Doctoral graduate seeks ministry through Christian education

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Mary Ann McMillan never intended to earn a full degree when she began at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (SEBTS). She just needed 20-30 hours of course credit to go back to the mission field full-time.

On May 12, McMillan received her doctorate in Christian education, adding on to her master’s degree in intercultural studies that she received in 2013. After coming to SEBTS and earning the necessary hours to go back overseas, she decided to complete her master’s degree, which she knew would prove useful for the future.

The Lord had cultivated in McMillan a strong desire to go overseas and minister in closed countries, and she realized that having a doctorate in education would provide the platform for that goal.

It’s still a pretty incredible realization for McMillan that she received her doctorate in May, knowing that she came from humble and challenging beginnings. She was an orphan until the age of 7, moved into foster care and then was adopted “into a family that should not have adopted a child at all,” as she recalled.

Her time in college was spiritually transformational as she became involved in a campus ministry and decided to follow Jesus as a junior in college. It was after she became a believer that God began giving her a heart for the mission field.

Mary Ann McMillan

“Right before I was graduating college I really felt the Lord calling me to do missions full-time. I just didn’t know what that looked like so I actually went overseas with the IMB as a Journeyman,” she said.

Her first year was difficult as she faced obstacles to her ministry because of her race. McMillan, an African American woman, remembers times being chased down the street or having items thrown at her due to racial oppression.

“I had a curfew at 4 in the afternoon because it got dark at 4 and the majority of the ministries started at eight at night, but I had to be in early because of my race,” recalled McMillan, “so that’s why they decided to allow me to switch countries so I ended up in the Czech Republic my second year.”

Even in the midst of spiritual and racial oppression, God proved Himself powerful during that first year as McMillan and her teammates were doing ministry one day. While some women were gathered in a field and listening to a translator share his testimony, one of the women in the group stopped him.

“She stopped him and said, ‘I don’t want to hear your story. I want to hear hers,’” McMillan recounted, “and pointed at me. She said that ‘I’ve never seen a person of color before and I want to hear how she became a believer and why the Lord is so important for her.’”

At that moment, McMillan had the opportunity to share the gospel with that group of women.

She had recently finished her two-year Journeyman term when she first stepped onto the campus of SEBTS. Everything was new and the difficulty of reverse culture shock was in full swing. She remembers a professor who noticed she was struggling and encouraged her lovingly, but truthfully.

“I can teach you anything you want to know in your classes, but your relationship with the Lord is more important than anything,” he said. “You can get all the schooling you want, you can have the best job, succeed in life, but if you don’t have a good relationship with the Lord you’re not going to make it.”

McMillan eventually became involved at Imago Dei Church, worked for SEBTS and, in April 2016, packed her bags to move to California to work at Saddleback Church, pastored by Rick Warren. She is the PEACE Center training director, a program that seeks for churches in different countries to partner together in church planting, leadership development, health care and educational needs.

The PEACE Plan became very personal to McMillan when she took a trip to Rwanda, a country that Saddleback has partnered with for years. She saw how local churches were caring for orphans. In fact, 35 orphanages had been emptied because children were being given a home through families in local churches.

McMillan was so impacted by this experience that she used this orphan care model within the local church to inspire her dissertation at SEBTS.

“I’ll never forget the first time Mary Ann and I met, and she shared her dreams of completing her doctorate in preparation for being prepared for God to use her on his mission field for her,” said Ken Coley, director of Ed.D. studies at SEBTS. “Well, she’s seen two dreams come true—she has earned her Doctor of Education degree and has a very special base of operations there at Saddleback to reach the world for Christ.”

The Great Commission is still the heartbeat of McMillan’s calling on her life. She hopes to one day either go overseas as a career missionary or stay in the States to train others’ to go from the classroom to the nations. Graduation is a little surreal for McMillan this time around as she knows that this is her last degree she will be receiving from SEBTS. However, seeing how far God has brought her is an exciting reality.

“It’s so weird to think about this whole journey and going to seminary and it’s like, man, [I] started out as an orphan and now I’m becoming a doctor,” she said. 

The doctor of education program is a 60-hour degree that students with learning through the classroom, mentorship and research. SEBTS desires to train its students to be grounded with a biblical foundation in order to teach the next generation.

To learn more about education degrees at SEBTS, email [email protected] or call 919-761-2490.

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