Three Ways Women With Theology Degrees Are Changing the World

Three Ways Women With Theology Degrees Are Changing the World February 27, 2017

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Living and Leading Change for Good: Meet the Disruptors

The Forum for Theological Exploration series, Living and Leading Change for Good, invites you to meet the disruptors – theological explorers and visionary architects inspired by their Christian faith and fueled by courage.  These leaders are actively addressing civil and human rights issues and the anxiety about the rising tide of color in the U.S., along with creating social entrepreneurial ventures that respond to issues our communities face today. Our hope is that their voices and stories toward peace and justice might inspire you to be the disruptive change you’ve been waiting for. 

Three Ways Women With Theology Degrees Are Changing the World

by Becca Stevens

It is a radical experience to explore theology. A degree in theology demands we step out of our boundaries as prophets as we seek universal truths. An education in ministry empowers people to preach those truths to others.

The first school in the U.S. founded specifically for women’s higher education was Troy Female Seminary, opened in New York in 1821 by women’s rights activist Emma Willard. The self-taught Emma wanted young women to have a complete education equal to that of their male peers. She went on to develop new curriculum beyond “finishing schools” and fought for a more robust and serious education for girls.

I believe that when women explore theological studies, they are on a journey to make a difference in society, much like Emma Willard.

Willard, the sixteenth of seventeen children, displayed an early passion and penchant for learning, and was encouraged by her farmer father to learn to read and think for herself. He included her in dinner-table discussions of politics, philosophy and mathematics, subjects then reserved for men.

In 1819, Willard wrote A Plan for Improving Female Education based on her ideas and experiences, including a proposal that a women’s seminary be funded equally to the investment in male education, and presented it before the New York legislature. The legislature did not respond, believing women’s education went directly against God’s will.

The reasons and roadblocks vary, but even today, while the majority of university students in America are female, when it comes to theological studies, women remain a minority.

I was a math major as an undergraduate. I was drawn to theological studies because of the injustices I was witnessing as an intern at Bread for the World, an organization in D.C. working on legislation to feed hungry children. I was raised on Social Security to supplement my mother’s income at a day care center. I understood the real violence of poverty, and I wanted to reach out to faith communities to make a difference. The notion of theological training and ordination seemed like it would give me the freedom and the tools to work towards a more just society.

During seminary I learned about saints like Howard Thurman, Dorothy Day, Charles Strobel and others who lived into the truth of love’s healing power in the world. Reading and reflecting on their work, along with the radical nature of love I studied in scripture, helped lead me to create Thistle Farms, a community of women who have survived prostitution, trafficking and addiction. We were never a faith-based organization, but our mission statement says we believe that love is the most powerful force for change in the world.

I began to believe that mission statement during my theological studies and learned how to organize and lead around that truth. We have grown into not just residential services for survivors, but the largest social enterprise run by survivors in the U.S., including Artisan studios making thistle paper, a café, a national network of sister communities, and a global marketplace with 25 partners.

Without theological education, I would not have had the models, the biblical arguments, the connections, and the time to discern my call to start this community. It has grown into a movement for women’s freedom that is impacting legislation, media, and thousands of women’s lives every year.

Here is a one-minute summary of our story:

So many women are making a critical difference in our world with theology degrees, and for them, like me, theological exploration was the key to unlocking their purpose.

Rev. Jennifer Bailey says she sees theological education as an effective way to have “one foot in church and one foot in the world.” During her third year of her Master of Divinity program at Vanderbilt University, Rev. Bailey worked as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) outreach coordinator at Community Food Advocates. Her work combined the pastoral care she was studying with the community action her Christian faith asked of her. Her studies informed and enlightened her work, and her work was a real-time practice of what she was learning. She says she can’t imagine successfully doing one without the other.

Listen to her talk about her experience:

After graduation, Rev. Bailey went on to found the Nashville-based Faith Matters Network, an interfaith organization that equips and empowers leaders of faith and moral courage to reclaim the narratives of love and social justice at the foundation of their religious and spiritual traditions. She helps leaders learn to tell their stories for the greatest impact on moving justice forward in their communities. “Change the story and you can change the world,” she says.

While at Wesleyan Theological Seminary, Hyepin Im thought a lot about what it meant to be Korean in America. Koreans who immigrate to the U.S. experience the second highest linguistic barrier among immigrants, often making government and other agencies inaccessible. The church provides a spiritual home for Korean immigrants, Im notes, but it also “plays a critical role in helping them assimilate to American life.”

Recognizing this, Im founded Korean Churches for Community Development (KCCD) in 2001, which has attracted over 200 partners, ranging from the White House to Fortune 500 companies. KCCD empowers churches and nonprofits to leverage their resources and serve as a bridge between the Korean/Asian American community and the community at large by building capacity, leadership, and partnerships in economic development.

KCCD has made a tremendous impact in the lives of Korean Americans. The organization worked to educate over 7,000 homebuyers, helping them receive over $1.4 million in down payment assistance and saving over $83 million in assets from foreclosure. Im partnered with both the FDIC and Freddie Mac in developing a Korean curriculum in financial literacy and homeownership, establishing an historic $5 million U.S. Department of Labor workforce development program. KCCD held joint conferences with the White House and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to mobilize 4,000 Korean American churches on projects for economic development.

Listen to Im talk about how theological education prepared her for her purpose:

Theological studies has been male-dominant for centuries. I think it is still true today that many women do not think of theological education as a doorway to the career, the life, and the impact they have dreamed of, but I hope more do!

Socially conscious, cutting-edge women are exploring theological studies and making them their own, adapting their unique talents, interests and passions to create new leadership roles and organizations of change. This world is thirsty for justice and longs for love like a deer for a water brook. Our world calls for more theologians and preachers who can sate that thirst and live into that love.


Becca Stevens was recently named a CNN Hero for her work as founder and president of Thistle Farms, the largest social enterprise in the US run by survivors. Named a White House “Champion of Change” in 2011, she has been featured in The New York Times, on ABC World News, NPR, PBS, and CNN.

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