Last week was Lectureship time here at ACU, and that means several things. According to my dear friend Amy, a phenomenon known as "Lectureship voice" dominates during worship (in reference to the sound of many aged voices singing with vibrato). It also often means freakish weather - this year an overnight 50 degree drop in temperature and continuously cloudy skies for several days in a row (very rare in Abilene). But for a female M.Div. student in a conservative fellowship of churches, it also means awkward conversations with near strangers.
There are two times when I'm tempted to lie about my field of study. One is when I hope to have a normal conversation with the person sitting next to me on an airplane. Once the cat's out of the bag, it seems like they either shut up and pretend to sleep or they unload on you. (I don't mind the "unloading" as much as the fake snoozing.) The other time is when I meet a sincere person of faith whom I think is likely to disagree with the idea of a woman working in ministry.
Last Tuesday night I went to an evening keynote speech and sat behind a sweet family whom I know from church. Sitting with them were their parents, an elderly couple who go to church with some of my own relatives. After the conclusion of the keynote (Fleer was great!), I said hello to this family and introduced myself to their parents. The conversation follows a predictable pattern and quickly collides with the dreaded question: “What are you studying?” I smile as if I'm not at all afraid that my new friend will begin to think that I'm a "divisive feminist," and I reply in a cheerful tone, "I'm a Master of Divinity student." (And I hope that they don't notice that I'm holding my breath while I wait to hear their unpredictable reaction, my best attempt at a confident smile barely hanging in place.)
Then comes the follow-up question, which is even worse: "What're you going to do with that?!" (Sometimes accompanied by off-hand jokes about me becoming a woman preacher.) My most frequent response is, "I'm not really sure; I'm interested in both missions and ministry." (More breath-holding.) I haven't ever encountered someone who has outright rebuked me when we start this conversation. Sometimes people give me that "you poor delusional girl" smile and say something along the lines of "good luck." Others have been very encouraging and supportive. But I've never had a response like that of my new friend.
He immediately began brainstorming things that he thinks I could do in missions or ministry. A Mr. Fix-It type, I guess. He jumped on the missionary idea quickly, of course, because it's often been the acceptable "loop-hole" for women who are interested in ministry. He rode that train for a while, even conceding that it'd be just fine for me to minister to men who aren't Christians yet. (Implying that the minute they emerge from the waters of baptism, things would be reversed.) He went so far as to say that I could coordinate children’s ministry or youth ministry. I could tell he was really stretching himself to be accepting and helpful, and I appreciated the gesture. Then he pulled out his last suggestion – the one I was hoping he’d have the sense not to mention. "Or, you might just get married." I faked a grin and said, “Well, it was nice to meet you.” Waving goodbye to my friends from church, I headed home, a little unsettled by our conversation.
Fast forward to the after church fellowship meal on Sunday night: I scan the crowd for empty places next to people I haven’t met yet, and soon I’m introducing myself to a nice gentleman about my parents’ age. Of course, he asks The Question. I draw a breath, smile, and reply, “I’m a Master of Divinity student.” After a momentary pause, he responds with, “So, going for your MRS?” [For my friends who aren’t familiar with that term, it means that you’re just going to school to find a husband.] I think he was trying to joke around with me because he didn’t know what to say next, but it wasn’t funny. It was hurtful and ugly, even though I don’t think he meant it to be. Biting back the sarcastic comments threatening to erupt at any moment, I just said, “No, actually, it’s a basic seminary degree.” He changed the subject. Good move, buddy.
I’m not trying to say that wanting to be married is a bad thing, and I have great respect for any parent, male or female, who chooses to stay home and raise their children instead of pursuing a career. I honestly can't say which I would choose at this point; it's just not a relevant question for me right now. But really, folks, there are much better (and less expensive!) ways to snag a spouse than by attending an institution of higher education! People don’t ask single male M. Div. students if they’re going to school to meet a wife. That would be dumb! They’re clearly preparing for ministry of some kind. Why doesn’t it register that it’s equally ludicrous to ask that question of a female in the same program?
Despite my frustration, it's not fair to end on such a sour note. Many others have responded to me with kindness, encouragement, enthusiasm and sensitivity, regardless of whether or not we agree on the role of women in the church. I’m really thankful for the support of my family and friends. Your dedication to the Way of Jesus calls me to be a more faithful disciple every day, and that's what this journey is all about.