen supported and encouraged her. “When we go to candidate, we go as a team,” Ruth explains.

Vicki Kraft graduated from Dallas Theological Seminary last year at age 57. Like Ruth Strand, she is involved in ministry with her husband, and she also serves in a staff position as minister to women at Northwest Bible Church in Dallas. Pastors should be men, she believes, but the church is mistaken when it bars women from other areas of ministry. “I believe church leadership must recognize the place of elder women and use them to disciple younger women,” she says.

Mary Graves, associate pastor of Solano Beach Presbyterian Church (Calif.), says she “tiptoed into seminary” in 1980. Becoming a pastor seemed a radical thing to do, but she gradually became convinced that God was calling her to the ministry. Active in Christian camping, Graves saw women encouraged to lead. “It became obvious to me that God had said ‘yes’ to women in ministry and was blessing it.” She finished at Fuller Theological Seminary in 1984.

These three women, and thousands like them, are graduating from U.S. seminaries in record numbers. They are trained to assume leadership positions in churches that are not always prepared to receive them. Still, most are finding an outlet for ministry, even if it is not what they originally had in mind. Says Dean Pedersen, dean of students at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, “We are on the verge of something very significant.”

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A Mutual Attraction

Gordon-Conwell has welcomed women students since it opened, but their numbers have increased steadily in the last two decades—from 5 in 1965, to 82 in 1975, to 134 in 1985. Women represent 22 percent of the total student body now, and that, according to Pedersen, has brought a shift in attitudes. For many years, a call from God was viewed as something that happened exclusively to men. “The perception that God does call women to ministry has gradually become more and more prominent,” he says.

Of the 34 seminaries responding to CT’s survey, only 3 percent had no women enrolled in 1985. Twenty years earlier, nearly half of those seminaries had no women students. Between 1975 and 1985 these seminaries grew 74 percent, with a 150 percent increase in the number of women students. Seminaries affiliated with denominations that have recently approved the ordination of women tend to have the highest percentage of increases of women students.

Even in theologically conservative settings, women are gaining admittance to degree programs traditionally reserved for men. This month, Dallas Theological Seminary admitted a woman to its master of theology program for the first time. The seminary’s decision reflects its belief that leaders in women’s ministries require a thorough knowledge of Scripture, according to former seminary president John F. Walvoord. At the same time, Dallas retains its belief that women should not be ordained to become senior pastors.

Women in seminaries are conservative and liberal, single and married, young and middle-aged, with as many different perspectives on the question of male headship as there are study guides on Paul’s epistles. However, they do tend to agree on one thing: that being in seminary is enormously beneficial.

Hearing A Call

Whether they tiptoe into seminary or march resolutely through the door, women discover that seminary classes deepen their knowledge of the Bible and sharpen their skills at handling it. Many women go to seminary seeking credentials for ministry that is already an important part of their lives.

Nancie Mooney, wife of an American Baptist pastor in Oneonta, New York, has taught Bible studies for 20 years using resources from her husband’s library. In 1985, she began studying at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, pursuing a master of divinity degree. She has discovered that formal study of the Bible can enliven personal faith. “As I sat in class, I felt I’d been watching a black-and-white television all those years, and now suddenly the screen was in color.”

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Virtually all the women interviewed say they are in seminary because of an ineradicable compulsion to be there, which they experience as a call from God.

Ruth Strand took a year off after graduating from Houghton College to work in a low-income community for the Mennonite Voluntary Service. “I felt an intensified desire to learn how to communicate God’s love to people. That led me to choose seminary,” she said. She started at Asbury in a master’s program focusing on religious education, then pursued a master of divinity.

Because there are so few role models for women entering ministry, Strand sought examples of women in ministry by reading books. She discovered women played a vital role in starting her own Wesleyan denomination. And that suggested to her that God could use her, as well, in ministry.

CT’s interviews also indicated that many women in U.S. seminaries are there because a husband, a pastor, family, or friends recognized undeveloped ministry gifts in them and urged them to go. Joan Friesen, an American Baptist, has seen her calling unfold over a long period of time. A business major, she worked as an accountant for a small gasoline company in Eugene, Oregon. She became active with her young adult group at church, and as a result, wrote away for seminary catalogues that wound up forgotten in desk drawers.

“I gave myself a year to decide whether to get an M.B.A., move to another company, or go to seminary. My boss took me out to lunch and offered an opportunity for advancement. When I told him of my interest in seminary, he said, ‘That’s what you should do.’ ” Further discussions with family and friends confirmed the leading, and she enrolled at a branch of American Baptist Seminary of the West.

What Women Experience At Seminary

Even though the women interviewed find seminary to be an ideal environment for nurturing their gifts, they are not always prepared for the reactions their presence provokes: perplexity, curiosity, skepticism, and occasionally, outright opposition.

Faculty members have challenged women students about their call to the ministry. Women in such situations experience “a real internal struggle, soul-searching, and anger,” Ruth Strand says.

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Being “an issue” on campus catches some women by surprise. Many women “grew up in churches and just want to serve the Lord,” according to a Denver Seminary official. “Their first experience of opposition really shakes them, because they take it personally.” A woman seminarian at Gordon-Conwell was told by a male student that she could not post a notice on a student bulletin board called “Iron Sharpens Iron,” because the board’s namesake Bible verse concludes, “as one man sharpens another.” A young male student told Vicki Kraft at Dallas that seminaries should not be coed because “women are distracting.”

Several seminary administrators acknowledged to CT that much of the opposition is almost comical and has little to do with scriptural issues. Says James Sweeney, dean of students at Western Baptist Seminary, “In the past there was a high level of chauvinism expressed as biased views often are—in spiritual clothing. Some of the early women who bore the brunt of that were superior students, so that may well have threatened male students.”

Mike Eurit, a third-year student at Asbury, came there with questions of his own about women in ministry. But after interacting with women students, he says, “I ’ve changed my mind. I believe their call is true. They are not confused.” Mike may be characteristic of the majority of male seminarians who have had little or no exposure to women in ministry. Their questions stem more from curiosity than rigidly held doctrinal beliefs.

For her part, Lisa Christian, a first-year counseling major in the master of divinity program at Western Conservative Baptist Seminary, found a unique way to respond to inquisitive male students. “I tell them I want to be a television evangelist. That relieves the tension!”

Male and female students in seminaries learn to live with a degree of tension, however, in forming relationships with one another. Gordon-Conwell’s Pedersen asks, “Are women and men here to study or find a mate? Are they colleagues, scholars, or friends? Where does that end and the romantic begin?” That ambiguity often continues when women leave seminary and enter ministry positions. Mary Graves, 32 and single, has discovered “there are lots of moms who would love to have their daughters marry a pastor, but it’s not true in the reverse.”

Ambiguity about relationships and a lack of role models can compound feelings of isolation on campus. Dereen Vanderlinde-Abernathy, a 1978 graduate of Gordon-Conwell, copastors a Congregational church with her husband, David. “In my basic preaching class, it was 63 men and me,” she recalls. “I’m the first woman I’ve ever heard preach.”

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How Seminaries Are Responding

CT learned that increasing numbers of seminaries are taking steps to address the needs of women students—from hiring female professors to restructuring courses to reevaluating administrative policies. And in so doing, seminaries are testing traditional understandings of what it means to be a minister.

Haddon Robinson, president of Denver Seminary, says he wants to hire more women faculty members, but “it is still true that the husband’s job determines where the family will move.” At Asbury, officials are convinced the seminary will have to nurture its own “homegrown” female professors by identifying qualified individuals and shaping their development as they work toward doctoral degrees.

Curriculum changes have come more easily. At Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, a course entitled “Homiletics for Women” has evolved from teaching pastors’ wives to evaluate sermons to a preaching lab for women. Practical theology professor Jim Westgate said he changed the class focus three years ago, because women persuaded him that they, too, needed to know how to teach and handle the Bible correctly.

Nearly every seminary now has at least one course related specifically to women in ministry, and often these courses draw large enrollments. Several schools have designated an administrator to handle “women’s concerns.” But the most significant soul-searching has revolved around the master of divinity program (M.Div.): What is its purpose? Who is the program designed to train?

The issue came to a head five years ago at Western Conservative Baptist Seminary when women were enrolling primarily in master’s programs other than the M.Div. Questions arose about women attending the seminary, and, forced to take a stand, the faculty reaffirmed that the M.Div. degree was open to women with the understanding that they were not being trained to become senior pastors.

At Fuller Seminary, where the most significant struggles regarding women occurred a decade ago, a new set of concerns has come into focus. In response to a course, “Women in Transition,” a new course, “Men in Difficult Times,” is being offered. “It never occurred to men that if women changed, that means something for them, too,” says Libbie Patterson, director of career placement. “Both men and women are asking, ‘What does it mean to be a minister, to be created male and female?’ ”

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Beyond Seminary: Women And The Church

Outside seminary walls, such questions are not being asked with the same regularity or urgency. For many Christians in the church pew, “minister” means “male.” In mainline Protestant denominations, the question has for the most part been officially settled, although not all lay church members accept the verdict of their leaders. In evangelical circles, the question is very much alive, and it cropped up at denominational meetings this summer. These perceptions may squeeze women seminary graduates into a placement bottleneck.

“Search committees inevitably ask, ‘Will her husband be willing to quit his job when she moves to another church?’ and ‘Who will take care of the children?’ ” says Haddon Robinson. For these and other reasons, theologically conservative churches intent on supporting the family are often hesitant to hire a woman for a full-time staff position.

Even in churches where women are accepted as staff pastors, there is a growing concern that they will have trouble moving on to more challenging second and third positions. The senior pastorate, a logical career goal for male ministers, has yet to open up to women.

On the other hand, husband and wife pastoral teams are gaining increased acceptance, perhaps signaling a new ecclesiastical trend. Such an arrangement helps diminish congregational questions of headship and authority.

David and Dereen Vanderlinde-Abernathy became copastors of a Congregational church (UCC) because of a mix-up.

What Women Bring To Ministry

What women seminary graduates bring to their responsibilities of counseling, teaching, and preaching is noticeably different from the emphasis of male ministers. Church members mention appreciating such qualities as warmth, a more down-to-earth approach to Scripture, and greater empathy with women. Liz Nordquist, associate pastor at Bel Air Presbyterian Church in Los Angeles, told CT she frequently hears this comment from women: “When you preach, I know someone understands me. Someone is bringing the gospel to me in a way I’d never heard it before.”

In the area of counseling, women ministers may be able to help their male colleagues avoid developing dangerous attachments to female counselees. “Some men who counsel women get involved emotionally and it leads to adultery,” says Vicki Kraft. “It’s a serious moral trap that men are falling into.”

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The relational skills women bring to ministry permeate church staff interaction as well, according to several women in ministry. Women tend to emphasize a collegial church structure, rather than a hierarchical one.

But as more women move into positions of leadership, there is some concern that they may stumble over issues of power. “There may be a tendency for women to do the same thing with power that some men have done: abuse it,” says Nordquist. “What could be a wonderful experience of unity, wholeness, and healing could fall into the same entrenchment.”

Paul K. Jewett, professor at Fuller for 25 years and a long-time advocate of women in ministry, worries that some women may abandon their evangelical faith in their quest to break into a male-dominated field. “Some women are sufficiently influenced by feminist thought that they’re not too concerned with evangelical Christianity,” he says. “When the chips are down, their first concern is women and their needs.”

On the other hand, equal participation of men and women in the work and worship of the church is seen by some as recapturing the way Adam and Eve related to each other before the Fall. And the church, rather than women, is seen as the main beneficiary. Wendell Price, former director of Alliance Theological Seminary, says, “The church is impoverished to the extent that it fails to use the gifts God gives to women.” Whatever church leaders think of women in ministry, they agree the phenomenon is changing ways in which ministry is done. Dean Pedersen, at Gordon-Con well, says, “Some congregations will have difficulty because they are not prepared for change. They will need guiding leadership rather than demands for compliance. But passivity will not be an option.”

Meanwhile, women seminarians and ministers feel acutely their responsibility as role models and trailblazers. Having chosen their vocation with much prayer and with enthusiastic devotion to the tenets of their faith, they long for the church to allow them to use their gifts fully in furthering God’s kingdom. Nancie Mooney, echoing the convictions of many of her colleagues, says, “I don’t believe that God, who placed a call on my life, made a mistake.”

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