Feminism and Ministerial Education

by Iris V. Cully

Dr. Cully is Alexander Campbell Hopkins professor of religious education at Lexington (Kentucky) Theological Seminary.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, February 7-14, 1979 p. 141. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The current task of biblical interpreters of women’s issues should begin in the theological seminary. In the past, women were advised to enter religious education. No adviser would have thought of suggesting a Ph.D. in theology or New Testament. Women should be encouraged to explore the full range of academic offerings — especially those that would strengthen skills in theology and/or biblical languages, for example.

The recent revival of the women’s movement is affecting every area of American life. The term “revival” is used because an earlier movement culminated in the voting amendment of 1919, which women had hoped would become instrumental in achieving other forms of equality. The movement slowed during the 1940s and ‘50s until books by Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan stirred a new feminism, later institutionalized in the National Organization for Women and presently focused on the Equal Rights Amendment and other issues.

The church, as a conservator of societal values, is understandably slow to affirm a movement that espouses change. But the church can hardly expect to remain untouched by this pervasive cultural development. The current task of biblical interpreters on the subject of women’s rights should begin in the theological seminary, where a variety of efforts may be undertaken to assist students in meeting this change during their professional preparation.


The knowledge/feeling level of the instructor is of basic importance. Students frequently regard their teachers as models by whose attitudes they are reassured, antagonized. reinforced or encouraged to change. What, in fact, do those who teach know about the present feminist ferment with reference to women and the Bible, theological insights or historical development? Some of the most thoughtful work in the field today is being written by evangelicals, to whom the authority of God’s word in Scripture is paramount. Two examples are Man as Male and Female by a Fuller Seminary scholar, Paul K. Jewett, and Virginia Mollenkott’s Women; Men and the Bible -- excellent both as book and as study course complete with cassettes. Other books about women in the Old Testament and about Paul’s view of women have appeared recently, as has a source-book of excerpts from historical writings: Women and Religion, edited by Elizabeth Clark and Herbert Richardson. Also to be considered are the thoughtful histories of church women’s societies that have been issued by several denominations.

Reading, however, is not enough. Highly educated people like to read about issues and digest them intellectually, but often prefer to avoid becoming inwardly affected. They can read about the misogyny of the church fathers and understand the cultural situation of biblical people, but remain personally untouched by their reading. If we are to fulfill our task, it is important to let this reading speak to us inwardly, compel us to think and feel deeply, affirm us where indicated and change us where necessary. Exploring one’s feelings can be uncomfortable, but it is important not to deny them; they will find expression in some form. Students can discern attitudes in the voice or manner of an instructor. Thus, no teacher should ignore the present situation.

The members of a seminary community also have pastoral responsibilities to one another. They ought to become aware of the needs that prompt a radical response to feminism on the part of some women and develop an empathy with their sense of frustration. Also, if it is concluded that women need to develop a more aggressive stance in order to minister in today’s world, attention should be paid to those women who are content with traditional roles, affirming those who know reasons for their stance and encouraging exploration on the part of those who seem unsatisfied but have defined no clear direction to follow.


What kind of help do women students receive from advisers? Some faculty see their advisory role primarily as that of assisting students to choose courses that will meet interests and fulfill degree requirements. Women should be encouraged to explore the full range of academic offerings -- especially those that would strengthen skills in theology and/or biblical languages, for example. In the past, women were advised to enter religious education, not because of special gifts, but because no adviser would have thought of suggesting a Ph.D. in theology or New Testament. Also, special female “sensitivity” to others often led to a hospital chaplaincy but not a pastorate, marriage counseling within a community setting rather than in a church. Sometimes it seems as though men are threatened by the aesthetic component in liturgy; in theory, women are supposed to appreciate the aesthetic but in ecclesial settings men are supposed to practice it. All of these attitudes need examination and revision.

The majority of seminary students may be male. If a teacher’s own inclination is to affirm traditional roles for men md women, some seminarians will be reassured -- but they will not be prepared or the future. Presumably such preparation is part of the educational task. There is no blueprint, but flexibility toward change is an essential element in vocational training. One might help by saying, “This is the way I still view the situation, but I can’t guarantee that it will not change in five, ten or 20 years” -- and then introduce options even if one does so on an intellectual level, with reservations and disagreements. If male students are involved in what some people like to call the new humanism, they will welcome affirmation from their instructors as they try new roles and modifications of accustomed ways.


Student responses to the women’s movement are as varied as those of their professors. Any class will encompass many viewpoints -- including reflections of wives’ feelings. Some student wives desire only to be a “good” minister’s wife. Some female members of the local church will affirm these women in a traditional role, while others, who work and are sensitive to matters of promotion and salary, as well as to the social and political implications of the rights movement, may wish for a pastor’s wife to be more supportive of their needs.

Certain women are abrasive in urging their case -- a posture which some people on campus will affirm, while others will withdraw in discomfort. In any case, confirming the proverb “The wheel that squeaks gets the grease,” emphatic protest has won some changes for women, frequently in terms of admissions policies, appointment to faculty positions and representation on committees.

Students are obviously aware of one another’s feelings. Women students are no longer tolerant of what they consider “put-downs” by men, such as the male seminarian’s remark that “women don’t need power in the church. They already exercise it through the kitchen and bedroom.” Male discomfort with the subject of women’s changing roles in the church is understandable: men will face stiffer job competition and will be threatened by more people within the power structure. Males who have learned how to deal with indirect power plays by women often do not find it comfortable to meet challenges directly. Whereas they have been able to joke about women “having their way,” they are not prepared to see them have their way through regular channels.

Male students who have internalized the pastor-laity roles with which they grew up struggle to restructure this role for their own ministry. But no one can live in the past, and the young, especially, should be alive to the future, The openness, even aggressiveness, of some women students in seminary could be positively construed as an opportunity for males to try out new roles in this supportive community before entering into the ambiguities of the parish situation. Presumably those preparing for pastoral or teaching ministry are alert to the feelings of others. They have it on good authority that this attitude was central to the life and ministry of Jesus. Support should go out to those men who are open to the aspirations of women and who are finding new directions for themselves.

One essential role for a teacher can be to act as a catalyst in restructuring perceptions among faculty. Every faculty is a team, and members know the others’ responses very well (more so within a small faculty than a large one). There are those who pay lip service: “I’m all for women studying for the ministry, but . . . Substitute “women becoming ordained” or “becoming pastors” or “having tenured positions”; the game of “yes, but . . .” continues. However, this game can be challenged. For example, it is important to note to what extent personality factors enter into faculty discussions about women students. Is this the case more frequently than in discussions of male students? Is the faculty more or less indulgent in carrying along the female student whose work is substandard? Equal treatment is what women want today, and faculty can help each other in seeking to establish uniform standards for student evaluation.

The place of women faculty on the functioning committees should also be explored. Is there at least one woman on each? I do not advocate proportional representation per se; it could result in unqualified committee members and would help neither the school nor the women s movement. But increasing female representation has the practical effect of bringing more women into the decision-making process, giving them opportunity to exercise their abilities and make their viewpoints known.


In addition to amassing knowledge and analyzing feelings and interactions, seminary communities may take further steps to enrich educational perspectives on feminism. The most obvious is to schedule campus visits by people who represent new roles for women. However, to encourage positive reaction, visiting speakers will have to be chosen judiciously. This does not mean never to invite a woman who is overly aggressive in pressing her viewpoint; prospective clergy need to learn how to face acerbic approaches. since they cannot be guaranteed a lifetime of serene pastorates. They need to learn how to hear what people are saying instead of defensively turning off an unpleasant message, and they need to understand both the personal and tactical reasons why the speaker uses this approach.

Another goal should be to develop courses about women and religion. These ought to reflect on the subject biblically, theologically and historically. They may also explore feelings and attitudes and be designed to help women broaden their self-image in the religious professions, as well as to help men accept them there. In addition, there is a need for conscientious examination of all seminary courses to determine whether the roles of women have been ignored, neglected or distorted. A study of church history should not only include the council at Whitby but note that the head of that monastery was the Abbess Hilda. The Avignon period of the papacy cannot be seen in proper focus without examining the role of Catherine of Siena, who acted as mediator. No study of Christian spirituality is complete without the writings of Theresa of Avila.

And so it goes. Women have been heroic figures in the history of Protestant missions. The development of women’s societies within American churches made possible effective education and financial outreach for home and foreign missions. Women studying today want to know more about the biblical understanding of women. It comes as a surprise to some to realize (although they have read it many times) that women were the first witnesses to the resurrection. Women are also asking theological questions about the biblical understanding of God, seeking to comprehend what it means that God nurtured, led and fed his people.


It seems astonishing to one acquainted with the world of publishing that some teachers and many students in theological schools see no reason for changing their writing or speaking style to reflect present-day trends. Many women no longer hear themselves as being included in the terms “man” and “mankind.” Do teachers and clergy really want to remain unheard by part of their class or congregation? Women are discovering that the word “man” has sometimes been inserted and mistranslated in the Bible where Greek, Hebrew and Latin used a generic word whose English equivalent is “human being” or “humanity.”

The McGraw-Hill guidelines for non-sexist references in writing have been widely adopted among general secular publishers, a development to be noted in 1977-78 books. Some, but not all, church-related publishing houses are also sensitive to the trend. Students should not be permitted to hand in class papers written incorrectly. Admittedly one’s first attempts at change may be awkward, but writers soon learn ways in which plural forms and third-person usage can ease the transition. In a short time, one is making few lapses that a careful rereading does not uncover.

It is also important to become more sensitive to hymns and other liturgical materials used in worship services. Some women are looking for new worship materials. Others are asking only that the most blatant examples of sexist language be omitted. There are at least 500 hymns in any hymnal, and one does not have to choose “Rise Up, O Men of God.” Besides, its theology is bad. The kingdom does not tarry; nor does the church (her strength unequal to her task) wait for men to make her great. Women are not brothers of the son of man.


In religious education, which has frequently been considered primarily a woman’s field, there are and have been few women attaining to the rank of full professor in theological seminaries. In the past generation, few women have been appointed ministers of education in large or “key” churches. Seldom have they been called as pastors even to medium-sized parishes. Rarely have there been women in top denominational or judicatory positions. In recent years, even the field of children’s ministry has been co-opted by men on the grounds that it needed more male figures (but no corresponding need voiced for adult ministry to have more female figures). A key responsibility will be to see that such positions are open to women, instead of wondering aloud how, with the increased numbers of women students, there will ever be found jobs enough to go around.

Some new positions may be opening, but not quickly enough to meet the needs of seminary graduates. Faculty members ought to use all the influence they have in finding openings and in encouraging laity to accept women In unfamiliar roles. At present, such efforts may be more difficult in the pastorate than in the fields of teaching or administration.

Where do all of these developments and suggestions leave male students and professors? They are left, as are men in other vocations, learning to look at women as persons and co-workers. They are learning that they can no longer protect certain boundaries, at the same time as they are gaining freedom to adopt life styles more open and less competitive. Their sometimes oppressive machismo role may vanish, opening the road to a new humanization. Aware of the importance of roles, models, methods and language, each professor and each student -- male and female -- can be a catalyst to help seminary communities move positively and creatively in the present situation of change.