"I Am A Theologian": Reflections on Being a Woman in a Male Dominated Profession

By Sara Mannen

I am a theologian.

The preceding four words should not be difficult to utter for someone whose vocational goal for the past decade is to become a theology professor. However, with much trepidation, I described myself as a theologian for the first time this year. Why? Partly due to my own sense of inadequacy and partly because I am an evangelical woman seeking to enter the male-dominated world of academic theology. Is there a place for me in the academic world without a qualifying adjective in front of the word theologian, such as feminist theologian?

Over the past two years at Multnomah Seminary, I have recovered my voice and gained the confidence to pursue my calling as a teacher and theologian. My husband was in full-time ministry for the past fourteen years. I was a “pastor’s” wife. There is an incredible amount of pressure on the wives of those who serve in full-time ministry. The pressure to perform or fit a stereotype can be self-inflicted, as well as, implicitly or explicitly stated by the church congregation.[1] The isolation can be crushing, but for me, the greatest hardship was the silencing effect a wife in this position experiences. This is not a criticism of my church, but an observation on the rampant feelings of pastor’s wives.    

The phrase, “Grin and bear it,” is the unspoken mantra of a pastor’s wife. Joe McKeever summarizes well this predicament, “The pastor’s wife can be hurt in a hundred ways—through attacks on her husband, her children, herself. Her pain is magnified by one great reality: She cannot fight back. She cannot give a certain member a piece of her mind for criticizing the pastor’s children, cannot straighten out the deacon who is making life miserable for her husband, cannot stand up to the finance committee who, once again, failed to approve a needed raise, or the building and grounds committee that postponed repair work on the pastorium. She has to take it in silence, most of the time.”[2]

I lost my voice.

As a woman entering the Master of Arts in Theological Studies program at an evangelical seminary, I knew I would be the minority. The recent statics are sobering. In the 2012-2013 school year, 1 out of every 5 students was a woman in the Master of Divinity programs at evangelical seminaries.[3] The most recent data from the Association of Theological Schools states that women comprise less than thirty percent of those enrolled in M.Div. programs. This includes all denominations, even mainline Protestants that are not opposed to women in leadership positions.[4] I am often the only woman in my theology classes.

The deficit of women in seminary is exasperated by the glaring lack of female theological leadership. In 2010, the ATS dedicated an entire journal to the issue surrounding women in theological leadership. Perhaps, the most shocking piece of information was that no evangelical school had a female president and only eleven percent of the deans at evangelical school were women. Although the number of female theology professors is increasing, the fact remains, “First, female faculty are not distributed evenly across religious traditions. Theological schools within the evangelical and Roman Catholic worlds have far fewer female faculty than do mainline Protestant schools. Second, female faculty are more likely to be working in fields such as pastoral care, religious education, spiritual direction, ministry, and so forth. They are less likely to be teaching in the fields of theology, church history, or biblical studies—the academic fields of the majority of academic deans.”[5] A quick scan of the catalogs from top academic publishers, such as Zondervan and IVP, shows an appalling disparity between female and male authors in the field of theology. The evangelical world is sorely lacking in female theological leadership.

How did I find my voice in academic theology when it is male-dominated?

At Multnomah, instead of having to prove myself as a theologian, my peers and professors consistently treat me as an equal partner in our theological studies and journey. The respect and affirmation I receive has allowed me to find my voice. My peers and mentors want to hear what I have to say. It is never with an attitude of condescension or tokenism. I am never treated as a female heel-grabber who is usurping her God-given role to take a man’s place.

Theology is a labor of love for the Church of Christ. In my time at seminary, my gifting as a theologian has been repeatedly affirmed and allowed to flourish through mentoring and opportunities to write and teach. Not only has my voice been affirmed, I have an equal seat at the table. However, I acknowledge my experience may not be typical for most women at other institutions.

This Winter, I taught a week of theology classes while the professors I work for attended the National Prayer Breakfast. For the next three months, students from those classes would approach me to discuss the subjects I taught or theology in general. More specifically, female students were the ones who sought me out. No matter how supportive and encouraging the male theology professors are to their female students, it is not until they experience a woman teaching them theology that they begin to realize that theology is for them too. Representation and leadership are more important than I previously understood. 

I found my voice.

Not only did I find my voice, my passion for theology and teaching are ignited as I realize this is how I best serve the church. The church needs a bigger table for a diversity of theologians. My experience at Multnomah encourages me to continue down the path the Lord has called. I hope that someday more woman can say with me, “I am a theologian.” 

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[1] See the following examples of expectations of a pastor’s wife: http://www.pastoralcareinc.com/articles/role-of-a-pastor-s-wife/, https://www.gotquestions.org/pastors-wife-duty-role.html.

[2] Joe McKeever, “Pastor, Remember Your Wife is the MOST Vulnerable Person in Your Church,” http://churchleaders.com/pastors/pastor-articles/170133-joe-mckeever-pastors-wife-is-the-most-vulnerable-person-in-your-church.html.

[3] Sharon Hodde Miller, “The Seminary Gender Gap,” http://www.christianitytoday.com/women/2013/may/seminary-gender-gap.html.

[4]See the following charts: http://www.ats.edu/uploads/resources/institutional-data/annual-data-tables/2015-2016-annual-data-tables.pdf.

[5] Barbara G. Wheeler and Sharon L. Miller, “Women and Men in Leadership in Theological Education,” Theological Education 45, no. 2, (2010): 90.

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Sara Mannen spends her time caring for her two precocious daughters and husband while attending seminary and working.  Professionally, she has worked in banking for 17 years. Sara’s passion is for discipling and teaching the youth in her church where her love for teaching the Bible and theology are utilized. She graduated from Multnomah University where she majored in Bible and Theology and Youth Ministry.