New academic society for women begins at Southeastern

Women at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (SEBTS) and The College at Southeastern have a new opportunity for encouragement and collaboration in their academic work through the Society for Women in Scholarship. Created by SEBTS students, the society’s goal is to provide a gathering place for ideas, networking, learning and leadership development among women at Southeastern who desire to be part of theological scholarship.

It all started over coffee.

Seminary students Amber Bowen and Bekah Stoneking had met before, but this was the first time they had come together as women in the academy. As they shared their experiences and ambitions, the two students greatly encouraged one another with what they call their “nerdy” conversations.
Soon a few more women came along with Bowen and Stoneking to have coffee, study together and share ideas. The informal meetings provided something that these women had been missing.

“We found great benefit from having each other to converse with, to encourage, to collaborate with,” said Bowen and Stoneking. “It was encouraging to know that there were others in the same boat rowing alongside.”

It wasn’t long until an idea emerged. Bowen and Stoneking wondered what it would be like if Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary had an avenue for women to meet together for collaboration and encouragement in their academic work. They wanted women on campus to have a gathering place for ideas, networking, learning and leadership development.
The result—Southeastern’s new Society for Women in Scholarship.

Serving the Minorities

Women are a minority in the world of theological scholarship, and this is no exception at Southeastern. Engaging in scholarship and finding resources can often be challenging for women, which is something Southeastern is trying to improve.

“Women are our largest and most diverse minority group on campus, and we are constantly seeking ways to serve sub-groups within that demographic,” said Walter Strickland, special advisor to the president for diversity and instructor of theology.

Along with Denise O’Donoghue, director of women’s life and assistant professor of ministry to women, Strickland has been thinking through how Southeastern could support women scholars better.

“[We] began talking about how Southeastern has not developed a place for women who are academically gifted to be encouraged in their pursuits and be sharpened in their gifting,” said Strickland. “While this is the job of the school as a whole, at times complementarian seminaries do not cultivate the unique voices of women as we ought.”
This is echoed in the individual academic journeys of Bowen and Stoneking. For Bowen, a Master of Arts in Philosophy of Religion student, there is the ever-present struggle to know how to use her gifts.

“Both Bekah and I have spent many years battling with our giftings due to the fact that they don’t easily fit the mold,” said Bowen. “We have gone back and forth from … ignoring the passions and talents the Lord has given us while force-cultivating the ones he hasn’t [to] occasionally mustering up the curiosity and courage to see what it would look like to practice and grow our giftings.”

In the world of theological scholarship, Stoneking, a Doctor of Education student, said that the seminary community is a unique one to navigate for women. Because the professional and personal lives of students and professors often overlap from classroom instruction to mentorship to serving together in the local church, male students tend to have more access to a faculty that is majority male.

“When the time comes for a professor to need a substitute lecturer, research assistant or co-author, they’re naturally going to gravitate toward those students they know even deeper,” Stoneking said. “You notice the additional leg up it offers to the male students.”

That’s what makes the formation of the Society for Women in Scholarship so encouraging to many of its members. It provides a place to hash out ideas, ask questions and share their experiences in the academy.

Campus-wide support

This new opportunity for women has received much support from Southeastern’s administration, faculty and student body. SEBTS Provost Bruce Ashford called the society “one of the most exciting developments” at the school in recent history.

“It is composed of a number of very sharp women who are committed not only to maintaining high standards of scholarship but to handing down the faith once for all delivered to the saints,” Ashford said.

Strickland said that the society will help women use their gifts for the body of Christ. “I’m convinced that the fruit of the society will extend beyond the confines of the group by emboldening women to contribute more readily in classroom discussion, providing opportunities to publish written work and by sponsoring events for both genders to think deeply about the Christian faith,” he said.

The society has held a handful of meetings so far, and the response from students—both female and male—has been very positive.

“Our members are saying, ‘Thank you so much for this.’ It’s what they’ve been wanting,” said Adrianne Miles, assistant professor of English and linguistics, who serves on the society’s leadership team.

Bowen and Stoneking have been excited to see how women are responding to the direction the society is going. “Seeing them leave our meetings inspired by meeting other running mates and with a renewed awareness that Southeastern is a good place for them to be makes it all worth it to us,” they said.

Men have also shown interest in the society, wanting to know how they could partner with them to support their family members, classmates and students.

Goals for growth

The society has a vision to be a resource for good scholarship on campus. Along with their monthly meetings, they have plans to host events for the entire student body. “We want men to come to these events…and have that iron sharpening iron and start some dialogue to show that you can have academic conversations with women and engage each other in scholarship,” said Miles.

Denise O’Donoghue of Women’s Life sees great things happening in the future of the society. “It is my hope that the society, among other things, will create a network of academically-minded women that will be a useful resource now and for years to come,” she said.

Bowen and Stoneking have dreams for the society that extend beyond Southeastern’s campus. “I’d love to see Southeastern become a leader and a beacon for women from all over to come and get equipped to GO and serve in their unique and God-glorifying ways,” Bowen said.

“We’d love to see our churches robustly strengthened because of educated women who are ministering well and producing theologically rich content,” added Stoneking. “We have the opportunity to display…a glimpse of the glory to come, where we stand together as the body of Christ, uniquely designed, and use our gifts to serve Him and strengthen one another.”

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