Female professors in the biblical and theological studies department face challenges and celebrate progress.
By Cherie Suonvieri
Karen McKinney was sitting at her desk grading papers when she heard a knock at her office door. A student came in, sat down and delivered what he believed to be a message from God — that McKinney should not be teaching in the Bible department because she is a woman.
This scene was familiar to McKinney. She had interactions with students like this every year, — and some times every semester — since she first came in 1996. Over the last few years, McKinney said, these occurrences have decreased.
McKinney is one of three full-time female faculty members in the department of biblical and theological studies. The other nine are male. While women are the minority, the BTS department as a whole holds an egalitarian stance when it comes to women in leadership.
“We are committed and have been committed — at least since I’ve been here for the past 10 years — to fully supporting women in ministry and fully supporting our female col- leagues in the classroom,” said Christian Collins Winn, department chair. “And that goes for both full-time and adjunct [faculty].”
Experiences of women in the department vary, and the environment has changed over time. Pamela Erwin worked in the BTS department for 10 years and served as the first — and only — female chair.
“Because we live in a world where there are opposing views on women in church leadership, being female is a difficult road to navigate,” Erwin said. “When you show up in the classroom, some colleagues and some students — both male and female — will question your perspective and whether you have a right to be there.”
In 2009, while she was still a professor, Erwin taught a student who did just that.
“I had a student sit in my class for an entire semester,” Erwin said. “He did no work, and his comment was, ‘I can’t learn anything from a woman.'”
Erwin said the incident was extreme, and she has seen improvement during her 13 years at Bethel.
In 2012, Erwin moved from BTS to Academic Affairs, which brought her three-year term as chair to a close.
Collins Winn said during his time as chair, he hasn’t had any full-time faculty come to him with gender-related issues in the classroom, but he has had several adjuncts do so.
“Whenever they have an issue in which they perceive that gender is part of the issue, our number one adage is that we have their back,” Collins Winn said.
In 2009, Deanna Conrad began an internship in the BTS department and then moved to teaching as an adjunct professor in 2010.
“I’ve never had a male student who has disrespected me,” Conrad said. “I watch, just because I won’t let it continue if it starts. I think that says something about the students who are here.”
Conrad teaches Biblical Theology of Justice and Introduction to the Bible courses.
Donna Reiter has worked at Bethel as an adjunct professor since 2005 and said she’s had nothing but positive experiences, as well.
“I’ve never had a student come in and challenge me . . . I’ve never ever seen any discrimination because I am a woman,” Reiter said.
Though Conrad and Reiter said they feel supported in teaching at Bethel, neither has been shielded from criticism throughout their academic careers.
Conrad said she encountered pushback at Bethel Seminary while working on her Master of Divinity from 2005 to 2010.
“It wasn’t leadership or professors. It was a few students,” Conrad said. “You just get some really passionate people standing up for what they think is the truth.”
Reiter, on the other hand, faced pushback during her undergraduate experience at Bethel. She was a biblical and theological studies student under the mentorship of a complementarian professor. Reiter recalled a conversation that occurred between the two of them during her senior year at a department event.
“He said, ‘You are more prepared for seminary than any of our graduates this year, but I don’t know why God put your mind in the body of a woman,’” Reiter said.
She added the disclaimer that he was young and only in his first or second year of teaching at Bethel.
“That was really his idea at the me. He wanted me to go to seminary, marry a pastor and write commentaries while the children played around my feet,” Reiter said.
Reiter said she wasn’t discouraged, though she did take what she called a 25-year hiatus, which consisted of raising kids, church-planting and doing ministry with high school students before coming to teach adults at Bethel.
While gender-related issues in the classroom might not be as explicit as they have been in the past, challenges exist in other forms.
“There’s an expectation that women will be softer, easier and probably show more compassion . . . that they will be less confrontational or assertive in the classroom, and that’s not me,” McKinney said. “I’m assertive, but my assertiveness is interpreted as aggressiveness.”
The BTS department is continuing to make strides toward gender equality. McKinney said the trajectory looks promising, but the department needs to continue to diversify.
“The department is open to women and committed to women in leadership, in part because Bethel is two-thirds women,” she said. “We need women in those roles.”
Collins Winn echoed McKinney’s thoughts.
“We have 12 full-time faculty, and only three are women. That doesn’t mirror society, and it doesn’t mirror the Christian body,” he said.
In the department’s most recent search for a new faculty member, there were 50 applicants, two of whom were women. The search committee comprised three women and two men, and all were committed to trying to bring a female professor on board, according to Collins Winn. As the male-to-female ratio of applications may foreshadow, the candidate chosen was a man.
“We all feel really good [about the person who was hired], but the commitment of the department is to wanting to diversify…” Collins Winn said. “The question is whether we’ll have the opportunity to do that.”
Financially speaking, hiring another full-time faculty member would be possible only if someone else left.
According to Conrad, who serves on the Board of Trustees in addition to working as an adjunct professor, it’s a work in progress.
“I would love to see half the faculty be women, but I’d also like to see more racial diversity . . . Those are initiatives at Bethel,” Conrad said. “There’s a broader picture, and we’re trying to do that from top leadership down.”
In order for an individual to be hired in the BTS department, Collins Winn said, he or she must be able to fully support women who feel called to any form of ministry.
While progress is evident, Erwin acknowledged that complacency is a vice to be avoided.
“In the past 15 years, the department chairs and the majority of the BTS faculty have had a commitment to supporting women in ministry and in the classroom,” she said. “But commitment is one thing. Living it out is another. There’s still a lot of work to be done.”