In the past year there has been a renewal in the conversation about the experiences of women at the seminary. Last spring just over two dozen women participated in study groups to share their stories. The beginning of November brought the release of a summary of the report from those groups.
This report provided five general observations of the overall research. These were: opinions vary, but distance learners have more favorable views than do on-campus students; women’s seminary experiences are influenced by their backgrounds; many women feel they don’t fit the “typical Christian Reformed Church pastor mold”; many women feel that being a female seminarian is tiring and depleting; women thank Calvin Seminary for initiating this study.
As I reflected on these observations, I saw them as calling us to action in five areas: we need to cultivate a more hospitable community on campus; we need to learn and respect each other’s backgrounds; we need to hear and understand each other’s call stories; we need to encourage and build each other up; we need to grieve and to celebrate as a community.
Now these five things are more easily said than done. But I believe that huge strides can be made toward fulfilling them if we begin by cultivating a culture of storytelling and lament. President Medenblik noted in his email that “the report challenges us all in how we can grow as a community.” He is completely right. This is a community struggle; therefore, any steps forward need to be taken as a community.
The focus groups this past spring were important because they were a step towards acknowledging that we need to take care for the women in our community. They were a space where women could begin to tell the stories that, in many cases, had been repressed internally. These focus groups were an acceptance that telling life stories in community can often be the first step in healing from past hurts. But the reality is, our Seminary community is broader than our fellow female students. Our community is all of our fellow students, male and female, as well as the faculty and staff. For true healing to begin, our stories need to be shared across the entire community, and we should not be afraid to share them in that broader context.
These observations call us to embrace the fact that part of the tension in the Seminary community today stems from the reality that each student has a unique life story. Each student brings to the table a unique background. And each student has a unique calling from God. It is important that as a community we recognize that each and every member of this community has his or her own history that he or she brings into the discussion. And the only way for us to learn about, and bridge the gap of these differences, is for us to tell stories. We need to tell stories of our experiences at seminary. But we also need to tell stories about what our lives were like before we came to Calvin. And most importantly, we need to tell about the callings God has placed on our hearts.
And as listeners, we need to listen to these stories with open hearts and open minds; we need to listen with the intention of validating that person’s experience, and with the intention of bearing witness to the hurts they have endured.
One reason for the gratitude women expressed for the starting of these focus groups is that it was one of the first opportunities many women had to communally lament the hurts of the past. Now, for sure, there are regularly those student center conversations, where women can express their disappointment or sadness about an event to their peers. But these can only occur if a woman has a supportive peer group to converse with, and sadly, this is not always the case. Further, these conversations are often rushed, are usually edited for the public nature of the space, and rarely bring the deep cathartic release that a full service of lament brings.
Regardless of the degree to which we feel that we have been individually impacted by this matter, part of community is empathizing with the pain of others. Whatever theological differences we might have, as a community, we are one body. As one body, it is imperative that as a whole we mourn when women mourn, and suffer when they suffer. It is important that as women, we know that we are not alone in our grief. To truly feel a part of this community, we need to feel the arms of our brothers and sisters around us, and hear their voices raised with ours lamenting the pain and the strife that is in the community. Before we can look to our future, we need to gain closure about our past. For there to be optimism about the possibility of healing, there needs to first be an acknowledgement of the infliction of wounds.
In the absence of lament our feelings of isolation are magnified. Community lament is an acknowledgment that these stories of hurt and struggle have been heard. Lament is a validation of the presence of sin in our communities. It is an acknowledgment that we cannot erase the damage of sin ourselves, so we lift those sins up to God. Closure cannot happen until one has undergone the full healing process. In a recent class session, a local pastor counseled us that healthy churches should not act like healthy churches until they are in fact healthy. This same principal applies to our souls and our schools. If our hearts and our souls are wounded, we should not act like healthy people. We should not ignore and bury those signs of distress. We should not see them as a sign of weakness, but as an area in need of growth and healing. And if our academic institutions have a part of the body that is in pain, then a response is required from the whole body. Let us strive to be a community that carries before us the words of 1 Corinthians 12:26-27 – If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.