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“There are significant differences in the experiences of women in theological education,” says Delle Matthews, dean of studies at Melbourne School of Theology. Her paper, presented at the Evangelical Women in Academia Conference in 2017, outlined the significantly high rates of female students dropping out of theological education and some of the issues that were unique to the female student experience.1
In a rural context, challenges women face can be compounded by simple things like lower population density, under resourced and declining churches, and limitations of choice, namely, finding churches that will support a woman in her studies and ministry aspirations. Female theology students in a rural context are often online students who don’t regularly see flesh-and-blood role models: women who are leading in church, teaching a mixed congregation, and fulfilling other roles, such as coworker, wife, or mother at the same time.
These trends are more than just statistics for me; they have been my experience. I am an online student, with the nearest theological college more than 200 kilometers (approx. 125 miles) away. I praise God that the digital age we live in that gives me an opportunity to study, but the virtual classroom is not always enough. Early on in my studies I had a yearning to meet with flesh and blood women who were what I aspired to be. I had known that my call to ministry would be tough. I had already felt isolated. There were very few female ministers of any theological persuasion in my area, even fewer that would identify as evangelical. None were near my age.
Travel becomes a lifeline for the remote female theological student in a rural context to find mentors in a way that differs from our male counterparts. I balked the first time I drove for two hours and flew on a plane for another three and a half hours to attend a one-day conference in Melbourne. I wondered, Would it be worth the time? the expense?
Attending the inaugural Evangelical Women in Academia (EWA) Conference at Ridley College in 2017 was a mini leap of faith. I hoped it would be worth the airfare. It was, so I went again the next year.
“You can’t be what you can’t see.” This quote, attributed to Marian Wright Edelman among others, was used by Katya Covrett at the 2018 EWA conference. These were the words that stuck, ringing close to my heart and confirming the travel, the time, and the expense was worth it.
In 2018 I brought a friend with me to EWA. Having been nourished and fed at the first conference, I wanted to share it with some I thought might need that too. I had just encouraged my friend to embark on her theological studies online. She was a friend that lived only down the street from me but needed to travel like I did to meet and see what we couldn’t in our own context. We needed to see real women, smart women, serving the Lord with passion and integrity, teaching and leading others to do the same.
My friend is younger than me, a generation younger. Generations happen quickly these days. She networked on a new level, and I certainly learned a thing or two from her. She left the conference armed with her virtual role models and newfound Facebook friends backed up by real flesh and blood. Back at home, she kept me up to date with writings and musings and podcasts over the next twelve months, but we still planned to travel again. Flesh and blood role models are important for the “seeing.”
In 2019, there were three of us from our town. Another friend joined us who had just begun her theological studies online. She whispered to me during the afternoon session, “These are my people!” Her eyes were wide and appreciative. She no longer felt as isolated. She saw women like her and women that she aspired to be.
To the women who have gone ahead, don’t underestimate the power of simply being seen by others. The fact that you exist and do what you do is inspiration in itself. There are isolated female theological students who would love to meet you in the flesh. If you get the opportunity to travel to them, they will thank you for it.
To the women embarking on theological studies, don’t be afraid, wherever you are. The context that God has placed you in needs you to fulfill your calling. Find the women who have gone ahead. Get on that plane if you have to.
I love my rural context. I love the place where God has put me. For its benefit, I strive to be what I have seen: a woman who pursues theology academically, a woman who serves the Lord with passion and integrity, and a woman who, with love, teaches and leads others to do the same. It is my hope and prayer that in my becoming, the next generation of women in my context may not have to always travel so far to see.
1. Delle Matthews, “Thriving and Surviving as Undergraduate,” (paper presented at Evangelical Women in Academia Conference, Melbourne, AU, July 22, 2017). https://www.ridley.edu.au/resource/evangelical-women-academia/.