Dear Fellow Seminary Students, I’m Not Trying to Date You (and other tips on interacting with your female classmates)

by Sarah Schwartz | November 23, 2013

I knew that my decision to attend seminary would present me, a 22 year old woman, with a unique set of challenges. I went into my graduate program understanding that I’d often be one of only a handful of women, if not the only woman, in my classes. I knew I wouldn’t necessarily see eye to eye with professors on issues of gender theology, and that occasionally I’d feel overlooked or marginalized. However, I was also aware of the quality of the education I would be receiving at my institution of choice, and considered it worth the occasional moment of feeling like I didn’t belong.

Because I’m an adult now, or at least impersonating one, with a job and a life outside of school, I hadn’t really thought of my seminary experience as one in which I’d be making friends. But as the semester is nearly halfway over, I’ve realized that it would be nice to have friendly faces in my classes, people to sit and study with, people with whom I can crack jokes or complain about homework. I guess it doesn’t matter if it’s the 3rd or the 17th grade…everyone still wants someone to eat lunch with.

And I’ve sensed that my classmates desire this too, particularly in the course I’m taking that’s required of all first semester students, where I happen to be the only woman in my assigned cohort group. But as the semester progresses, and the men in my group become closer, swapping jokes and making plans to meet outside class, I’ve noticed a common theme in their interactions with me…mainly, total and utter bewilderment. They are good-hearted people, and I can tell they want to include me somehow in their budding bromances, but they just don’t know how. And I don’t blame them.

Culture at large, and the church in particular, hasn’t given them a script for how to interact with me. The narratives they’ve been given for relationships with women pertain mainly to mothers, wives, girlfriends, or potential girlfriends, and I don’t fit into any of those categories. According to the Association of Theological Schools, in the 2012-2013 school year, only 37% of Protestant seminary students were women, but this number is on the rise, and sooner or later, men and women are going to have to figure out how to do this seminary thing together. If I had the opportunity to speak to male seminarians (like my classmates), who are concerned with integrating female students into a world that has historically been dominated by men, I would offer three pieces of advice.

1) Understand that I don’t want to date you. I say this, not because any of my classmates have hit on me, but because I can tell that they are so afraid of coming across as expressing romantic interest, that they avoid me all together. This speaks to a larger problem within Christian culture of viewing members of the opposite sex primarily as potential partners, rather than brothers and sisters in Christ, which is beyond the scope of this piece. However, please know that you can go into our interactions confident that I will not think you are flirting with me, unless, well, you actually flirt with me. If you engage with me in a friendly manner, I’m going to appreciate being treated like a person, not start trying out my first name with your last.

2) Unless we are actually related, please don’t treat me like your daughter, granddaughter, or niece. I know that you’re only using a script of social norms you’ve used with other women my age, but chances are, we don’t have a relationship that constitutes the use of names like “sweetie” or “honey”. I appreciate that you are trying to relate to me, but that doesn’t make me feel loved, it makes me feel patronized.

3) Respect that I’m getting the same education that you are. Even if you’re confused as to why I’m studying Biblical Exposition, rather than Women’s Ministry, or Spiritual Formation, which are more common concentrations for women, please don’t act shocked by my choice of program. It’s incredibly disheartening to be asked, time and time again, “So…uh…what do you want to do with that?” like my gender somehow impairs my ability to do anything meaningful with my degree. I’ve also had people respond to my major like it’s adorable, but I am not a monkey that has learned to juggle, or a child playing with a plastic steering wheel while you are driving a real car. I’m working really hard writing papers, taking exams, and plowing through endless readings lists, just like you, and when we graduate, my degree won’t be decorated with Lisa Frank stickers. It will be just as real and hard earned as yours.

Gentlemen, we must learn to thrive in seminary together, not merely co-exist through these broken and harmful scripts. We must learn to thrive in seminary together because we need to be Jesus to a broken world together, live out the fullness of the Kingdom together, and love one another with the kind of holy love that Jesus said would be the sole mark of his disciples to a watching world. Living out redemption can only be done in community, and your sisters are asking to be welcomed to the table.