Dear Mentor: Lonely as an Academic in Church?

Dear Mentor,

 How do women in academia connect with fellow believers, specifically other women, who may not understand or even affirm their work? I grew up in the southern US and continue to attend a conservative church with my husband, where we have been members for about two years. Most of the women in our church and subculture are stay-at-home moms with multiple children whom they homeschool. I am in a PhD program in the social sciences and I work part time to support my studies. My husband is not in academia, but works in a small local company. We do not have any children, and we live far away from our family. 

I struggle to build friendships with the women in my church and am deeply lonely. I am making efforts to attend a small group study and a few social functions for women, although making time for these important activities has been challenging for me being married, working, and being in a PhD program. I try to meet the women at church halfway by asking them questions about their families, their children, their homeschooling, their hobbies, and by listening to them intently, but I find that most of my interactions seem one-sided: Rarely do women reciprocate by asking me about what I do in grad school, at work, or even outside of school. If they ask about my marriage, they ask about what my husband does and seem to focus the discussion on his job. When I do try to talk about my research on a basic level or about my job, I am usually met with silence or a change of conversation topic. I also feel uncomfortable trying to explain what I do, because it feels boastful and unwelcome in light of the homogeneous (traditional) gender roles in my church. What can I do to get to know people better and to encourage them to get to know me better?

from guest mentor Rebecca Alexander

Thanks for this great question, which I could have written 25 years ago in the northeast, or 15 years ago in the south. I got married two weeks before starting a PhD program, and for most of grad school we attended the traditional church my husband grew up in — a double whammy. After postdocs in Boston and Southern California (and nine married years before children), I accepted a tenure-track position in the South and felt some of the same isolation you describe. While it’s an academic town, many families in the congregation included stay-at-home moms who homeschooled. I’m not sure I would have known where to start making friends even if I had had the time to try. Fortunately my husband, who stayed at home with our daughter our first year here, was willing to shake things up by attending a prayer group for moms. We both upset expectations.

Being in a small group was an important part of making friends for us. When we first joined I think I was the only working woman in the group and few seemed to understand the academic lifestyle. Our small group morphed, split, etc., over the next several years, but I made a few good friends (including women who had befriended my husband while he stayed at home) and they have had the patience to try and understand my life. Now some of those women who were stay-at-home, homeschooling moms are moving back into the workforce as their kids move out. For some moms the tables turned as their kids grew up and now it was these moms who felt lonely, and sometimes purposeless. We all need to know (male or female) that we are more than what we do during the day, whether our work is at home or outside the home. If our identity and purpose is in anything other than Christ we will eventually be disappointed.

Another way I felt connected to women in the church was to volunteer Sunday mornings in the nursery and later in Sunday School. I also went to some jewelry, stamping, and bakeware parties I might not have gone to — but I knew I needed to try meeting women when the opportunities arose. I’m still not a big fan of women’s retreats, and often don’t go.

Probably most women in our church still don’t understand what I do, and ask each May if I have to work in the summer. Since I have undergraduate and graduate students and a research program, I do indeed have to work in the summer even though I don’t usually teach classes. But after all these years it bothers me much less, and I take questions as they were intended — a desire by women in the church to know and be known by others.

I would say you’re taking the right steps even if it’s not easy or fun right now. It might be that you’ll find good friends outside the church before you find them inside the church. Are there non-church activities you could invite women to from school and church? Like taking a yoga class at the Y, or having two couples or a couple of single women over for dessert? Even if it seems daunting, the effort may well pay off. It may be that the women you describe are also lonely, just in different ways, and your invitation would open them up to friendships they don’t yet know they need.


from guest mentor Jessica Cooke Bailey

Dear Mentee, First, I applaud you for wanting to blur the lines between your working academic life and faith. For some, that’s just too difficult and they live those lives essentially separately. That’s how I was in undergrad and for part of graduate school, until I found a group of like-minded Christians in academia through InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. That’s a great group to try to connect with if there is a chapter at or around your school.

If there isn’t a chapter of InterVarsity at your school or nearby, I would ask you to consider your membership at your current church. How do you connect with the members there now and do you find community with this group of individuals? Are there others that you just haven’t met yet who you could try to cultivate friendships with? It sounds like the church might not offer what you need at this point in your life and honestly, even if you remain in the same town after graduate school, I doubt you’re going to find what you need there in the future.

I encourage you to seek out a church with members that are also involved in academia or at least where you don’t feel like an outcast. I know that church hunting is not likely something you want to do when you’re already so busy, but if you truly crave that community, you need to seek it out. In my experience, the two women I have become close friends with at my current church also have their doctorates. One has children and one does not, but the children and our home lives (and our husbands’ jobs) certainly aren’t the only things we discuss when we are together. I have other friends in the church with their degrees as well, and also friends who are stay-at-home-moms and artists. I feel at home in this community of people that are my church, and I’m thankful for that. I don’t usually feel the need to talk about my work with them, but I’m thankful that they challenge me and that I feel that we are on similar intellectual levels.

You attend church to be spiritually fed and if you’re not receiving the nourishment that you crave, not only from the message but also from the community, I think you may have to consider leaving. You need to seek out a more meaningful experience where you cannot only get what you need, but also where you can contribute your gifts as well. 

In addition, I would encourage you to get to know people in your department and on your campus. You might be surprised to find other Christians in academia. You might not ask someone the first time you meet them whether they are a Christian, but don’t be intimidated by including “church” when you’re talking about your weekend with them either.

Best wishes to you!

from mentor Leslie Walker

Thank you for your honest questions and for trying so hard to connect. Unfortunately, in my experience twenty years ago as a graduate student and then as a medical student and physician, I remained unable to deeply connect to the women in my conservative church, and that was in Ann Arbor, Michigan! The paragon of Christian womanhood was the homeschooling stay-at-home mom, which I clearly was not.

The sisterhood that saved my sanity was a group started through the Christian Medical and Dental Associations called Women In Medicine & Dentistry (WIMD), just recently changing its name to Women Physicians in Christ (WPC). I went to their first national meeting while I was a medical student, and had such a strong response that I declared I’d never miss a conference. And I haven’t. Finally, I found women who understood, affirmed, and shared all three areas of my life — being a Christian, being a doctor, and being a wife and later a mom. Women from that group are my closest friends, even though none of them live where I do.

Early in my marriage, I also tried to connect with women in my local church, especially for the year after my medical internship when I stayed home with my newborn son. I learned a lot from those women about newborns and adjusting to motherhood, but there was one who seemed to be on a mission to convert me away from my calling to medicine. “You can quit, you know,” she said. “You don’t have to be a doctor.” Well, I knew that, but I knew that God had called me to be a doctor, and I obeyed. I think the first principle to accept is that whether others affirm your call or not, as long as God has called you, the only thing that matters is obeying him. I went to a national group’s Christian marriage weekend retreat and heard that the only reason a wife should be working was if her husband died or was disabled.

It wasn’t until I went to a CMDA marriage enrichment weekend that I saw and spoke to other couples where women were physicians and got to discuss the challenges of being a professional woman within the church. It’s hard to stay in a church where people believe what you do is wrong. It happened to Jesus and the disciples all the time — leaders of the synagogues questioning what they did — so at least you’re in good company. But for Christian women professionals, you may be directly told that what you are doing (working outside the home) is wrong, that it will harm your children, and implicitly or explicitly that if they turn out badly, it will be your fault. This is deeply painful. Coping with Christians who take that stand requires (or may help develop) deep personal faith, and ideally companionship and reinforcement from your husband and other Christians who have a broader view of gender roles.

You may find friendship among other women in academia. But of course, many won’t share your Christian beliefs, so there is a limited opportunity for deep connection there. And, should children be in your future, friends who are traditional Christians may question whether you should keep working, and the non-Christians may question why you are not being more ambitious in your career!

So my strong recommendation is that you create and do everything you can to maintain a virtual network of likeminded Christian women professionals. You need friends who you can talk to, share articles with, and text with urgent prayer requests. If you’re in the social sciences, I would start by attending an InterVarsity graduate event at whatever university nearest to you has a grad chapter. Try to meet at least one likeminded woman who is willing to exchange email addresses and phone numbers, and start building a long-distance connection until you can either move to a place that has more Christian women professionals, or until you have a strong enough connection that it can be sustained with intermittent meetings in person, and more frequent talking by phone or fingers. If your field has an annual meeting that includes a small Christian presence, run do not walk, to the next annual meeting and meet the women in that group.

You might find you have more in common with a Christian woman physician or businesswoman (see resources below) in your area or in another city than you do with the academics at your school or the moms in your church, and that’s okay.

You could change churches to one that is more affirming of your call. (My mainline church is wonderfully affirming of women professionals of all types, but I don’t agree with all of the other things they affirm.) Some Evangelical churches understand better than others that God does call some women, even some mothers, into professional careers. The truth is, there is no perfect local church, and if you’re in the best one in your community, this may be your opportunity to attend your church but look elsewhere for likeminded Christian women who share your calling and provide fellowship and encouragement. And perhaps someday there will be an opportunity to mentor a younger woman in your church who is looking for a role model other than the stay-at-home homeschooling mom. Don’t give up. You’ll need to be creative and persistent, but know there are lots of us out there.

Organizations for Christian women in the professions:

  • 4word (founded by Diane Pattison MBA, author of Work, Love, Pray) is establishing local groups of Christian professional women. Check out their website and see if there is a group in the largest city near you, and if not, consider trying to start one.
  • For Christian women physicians, Women Physicians in Christ is a great resource and has an annual meeting. Members pray for each other, train each other, and encourage each other. We are also buildling a network of local groups for women physicians — I host one monthly in my home, and we now have local groups in 11 cities across the US.
  • For Christian women scientists, Christian Women In Science (CWIS) is a great resource within the American Scientific Affiliation. Many women from smaller or rural communities maintain ties virtually during the year, and make it a priority to come to annual conferences. 
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