7% Matter: Listening to Women in Evangelical Academia

by Emily Louise Zimbrick-Rogers | November 12, 2014

Recently I was told the story of a 55-year-old woman currently attending an evangelical seminary. This story, and others like it, drive my upcoming research at the Evangelical Theological Society conference:

A 6-year-old girl spends Saturday mornings with her mother and grandmother in their local, rural Texas Baptist church. Her mom is the church pianist and her grandmother the organist, so she plays quietly while they practice for the Sunday service. She has been fascinated by the preacher’s role for some time. One day she stands behind the pulpit and pretends quietly to be the preacher. Yet, even at the age of 6, she knows she can never be the preacher because she is a girl.

No one told her this. No one had to.

At the age of 55, she’s finally going to seminary, but is doing her ministry internship with a different denomination than her seminary—and also not the denomination she’s been a member of for many decades. Her husband has been a preacher and theology professor for decades, and supports his wife’s calling into ministry, but shares her sadness at how difficult a road it has been.

What if someone had listened to her earlier? Where were role models for her? What if she had a professor during undergraduate who heard her passion for ministry and theology and encouraged her to use those gifts?

So much formation occurs through professors who act as mentors and guides, who can either open wide the possibilities for a young person or constrict a young person’s vision of the future. And while men may be excellent mentors, for a variety of reasons, young women also need female mentors. I want to understand the experiences of these women mentors, these women academics, who are teaching, mentoring, and writing excellent scholarship.

Therefore, from November 18-20, 2014, Jennifer Aycock and I will be conducting research at the Evangelical Theological Society annual meeting, listening to the experiences of women attending the conference, presenting papers, and participating as members of this academic biblical studies and theological society.

Why listen to women particularly? Well …

Women make up less than 7% of full members of ETS and have little to no institutional roles. This year’s conference lines up the percentage of presenters with the general society membership, with about 50 women presenting papers compared to more than 600 men. That’s 7% of the presenters compared to 93% male presenters. No women will be presenting a plenary session.

Yet while their voices may be minimized—whether intentionally or unintentionally—it’s important to listen to what these women have to say. These women are professors in evangelical academic institutions, and can teach us much about the place of women in evangelicalism, especially in the academy. These women have an important role in helping their male colleagues shape the next generations of Christian college students and seminary students.

To my knowledge, this will be one of the first studies of women in evangelical academy theology/biblical studies and may shed light on the place of women in Christian higher education and general evangelical society.

What will I hear? To tell you the truth, I don’t know. And that is one of the exciting things about emergent, qualitative research.

I have a few ideas on what I’ll hear, based on my experience at ETS last year as a student scholarship recipient. I got a few odd glances, but am not sure to attribute those looks due to my being pregnant and without my husband, because my nametag identified me as a Princeton Theological student (some would consider it not a place for a “good evangelical” to attend), or the fact that I am a woman.

From others I’ve spoken to, women often feel like they receive unequal treatment or hostile responses. In a few sessions I attended last year, several men were disrespectful and demeaning to some of the women presenters—women who are respected scholars with numerous publications. One female presenter admitted she had a low view of women’s education and theological knowledge.

My co-researcher Jennifer Aycock, a Trinity Evangelical Divinity School M.Div. graduate and current director of college ministry at a church, and I will be doing lots of listening, lots of observation, lots of question asking. We’re not only going to ask women questions but also seek out the leadership of ETS to find out why women are such a minority voice in ETS and why women haven’t been in any leadership positions.

I’m excited to be doing this project as the CBE research intern. CBE always has a booth at ETS and sends out a special journal to all ETS members in order to broaden the conversation on how to hold a high view of the authority of Scripture and also promote full equality for women and men in Christ’s Body—whether as professors, pastors, leaders, and as members of families.

Pray for us to talk to all the right people. Pray for us to be able to hear the stories that need to be more widely disseminated. Pray for women and men to have the courage to speak truthfully so that good change can come for all women in the evangelical academy and in broader Christian society. 

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