God’s Calling and M.R.S. Degrees: a Guest Blog from Addie Zierman

October 12, 2012

Today, we’re continuing with our guest bloggers and our discussion about gender roles in faith and the home.  I’m super glad to have AddieAddie Profile - Smallest Zierman on the blog today.  Addie writes one of my favorite blogs ‘How to Talk Evangelical.’ Having attended a Christian college and seminary, I can relate (from afar) to her experience as a woman at a Christian institution.

It’s Christian college, so naturally your “hall theme” is something like In the Son – pun intended – and the wall is taped over with yellow and orange construction paper rays and pink beach umbrellas and sunglasses.

At your orientation meeting, your introduction to life at this college includes a long section on modesty and exactly what you can and cannot wear. It’s nothing you haven’t heard all of your life. In your shared closet, you have modest sweaters and one piece bathing suits and dresses that go at least to your fingertips.

But the whole thing has a new air about it now, and the hall is cloudy with the smell of gardenia body lotion and competition. There are many more women than men walking this campus, and there is this unspoken expectation that whatever else you leave here with in four years, you should at least have managed to get yourself an MRS degree.

This Little Light

The modesty talk of the orientation meeting segues into dreamy college engagement stories, and everyone gets a little starry-eyed and swoony.

You chose this college mostly because you were aware of a light burning inside of you. You came to find twelve hundred other people glowing like candles and to be warmed by their faith. You chose the required daily chapel and that automatic Biblical studies double major,  because you loved Jesus and because you wanted this.

But somewhere at the back of your excited, 18-year-old heart, you understood that they would not let you lead here. Maybe you partially chose this college because of that. Because you were tired of being the one in front. Tired of picking up the slack, keeping things running, preparing Bible studies to speak to the bleary-eyed faithful who showed up Wednesday mornings for your measly little group.

God’s Calling or God’s Word

At first you love it, all those beautiful boys, standing up front, leading everything. Their voices are deep and strong, and you love the sound. You are thankful for their bravery and you feel yourself warmed by the bigness of their fire for Jesus.

But then one day, you sit at your hall Bible study, a small spanning circle on the floor of your RA’s room. You are eating milk and cookies and talking about your “callings”, and one girl stays quiet until she’s asked point blank. “What about you?”

She shrugs. “Well, I always felt called to be a pastor,” she admits. “But I guess that’s against the Bible.”

And suddenly, you feel it like a sudden change in the weather: the shift from the public school mantra that you’ve believed all your life (you can be whatever you want to be) to a special Christian-college version tempered down for women.

Here, you can be whatever you want to be except…pastor, theologian, Bible professor, deacon. The list of what is unavailable to you is a little blurry; its boundaries shift depending on who you’re talking to.

And you look at that beautiful, 18-year-old girl with her serious eyes and her pastor heart, and you begin to see it. And once you see it, you can’t stop seeing it.

Once you notice that only one chapel speaker that entire year was a woman, you can’t stop feeling the absence. You can’t help notice that though the faculty is full of brilliant, educated women, the Biblical studies department is all white men with male-pattern baldness and a certain way of looking at things.

We All Have the Same Calling

That’s the year you’re working as a Teaching Assistant for a smart, driven female professor. When you tell her you’re engaged, she leaves print-outs about birth control in a neat pile on your desk. And, of course, you’re a little mortified.

But listen. What she’s really trying to tell you is that there are so many beautiful lit-up women who have disappeared from this place. Dimmed. Burned out. And at a Christian college where the men stand behind the podiums and the women stand behind the men, she’s trying to tell you that you don’t have to have babies or stay home or do a particular kind of work to get closer to the Light. You’re already there.

You’re already made new, lit from within.

Go. Light up the world.

Go subscribe to Addie’s blog, but first, tell us about your experience at Christian college (if you attended one). Tell us about the pressures for men to lead and the women to get married.  Did you prosper like many students, or falter like others (including me)?

34 responses to God’s Calling and M.R.S. Degrees: a Guest Blog from Addie Zierman

  1. Great post!

    The wonderful thing about the freedom that our Lord died to give us is that we really are free. Free to do whatever we want to in this world, and free to step outside of ourselves and make it a better place.

    There are a billion different ways to do that.

    Thanks, and God bless.

  2. This was interesting insight into Christian communities and Christian colleges. While my cousins led that kind of life, I came into my faith in my mid-twenties. Having spent enough time in the world where men seldom led anything, it was very refreshing to come into a church where they did.

    Our church doesn’t have women pastors that preach on Sunday, but we have lots of chances to preach to women in different settings, and somehow that feels satisfying to me – it feels enough. I’ve had the chance to witness women who were very strong, while at the same time submissive and gentle – the light of strength didn’t go out in their eyes.

    I’m not trying to take a stand, just observing something that seems to work well for me.

    • ” I’ve had the chance to witness women who were very strong, while at the same time submissive and gentle – the light of strength didn’t go out in their eyes.” Yes. And what a beautiful way of saying this. I wasn’t trying to insinuate the not leading or not being a pastor diminishes the light.
      But I think that sometimes the Christian culture can make women feel like there’s a certain template. A certain way to live biblical femininity, and I just don’t think that’s true. It looks different for every women. I’m talking here not about the ones who have made a choice to be “submissive and gentle” but to the ones who never felt like they had a choice.

  3. “What she’s really trying to tell you is that there are so many beautiful lit-up women who have disappeared from this place. Dimmed. Burned out.” That’s my Bethel experience right there, me and several girls just from the dorm floor I lived on. It was very painful. We need to be talking about this, how we can communicate to young evangelical women that they possess agency in their own lives — without it, there is the threat of falling into despair. Great post — I’m sure this rings true for a lot of people.

  4. addie, you are a tour guide to a place, this christendom, that is largely a foreign country to me, despite having grown up within the church. island of the son is a requisite vbs theme around here, but the idea of it decorating freshman halls is so funny and weird.

    i want to hear more stories about that professor of yours, and i wonder what it was like for her. as a woman, did she feel second string among colleagues? how did she navigate the tension?

  5. Coming at Christian college from a male point of view, I certainly never felt outside pressure to marry, but I did witness first hand the pressure and I would even think mania that women experienced with hoping for marriage.

    the best part of my Christian college was the exposure I had to the big tent of evangelicals that forced me to face my own bias and limitations. I left my college far more stable and assured, tuned in to the real issues Jesus cared about rather than just parroting talking points from conservative Christian radio that mingled with a political agenda.

  6. Oh, I’ve been there. The modesty talk, the engagement stories, the rage when I found out that women were (still) sometimes second-class citizens at the Christian college I loved. I did marry a boy I met at that Christian college, but thank God he believes with me that I was meant to do so much more than get an MRS degree.

    Somehow we have to work to change this narrative, like your professor, and urge these girls not to hide their brilliance any more.

  7. Having attended a bible college this resonated all too well with me, as much as it can from a male perspective. One of the most frustrating things I repeatedly witnessed was women who came in with big plans for the rest of their lives and then settled into marriage right after (or a year before) graduation with no glimpse of the desires they had upon starting school.

    As a soon to be primary care giver for our first child (my wife is doing her medical residency), I would also add that I don’t believe the solution lies in not having children for women who want to accomplish something outside the home. There are many creative ways to work and raise children without a mother staying at home full time to the detriment of her career and God given abilities.

    • Thanks for this perspective Kevin. I wasn’t trying to suggest here that family is like some kind of antithesis to being the person you’re called to be. What I was trying to get at is the way that, like you said, a lot of us get sucked into it and lose track of who we were called to be.

      Yes, a lot of my calling has to do with mothering and my family and cultivating in them hearts that love Jesus. But it’s not all I’m made to do. And I think there’s something important to remembering that.

  8. I go to a church where the women are pulled on and considered to be vital to the growth of a healthy church. We are called on to help lead meetings, to preach on Sunday mornings, and to lead small groups. The elders’ wives sit in on many of the elders meetings and are asked for input. But, they are not given the responsibility of eldership. If an issue arises, the women give their input, but the men make the final decisions. The elders rely heavily on what the women bring, but they bear the weight of the decision making, not the women. It’s a beautiful thing, really. We, as women, are so free to be who God made us to be, but we don’t have to carry the weight of having to make things happen. And, honestly, when we don’t have to carry the weight of the decisions, it frees us up even more to do what we’re called to do. I think that’s the real MRS degree.
    On a side note, if God calls us to marriage and to children and we obey, then we’re called to be mother’s and wives first and ministers second. It may not happen in the timing that we think or want, but take a look at John the Baptist. He was only in full ministry for six months and Jesus said that John was the greatest man who ever lived. It really comes down to a fully surrendered heart. Are we in it for the sake of the Kingdom or are we in it for the sake of our ministry? If we can’t function without a ministry, we need to go back to seeking his Kingdom first!

    • Keira,

      Your church has found and interesting compromise to hear from the women in the family, but I’m curious about the ones who aren’t married. Are single men allowed to be elders or have their opinions heard? Who invites single women to make their voices heard in elder meetings?

      • Thank you, thank you for asking that question. I am a single woman at a church like that, where I completely agree that the wives of the elders/pastors are well respected, sit in on meetings, and likely do have a voice. Yet we’ve never had a single male elder, and in our recent search for a new pastor, only married men were considered. Of course, single women have even less of a voice. While I love my church and it has been a true home for me, the constant feeling of exclusion due to my (unchosen) singleness, has begun to chafe more and more.

  9. As a female who’s always “felt called” to be a pastor, I can so relate. Thanks.

  10. I majored in Bible and Theology at my Christian college, and women made up about 20% of the major. Our professors were overwhelmingly supportive of women in leadership and ministry.

    The general culture among some pockets of students was another story… And the pressure to get married is really high for both sexes. Conspiracy theory of the day: I think the administration purposefully encourages that aspect of the culture because so many parents send their kids to Christian colleges with marriage in mind.

  11. Addie: As always – you write brilliantly. Period.
    As someone who considered yet did not attend a Christian college, I was always thankful for the (relative) empowerment that the women I went to school with at state schools received as undergrads and especially in graduate school. I had more than enough friends – guy friends – who went to Christian colleges for their undergraduate degree who remarked about the pressure THEY felt by the women who were attending with them. Not that they were serial daters, but they said a number of times the women they would ask out would immediately launch into the “hypothetical marriage” talk during the early period of their dating, leaving them with the feeling they needed to get out of the relationship, as they were afraid they’d be talking about baby names before discovering if they even liked similar television shows.

    • It’s a hard deal, that marriage expectation. I never really felt the weight of it because I met the man who would become my husband like, the first week. But I know a lot of women who struggled, feeling like they had somehow “failed” because they didn’t leave with someone.

  12. I haven’t percolated completely through where I stand on women being pastors, so I won’t speak to that; I see nothing wrong with women getting degrees if they interest them/feel called to them (theology, ministry, counseling, engineering, medicine, etc.); and I have zero experience at a Christian college, so I certainly can’t speak to that…..BUT….I think the underlying theme of this post, while sounding good “What she’s really trying to tell you is that there are so many beautiful lit-up women who have disappeared from this place. Dimmed. Burned out.” in reality belittles the choices that women have and make every day. It tells me that because I am no longer overseas in full-time ministry that my role is somehow less than it was. It tells me that because I don’t work full-time using my aerospace engineering degrees that I am less somehow than I was when I did.

    Women’s lib is all well and good, but God tells us that HIS legacy to us isn’t the ministry. It is our children. Our children that we are to train up in the way they should go when we get up, when we lie down, and as we go along our way (which leaves very little time for anything else). You belittle my choices when you tell me that I am less because I choose the legacy that God has given me over something that the culture says I should have instead since I am an intelligent, empowered woman.

    There is nothing “wasted” when a woman chooses marriage and family over “ministry” because that woman is IN ministry. 24-7.

    • I was a little worried it might come across that way, and I’m sorry that anything I wrote would make you feel belittled, Melissa. As a stay-at-home mom of two beautiful boys, I certainly don’t think that there’s anything “less” about being a mom. On my blog (How to Talk Evangelical), I write quite often about that frustrating expectation that you need to somehow “Change the World” to be significant.

      What I was trying to communicate here was the difference between the expectation that the wife/mother role is the only path available to Christian women. I was thinking of those women, like my friend who felt called to be a pastor, who have their lights dimmed because they are expected to be a certain way instead.

      I guess what I’m really trying to get at here is that being a Light is not really about what choices you make about what you do or don’t do. We’re all called, and we’re all light, and it looks different for every person. I think my professor, in offering me that information about birth control, was trying in her own special (micro-managey) way to remind me that I get a voice in my future. I get to follow where I believe God is leading me, rather than immediately becoming a wife/mother/homemaker whatever just because that’s what I think I’m supposed to do.

      Anyway, I’m so sorry it wasn’t clear. You’re life is not small, whatever you’re doing with it. It’s big because you’re filled with the bigness of God.

      • I don’t feel “small” in my role. I understand quite fully its importance. My fear is that others will read your words (and the words of SO VERY many other people who say similar things) and hear what I’ve heard from so many moms: “I feel like being a mom isn’t ‘enough’ somehow – like I should be doing more.” Like somehow ‘evangelism’ outside of the home somehow trumps evangelism inside it.

        We have swallowed the lie, hook, line, and sinker, that it is up to _us_ to decide what God’s will is for us. So a woman feels a call to be a pastor. Why is her “light diminished” by having children? Simply because she is less likely to be paid by a church and have the word “pastor” in her title? How is she doing less for the kingdom? Why can’t we instead believe that God had a plan and was in control when she felt led to that school and that degree?

  13. I didn’t attend a Christian college, but knew quite a few people who did. Their experience depended a great deal on both the person and the college. But I saw some messed up teaching and attitudes. A friend of mine was seriously considering going to one of them until he went up to visit his best friend. Some girls had been snuck into the guys’ dorm for a party (no drinking, druges, etc, just to hang out). One of the girls started trying to get my friend into bed, and everyone else was ready to leave and let them have the room. Apparently at this Christian school, that was just part of how you got your MRS. My friend, who was planning to marry his childhood sweetheart, left early that evening and didn’t go back.

    I have also known amazing women who have plowed through such schools, gotten the theological degrees they wanted, and went ton to make a huge impact. One was called to be a missionary in a middle eastern country. But this denomination didn’t allow single women to do that. So she gave them her resignation. “Wait, wait! Don’t be hasty!” Even though they technically couldn’t, the men in charge found a way to send her as a missionary to the middle east. Unmarried. Unengaged. Not even “in a relationship, sort of”.

    It gets better. Because she couldn’t technically be a pastor, she couldn’t marry or baptize. But a “real ” pastor, a circuit pastor, might only make it into the rural area she served once a year. In this particular, highly disputed country, a year was plenty of time to die– unbaptized, unmarried, or both (and really, why should they have to wait?). So she baptized and married, and they knew it, and pretended not to see, and nightly thanked God for this woman.

    I don’t know if those positions have offically changed in that denominatrion in the past 25 years, but a lot of others certainly have, many as a result of women, both in the USA and abroad.

    Our pastors and elders recently amended our congregational charter to state that if a married man is called and recognized as an elder, his wife has to be on board as well, and the couple are elders. (The obvious correlary applies, too, but the original charter called for men to be elders, based on traditional interpretations of the usual Scriptures.) They also agreed that single men and single women can be elders as well. The wives were in on these discussions and decisions as they had been in on pretty much all of them all along. The pastors are a husband and wife; she’s getting ordained soon. (This is a non-denom, not the denomination I refered to earlier).

    There is hope. Be encouraged.

    • Love those stories and insights, Miles. I really like the idea of husbands and wives being on elder boards together. I think that both voices are so necessary as we lead churches and organizations, and I love how different groups of Christians are working to make that happen.

  14. Not all Christian colleges are as strict and narrow as what you describe here. I know many are, but want to make sure generalizations don’t rule the conversation. I have been blessed to be a part of a tradition (Wesleyan) in which I have experienced much confirmation, encouragement, and support in my pastoral vocation. This includes my Christian college and seminary experience. Not to say these churches and educational institutions have gender issues all figured out. Certainly that is not true. I have had to struggle at various points with men not taking me seriously or being threatened by my abilities. That has been a painful but also growing experience for me. Just wanted to remind us all that there are other voices out there.

    • Absolutely, Hilary. I was simply describing my experience. Perhaps I should have qualified it more with the name of the school, but I don’t want to give them bad press…mostly because in addition to a lot of the hard things about that school, there were great things there too. It’s all such a mixed up bag, and there are godly, wonderful people who are working hard to create a sacred space for learning. But I also think it’s important to be honest about some of the ways that we fail and some of the repercussions of those failings.

  15. This is exactly it: “how to communicate to young evangelical women that they possess agency in their own lives” Yes. Not that becoming a wife and a mother is less by any means, but that it is not the only path, the only calling or the highest calling that it’s made out to be.

    The highest calling is, I believe, just to live in that God-light that we were given when we found Christ. And that looks different for different people, and it looks different during different seasons of life. But it’s active. It’s a choice. It requires us to have a voice.

  16. Hi there,
    I have just graduated from Bible school this spring and I feel a lot like your young friend here. At my college I took a Corinthians class, when we came to the gender roles section my prof taught us his strictly complementarian view. when we were discussing, he gave us this sheet to look at.  It was double sided, single spaced, and about 10 size font. on one side were classes
    and age groups women were allowed to teach/lead (eg. high school Sunday school, women’s group, children’s ministry) and on the other side were things a women was not allowed to do (eg. college and career Sunday school, any Bible study with a man, etc) 
    when we were reading this I was looking around my class wondering why I was the only girl who seemed to be disagreeing, or thinking that there is something wrong with this paper! 
    I was asking him how can you know when a boy turns to a man, or why can she lead a high school group but not college and career, and questions of the sort and he exploded on me, and said “God created men to be the leaders, and he created women to have children and that’s just the way it is.” 
    I was mortified that he yelled at me in front of my entire class, and I was very angry at him for a while after that. 
    this all happened in my second year and I’ve come to forgive him since then.  i have had other leadership opportunities with my Practicum and such but it seemed to be of minimal allowance.  i feel a little bit like got my degree but i am still unprepared to do this amazing ministry the college talks of their grads have. 
    but the point of this post is not rant about my experience, but to ask for advice from you.  I want to be a person who changes the world for Christ, but I feel like every church or organization I’ve come across has a, “it’s a mans world” mentality. And, being young I feel anything I could say to them would just be silly words from a foolish girl. 

    • David Layzell May 26, 2013 at 3:53 am

      I am sorry for you Kelli, but also angry. If a man had yelled at my daughter like that, there would have been no repeat. I put a stronger comment below.

  17. I guess I don’t get it, why are only married men considered for pastoral positions? The Bible doesn’t say you must be. If fact the new testament only advises getting married if you find staying celibate difficult. I just think God would rather a woman go preach than NO ONE preach. He called Deborah in the old testament to be a prophet and advise and help govern the Israelites during a perilous time. I’m not sure that what we find in the new testament is properly translated. Several experts on the texts don’t buy into it.

  18. Even when you are accepted as a female pastor/theologian/etc., it still isn’t an easy road. The path if paved by MANY male feet, so the MANY female feet are starting to make the path a bit wider.

  19. I did not go to Christian college, but I went to Texas Tech University and it’s practically the same thing. I remember going to talk to the pastor where I was attending church, telling him I wanted to be a pastor. He said simply, “Women can’t be pastors.” That was it. No followup questions, no “What interests you about that?” – no nothin. I was only 20ish, but I feel like someone told there’s no room at the inn. I think for sure if I were in his position today, I would ask the person in front of me more about herself, what makes her tick, and help her bring out something she was searching for. Now, three decades and five grown children and a wonderful husband later, I have found my voice and grown in the wisdom to go with it. I simply wanted to engage with people about how okay they already are if they would just relax and let Jesus be who he offers to be with them. I would encourage their hearts to seek out this great adventure of Life in Christ instead of seeking approval in the shifting sand of other Christians or worse, of church leadership. I would be the light and salt Jesus meant for me to be. There, was that so hard?

  20. David Layzell May 26, 2013 at 3:51 am

    I find this horrifying. In NZ we do not have Christian Colleges. Also complementarianism is fairly rare. There are some in Baptist churches, but they are in the minority. I have brought my daughter and son up to believe that they can be anything they wanted. I regard complementarianism as a form of male control and I would never have allowed anyone to teach it to my daughter. I am sorry for Kelli Ross. That lecturer needs a good boot up his backside; he sounds an arrogant piece of fecal matter.

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