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Published Date: February 1, 2024

Published Date: February 1, 2024

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“Consider Getting an MDiv”: Seminary Education, Double Standards, and Women in Ministry

When I was in my mid-twenties, working in college ministry at a complementarian church, it dawned on me that college students were actually listening to what I had to say. (At least some of them, some of the time.) I would give a talk on a Sunday and then meet up with a student a few days later who would tell me she had been trying to apply my teaching to her life that week. I loved that. It was also terrifying.

How did I know I was teaching these students things that were true, good, and helpful? How could I be sure I wasn’t misleading them in some unintentional yet devastating way?

I was in a position of religious authority, and I was becoming aware that this carried a lot of responsibility. Students gave extra weight to the things I said. I was also aware that I had very little education related to this authority: an undergraduate degree in cognitive science, practical ministry training in things like how to lead an engaging Bible study discussion, and a handful of church Bible classes. For the students’ sake and my own, I wanted to learn more. I wondered if a seminary education could help.

Since I was curious about seminary but had no clue what it actually entailed, I sat down to talk with one of the very few seminary graduates I knew at that point―a pastor I like and trust, let’s call him James.

I had known James since midway through my freshman year of college, when my church hired him as a college pastor. James’s idea of college ministry involved breakfast before church on Sunday mornings at his house, where he prepared a meal that always involved chocolate in some form. I was sold.

James also turned out to be an unusually deep thinker and gifted teacher, and he was supportive of women in ministry. Around the time I graduated from college, James “graduated” to pastoring the church’s young adult group. At his invitation, I joined the group’s leadership team. I loved leading worship music, planning events, and weighing in on upcoming sermon series. Alongside the two other young women and two young men on the team, I thrived.

On this leadership team, no one ever mentioned gender as having anything to do with our roles or responsibilities. We all led freely as we felt God’s Spirit leading. James created, and we eagerly received―and, at least in my case, took for granted―this little space where opportunities were defined by gifts and interests, not by gender. I was protected, for a time, from so much of the devastating impact of the larger church’s patriarchal views.

Of course, I shouldn’t have needed someone―an advocate, a male authority figure―to protect me in this way. The whole church should have been the kind of place where a young woman could flourish and grow, figure out her gifts, and try to use them.

I only have one memory of James bringing up the issue of women and men in relation to leadership, and it was when we met up at a coffee shop to talk about my interest in seminary. We sipped our caffeinated beverages, and I asked questions about his seminary experience. I sought his perspective and advice. At one point, James said something like, “If you want to be a pastor, which I could totally see you doing, you should probably consider getting a Master of Divinity (MDiv) degree. I think you’d enjoy it and learn a ton. Plus, because you’re a woman, it’ll be extra important to have on your resume when you apply for jobs. A lot of churches might be skeptical of women in ministry, and it can only help you if you’re able to show that you have the educational credentials.”

James wasn’t wrong, but I wish things were not this way. I wish it were not so painfully obvious that women in ministry have to have a higher level of education than our male counterparts in order to be considered for the same positions.

Pursuing an MDiv degree takes three years if you do it full-time, and it costs money. If an MDiv is―for all practical purposes, in many parts of the evangelical world―a requirement for women who want to be pastors but optional for men, the double standard is clear. Women have to work that much harder. We have to study that much more. Many of us go into debt to pay for the degree. All this to possibly, someday, maybe have a chance at a job that (in theory) affords the same kind of respect, pay, and opportunities as our male counterparts. (As opposed to, say, serving in a high-commitment ministry leadership role with zero pay, as with 83% of the 842 women’s ministry leaders surveyed in a 2023 Lifeway study; Jen Wilkins and Beth Allison Barr have commented insightfully on this.)

When James suggested getting an MDiv, he was trying to be supportive of me as a woman in ministry while also recognizing the reality of the evangelical world we inhabited. He really did create a wonderful women-in-leadership-affirming bubble within a very patriarchal place. I thrived there for a time, but it couldn’t last forever, and James knew it. He knew the evangelical world I would step into as soon as I stepped outside of our little young adult bubble. He knew that it is a world whose deeply-embedded patriarchal ways would make things difficult for me at every turn.

Within the conservative church world, good-hearted, women-affirming men like James push back against the double standards where they can. But ultimately these individual men only have so much power. James could not change the hiring practices of the unknown churches I might eventually want to work at as a pastor. He could not change the way a seminary education is seen differently for women and men—the way women have to work harder, do more, and be more. The best he could do was be honest about it.

I appreciate his honesty. I’m thankful for James and how he used his power to create pockets of equity in an unequal place. I think he sets an example for other male leaders to follow. I also think it is completely unacceptable that my well-being as a woman in church depended on individual powerful men deciding to use their power well. I want more than this for women. I want more than this for church.

I’m all for seminary education; I did end up pursuing an MDiv, and I loved it. But a conservative church world where my MDiv is the equivalent of a man’s bachelor’s degree is not a world I want to be a part of. Pastors like James do the best they can within settings that are hostile to women in very fundamental ways, but ultimately women deserve more than tiny air pockets where we can breathe. We deserve churches that fully support us in our callings. We deserve hiring committees that do not expect any more from us than they would from a man in our place. We deserve whole spacious communities where our gifts are affirmed, where double standards are erased, and where we can thrive.

Photo by Roman Samborskyi on Shutterstock.

Related Resources

Excalibur: Double Standards or Double-edged?
Double Standards in the Practice and Promotion of Submission
It’s Not Easy Being a Woman Professor: Subverting Sexism in Higher Education