“The most influential women’s leader at your church may be someone who has never stepped inside its sanctuary.”
When Leigh Swanson read these words in a Christianity Today article by Kate Shellnutt titled “The Bigger Story Behind Jen Hatmaker,” they rang completely true. As a Bible teacher, pastor’s wife, and seminary administrator (Swanson is vice president of community relations at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando), she knew that women can be slow to step up to teach in the local church for a number of different reasons. So when the leadership of RTS Orlando began to discuss what they could do to serve their local community, Swanson saw a connection between the need to train women teachers and all the RTS Orlando faculty has to offer.
On this episode, Swanson tells the story of “Teaching Women to Teach,” a year-long, once-a-month training session series for women Bible teachers in the Orlando area—what they covered, how the women responded, and what they learned about what women want and need to be equipped to teach the Bible.
The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy.
Leigh Swanson (over music): I think that there is a need to train women to rightly handle the Word of God in women’s ministries. And what was evident from the very beginning is that everybody knew this was a need. And so if everybody knows it’s a need, somebody should be stepping up to try to meet the need. And so, it was just such an encouragement to be able to do that.
Nancy Guthrie: Welcome to “Help Me Teach the Bible.” I’m Nancy Guthrie. “Help Me Teach the Bible” is a production of The Gospel Coalition sponsored by Crossway, a not-for-profit publisher of the ESV Bible Christian books and tracts. Learn more at crossway.org.
It’s not very often that I get to record an episode of “Help Me Teach the Bible” right in my own house and with one of my best buddies. I mean, I know I talk to a lot of people on this podcast and we talk about being friends, and we are to a certain degree. But today, I’m getting to talk to really one of my buddies, Leigh Swanson. Leigh, thank you for joining me to help us teach the Bible.
Swanson: You’re welcome. I’m so happy to be here.
Guthrie: I have fed her a scrambled egg and toast with honey butter.
Swanson: And I was thrilled with that.
Swanson: It was fantastic. You do a mean honey butter.
Guthrie: Well, thank you very much. Well, we’re here to talk today about a project that Leigh has been working on over the last year, year-and-a-half or so. Leigh is vice president of community relations at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando. And I’m very excited for her to share about this project, what she did, why she did it, and what has resulted from that. But Leigh, I’d like to start first just a little bit more personally. Could you tell us a little bit…I mean, you teach the Bible. Last week, you did a talk somewhere on meekness…
Swanson: I did.
Guthrie: …which is cool. You’re getting ready to work on a retreat you’re gonna do coming up here…
Swanson: That’s right.
Guthrie: …and talk about assurance.
Swanson: Right, covenant theology and assurance, which is very cool.
Guthrie: All right. So, share with our listeners a little bit about how your relationship to the Bible and then beginning to teach the Bible. How did that develop in your life?
Swanson: Well, I was not raised in a Christian home but was raised by two very smart parents. And I can remember my mother saying to me, “Leigh, I don’t care what you believe as long as you can explain to me why you believe.”
Guthrie: Your unbelieving mother said that?
Swanson: Yeah. And so, I think the Lord was planting seeds in my life even then to love the Bible because the Bible was the answer to my mother’s question that if I could accurately and with confidence communicate the Bible because the Bible held what I believed, then that would mean something. And so, from my early days of being a Christian, I came to Christ through the Ministry of Young Life when I was in high school and then started working on a church staff when I was in college and fell in love with this idea of being able to share God’s word with other people because I knew what a difference God’s Word had made in my own life.
Guthrie: That’s not all you fell in love with on that church staff. Is that right?
Swanson: Oh, that’s true. I did fall in love with my husband on that church staff.
Guthrie: And so, your husband, David Swanson, is pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Orlando.
Swanson: He is.
Guthrie: So, on top of all your duties at RTS, you’re also a pastor’s wife.
Swanson: I’m a pastor’s wife, and because I’m a pastor’s wife, I don’t sing and I can’t play the piano, so I had to do something to serve in the life of the church. And so I thought, “I better teach.” I loved children, but I just felt drawn more to teaching women. And that was kind of how it all started, was people would ask me to volunteer in church somewhere and the place that I wanted to be and the place where I felt most equipped and gifted to teach was in women’s ministry.
Guthrie: All right. So, can you remember the first times as you began doing that? When you look back on it now, I mean, were you prepared for that or…?
Swanson: I had a really good model.
Guthrie: Okay. Tell us about that.
Swanson: So when my husband was a brand new pastor just out of seminary, and our first church was Signal Mountain Presbyterian Church outside of Chattanooga, Tennessee, and I was probably 27. And there was a local woman who taught a Bible study at our church. It was a basic women’s Bible study. It was not topical. It was not geared towards a specific type of woman, like it wasn’t a young mother study. It wasn’t an empty nest study. It was a women’s Bible study that was multi-generational. And she taught expositionally verse by verse through different books of the Bible. At the time she was probably in her 50s or early 60s, she was a wife, a mother of five. She was so smart.
And I can remember sitting in that Bible study getting to know women from all different walks of life who were members of my church that I wouldn’t have gotten to know otherwise. And I thought to myself, “I wanna be just like Betty” and the beauty of discipleship happening, of information, you know, transfer of information happening in the context of a relationship. When Betty talked about suffering, I knew that in her life she had suffered. She had lost a child.
When Betty talked about or taught through Romans and hit, “All things work together for good,” I knew her story, and because I knew her, the impact of her teaching was significantly more than if I had been, you know, just watching someone I didn’t know on a DVD. I always tell women, “You might love a DVD by Jen Wilkin or you might love Beth Moore. You might love…” fill in the blank of some popular woman teacher who has resources available on DVD, “but you don’t love her the way I loved Betty Taylor.” And I think that just makes a difference in discipleship.
Guthrie: So was your relationship with her just sitting under her teaching or was there more?
Swanson: Well, I sat under her teaching in this Bible study for about three years, and then her health started to decline. And she was just not able to continue to stand and teach in front of a group of women. And about this time, my husband was working on his D. Min., and he was gonna do a big project on mentoring. And I thought, “Why wouldn’t I ask Betty to mentor me?” And by this point, I was probably my early 30s, and I was a little intimidated because Betty was very well known, very busy. She had a child who had had special needs, and so she had founded a school in Chattanooga for children with special needs. At my husband’s encouragement, I thought, “I’m gonna ask her if she would meet with me weekly.”
Swanson: Weekly. And I asked her, and she was thrilled. And so, I can remember the first time we sat down in one of our weekly meetings, and we were gonna start going through Genesis. The first thing she did was lay out the expectations for the time that we would be spending together.
Guthrie: What did she tell you?
Swanson: She said, “Leigh, do not waste my time.” She said, “I will come…”
Guthrie: This wasn’t about friendship primarily.
Swanson: No, this was primarily about learning the Bible. Now, keep in mind, you know, I hadn’t been raised in the church and so I felt like I was behind. There were so many Bible stories that I either didn’t know or had wrong or didn’t understand how they piece together into one big story. And so, I was eager to get that Bible knowledge from her. And she was eager to give it. But she made it clear that if she had told me to read something, I better come for our time over coffee having read what she had asked me to read. And she said, “Leigh, I will always come prepared and I will always be on time.” So, I expect you to come prepared and for you to be on time.
Guthrie: So how does that experience play out now because you aren’t in charge of women’s ministry in church but you’re certainly engaged with a lot of women’s ministry at your church and elsewhere? I think today, I just hear so often, especially in regard to women’s ministry, such a wanting to make it easy for women, wanting to accommodate many small children, busy life. Does that experience impact how you think about those kinds of things at this point?
Swanson: Absolutely. I think, you know, churches need entry points. They need low commitment.
Guthrie: Okay. So there was a place for that?
Swanson: Yeah. I think there was a place for that. But I know that in time, women get tired of having no expectations placed on them.
Guthrie: The bar is set so low…
Swanson: So low.
Guthrie: …that nothing of substance ever happens.
Swanson: Right. And I know, for me, as a teacher, I find myself getting frustrated when I haven’t clearly communicated the expectations that I have up front.
Guthrie: And up front is a key part of that, don’t you think?
Swanson: Oh, absolutely. So we’re gonna talk about this initiative that I began in Orlando. And the first thing I said the very first time the group met was, “We begin at 7:00 and we begin at 7:00.” And there was an expectation that if you’re signing up for this, you will do your homework because you’re taking someone else’s spot. This room only holds so many people.
And so, I have learned in my own life that clearly communicating the expectations, whatever they are, at the very beginning saves me a lot of headache and heartache and saves me from maybe some awkward conversations because I can always say to the women, “Now, remember, when we first started, I said we’re gonna begin on time.”
Guthrie: And the thing is, if two or three weeks in you start saying those, then all of the people who haven’t been showing up on time, they feel targeted and shamed a little bit.
Guthrie: And so you don’t wanna say it in later. So you really gotta do it right at the beginning set the expectations. But I just think so often, we underestimate women. We work so hard to make it easy for them when there are so many women who they want something more rigorous and they want to be called up to something. They want to be in something, in a culture that there are some high expectations rather than always the low bar.
Swanson: Yeah. And I know that was true in my own life. And I had small kids, and I was a pastor’s wife, normally people would say, “Oh, she’s too busy.” But that was not what Betty said to me. Betty said, “I know you’re busy, but if this is a priority…” Betty wanted me to get something out of this. And so she knew, you know, that old adage, “You get out of it what you put into it. So, that’s true in Bible study too.
Guthrie: So you met with her?
Swanson: So I met with her almost every week for about four years.
Guthrie: Wow, that’s a big commitment both on her part and yours.
Swanson: Yes. But we went through Genesis, Exodus, Acts, 1st and 2nd Thessalonians. We did big chunks of scripture together.
Guthrie: What was the content of your time like?
Swanson: Oh, we would sit down and go often verse by verse.
Guthrie: Just talk about what it meant.
Swanson: Talk about what it meant. I mean, I would have read it. She would have read it, but she would have done some additional study. I had my colored pens out and my journal and would write things. And we didn’t ever read another book.
Guthrie: It was just the text.
Swanson: It’s always reading and observing the text. She was really big on observation. And I think that was really where I learned some techniques for how do you observe a text because she did it so well.
Guthrie: Oh, wow. All right. So then you move. You went to another church and another city.
Guthrie: And then eventually, you ended up in Orlando. And why was it you wanted to end up in Orlando?
Swanson: Well, I knew there was a seminary there. So, we had been in another city in another church, and I had started a women’s Bible study there. And it had grown, and I was getting more opportunities to teach, but I had not ever had any formal training. My training was sitting with Betty over coffee. And I was just getting to the point where I was feeling like I could do better. I never thought that I would have the opportunity to actually get a degree, to get a seminary degree. But I did think if we were in a city where there was a seminary, then perhaps I could take a class or two. And so, just a few years after that, First Presbyterian Church of Orlando asked my husband if he would be interested in interviewing for their senior pastor job. And I said to David, “We are moving to Orlando and I know why, and that’s so I could go to RTS.” And so that’s what happened. We moved to Orlando. And I waited a year to get my kids settled in school. My kids at the time were in middle school. And I started taking classes at RTS, would drive out to Oviedo once or twice a week.
Guthrie: So, earlier, you talked about if it’s a priority to you, then you would make time for it. As a young mom with Betty, you were no less busy when your kids were in middle school because then you’re driving them around everywhere, but this was important to you.
Swanson: It was very important to me. I just loved it. As a pastor’s wife, I found that it was hard for me to really learn at church, that I would go to a woman’s Bible study and I would be worried about the noise the sound system was making or I would run into somebody who I knew was going through something painful and I felt very compelled to be, you know, present with that person or, you know, million other things. It was just hard for me to really focus on coming there to learn. I was coming there as a pastor’s wife trying to make everything okay for everybody in the room.
So what happened when I drove out RTS and sat in a classroom is nobody cared I was the pastor’s wife. You know, there was not an expectation on me to have the answer because that’s the other thing that happens when you’re pastor’s wife in a Bible study is, if there’s a question, everyone looks to you like you should have the answer.
Guthrie: You should know.
Swanson: And so, I could sit in a classroom and in some ways be anonymous, which was very freeing and I just soaked it up.
Guthrie: What was it like to be a middle-aged woman in a class of I assume mostly 20-something seminarians? Did you like that or dislike it?
Swanson: Most of the time, I loved it. Every now and then…
Guthrie: Did you feel like their mom?
Guthrie: You weren’t quite their mom at that point.
Swanson: Well, but I could play that up a little bit. I think at first, I was intimidated because so many of them had just graduated from really great colleges and had degrees in Bible and philosophy. I remember my very first class, I looked around and everyone had a laptop computer and I had a yellow legal pad and a pen. And I came home and I said…
Guthrie: I’m gonna be needing a laptop.
Swanson: “David, I need a laptop.” So, there were times where I realized I had not been in school in a long time. But for the most part, the guys that I sat in the classroom with were so kind to me and, you know, treated me like I was one of the guys.
Guthrie: So were there two or three either classes or professors or moments of insight that you look back in terms of your seminary days as a student going that you could point to?
Swanson: I can point to million.
Guthrie: We don’t have time for a million.
Swanson: I know. Oh, listen, I can remember sitting in Mark Futato’s class on wisdom literature, which he’s been on “Help Me Teach the Bible.” And I was sitting on the front row. It was his first lecture on the Psalms. And it was so beautiful that I caught myself with tears streaming down my face. And this is where…I mean, one of the things that I learned in seminary is there’s a false thing that gets set up between head and heart. And what I found sitting in a seminary classroom is that when my head was engaged, my heart was fully engaged, which is why when a professor is lecturing, I found myself crying because the truth is so beautiful. So that was a moment.
I think one of the hardest things that I had to read, I had to then stand up and give a report on in a class on covenant theology with Dr. Scott Swain who has also been on “Help Me Teach the Bible.” And I felt very academically intimidated. I mean, I was in rooms with lots of smart people. I did fine in school, but I wasn’t anywhere near the first of the class. I was squeaked by making, you know, Bs. But I stood up and gave this presentation on a really hard book. And Scott was so encouraging of me, so encouraging and I thought, “Maybe I can step some things up a notch. Maybe I can read some things harder or tackle some topics that I have been afraid to tackle in the past because I didn’t think I could do it academically.”
Guthrie: That’s awesome. All right. So, you graduated with a degree?
Swanson: So, after seven years…
Guthrie: All right, seven years.
Swanson: …seven years.
Guthrie: Mine’s already taken longer than that doing it online, of course. So, that’s impressive to me.
Swanson: Yeah. So over seven years, I took a class or two a semester. And at the end of all of it, they handed me a Masters of Arts in theological studies. You know, the truth is my mom used to say, “If you never start, you’re guaranteed to never finish.” And truly, I didn’t start thinking I would finish. I started just for the fun of it.
Guthrie: Taking a few classes.
Swanson: To take a few classes. And people would say, “Why are you taking that for a grade? Why don’t you just audit it?” But I wanted the accountability. I needed the accountability.
Guthrie: Most of us needed that if we really wanna learn it.
Guthrie: All right. So now, you have this role at the seminary of vice president of community relations. How’d you go from graduating to then being on staff and what do you do there?
Swanson: Well, when I graduated, I was not sure what the next step was for me. I had been a volunteer in jail ministry and thought I might be a chaplain in our county jail. But one day someone said to me, “Leigh, what’s your dream job?” And I said, “Oh gosh, well, my dream job would be to work at RTS and work with the female students and the wives of students who were gonna be pastors’ wives and just pour into them.” And he said, “Well, you should go ask RTS to hire you and see if you could do that.” And so I did, and they hired me.
Guthrie: What do you know?
Swanson: What do you know? So, I spent five years as the associate dean of students, working primarily with our female students, talking through potential vocational opportunities as a woman with a seminary degree and then also spending lots of time with students’ wives who are gonna be pastors’ wives because I had done that too. So, I did that for five years and then we went through a leadership transition about a year-and-a-half ago. And in that transition, Dr. Scott Swain became president and he asked me to be vice president of community relations. So my primary role is I’m a development officer. I raise money and then I also work with alumni and churches. And so I have loved this new challenge.
Guthrie: All right. So, now we get to what we really wanted to talk about today, one of the first big initiatives you did in this role. You launched something called “Teaching Women to Teach.” All right. So why don’t you begin, first of all, by saying what prompted this? What was the need? What was the impetus that made you want to do this?
Swanson: Well, because I’d been a pastor’s wife and because I had been involved in women’s ministries in a lot of different churches and contexts, I knew that there was a trend happening in local congregations, which was playing a DVD in women’s Bible studies rather than having a live teacher. And I knew from my own experience with Betty years ago that something really special happens when there is a live teacher, not that DVDs aren’t great and sometimes necessary, but there is something unique that happens when you have a live teacher. And about the same time, there was a couple of articles that were being published about the same phenomenon.
In 2016, Christianity Today published an article on women’s ministry. And it began with this sentence, “The most influential women’s leader at your church may be someone who has never stepped inside the sanctuary.” And I knew that that was true, that there was just this proliferation of celebrity female teachers, some who were theologically sound and some who maybe weren’t as theologically sound. And I had seen this even in my own church. And so I thought, “What can we be doing to address this issue?” And at the time, the president of the seminary asked the new leadership team. He said, “What can we be doing as a seminary based in Orlando?” What can we do to serve Central Florida doing what we do best, which is teaching people how to rightly handle the Word of God?
Guthrie: And those two things collided for you.
Swanson: Yes, the minute he said that. I mean, my hand shot up. I was like, “I know what we can do. Let’s teach women how to teach the Bible.” And that would really serve a need that I knew existed in lots of churches in our area and assumed the need was there in lots of churches all across the country.
Guthrie: Well, we know it is because there are women who are apt to teach. They haven’t had the opportunity to go to seminary. They’re good at teaching themselves, at being autodidacts who teach themselves. So many women are hungry for some training because they wanna handle God’s Word well. But really where do you go? What do you do? Where do you find that? It’s pretty hard to find.
Swanson: Right. I just found that women were not willing to take that risk of standing up and teaching the Word of God for lots of different reasons. And it was just frankly easier to go buy a DVD series and gather some women together and let that be your women’s ministry.
Guthrie: So what’d you do next?
Swanson: Well, I started praying because I had no idea how on earth I was gonna pull this off because I knew I would need buy-in from RTS faculty.
Guthrie: Why did you need buy-in from RTS faculty?
Swanson: Well, because all the professors that I had had, and I knew the impact that they had had on me, I wanted them to teach it. And that actually wound up being so easy. Every faculty member that I talked to about teaching for the class, they were so excited to do it. But then how to structure it, I knew that there are other organizations who do weekends specifically designed to help women teach the Bible. But I knew that for us because we had all these great resources right here in Central Florida that maybe it would make more sense to spread it out over a year and then that way women could be assigned homework between classes and build relationships with each other.
So, I wound up meeting with the one paid female staff person in women’s ministry in Orlando. She has a seminary degree from Covenant, and we sat down and prayed about this, put together kind of a sample structure. And I presented it to the leadership team at RTS. They were thrilled with it, thought it looked great. I asked our IT people to build a website. And one thing that we kind of wrestled with was how do we put this out to women?
Guthrie: Is it just open to anybody?
Swanson: Right. Is it open to anybody? Do we advertise it broadly? Do we not advertise it broadly? What was that gonna look like? Because we didn’t want to circumvent the leadership in local congregations because we feel like it’s important for the local leadership in a church to identify women who have gifts for teaching.
Guthrie: And you and I both know about women teachers. A lot of times, there are women who really want to teach who might wanna sign up for this. And there are a lot of women who may be better at teaching but don’t have the personality to just jump and put themselves out there.
Swanson: Right, right, right. So we really wanted recommendations. And we also knew that if a woman had been encouraged to come by her pastor, it could mean the difference between signing up or not signing up.
Guthrie: Let’s just stop there for a minute. I just think that most pastors don’t know the significance their encouragement, affirmation to a woman with potential teaching gifts can be.
Swanson: Oh, it was everything.
Guthrie: It’s everything. I’m not picking on pastors because they have so much to think about. But I think most pastors just…they underestimate the smallest little bit of encouragement to a woman teacher, whether it’s, you know, you step in for five minutes in the back when she’s teaching and say, “Boy, I heard you say that. That was insightful.” Or someone who’s not teaching yet say, “Hey, you know, I just hear some of the way you answer when we have these discussions, and the Lord has gifted you with insight. Have you ever thought about how you might develop that into more of a teaching gift?”
Swanson: Well, and there were some pastors who recommended people to me to reach out to who were women in their church who they had never even heard teach or share in a small group. It was just that they knew these women as wise and mature. And so, I think in their minds, if a woman is wise and mature, then she likely has something to say that other women in the congregation could benefit from. So, I reached out to pastors all over Central Florida in a lot of different ways. I went to a presbytery meeting and stood behind a table and tried to meet as many pastors as I could to tell them what we were doing. I emailed, lots of pastors. I met with a few pastors to tell them what we were doing to try to get the names of women that they would like invited. And some pastors wanted to invite them personally. Other pastors just didn’t have time and said…
Guthrie: Here’s their name.
Swanson: “…Here’s their name. Just email them.” And I would email women saying, “Well, your pastor gave me your name as someone who might be interested in this initiative and your pastor thinks you have gifts for teaching women in your congregation.” And I would get emails back from women who felt so encouraged by being invited to be a part of this.
Guthrie: So how many do you think you’d get? How many were you hoping for?
Swanson: I was praying for 40. And I thought, “If we can get 40 women from about 6 or 7 churches, that would be amazing. It would be amazing.” And we wound up with 123 women registered from 21 different churches in Central Florida. And I was blown away by the response.
Guthrie: And some who had to drive a long way to come.
Swanson: We have people driving from Gainesville, which is almost two hours north of us. But this is what women are willing to do to hear excellent teaching. I mean, people know that it’s a privilege to go to seminary. And to have seminary professors willing to teach, it created a synergy between our faculty and the women who were coming that, frankly, I don’t know that I’d ever witnessed it in a learning environment before where you had a group of students who were so eager and excited to be there and a teacher who is so gifted and equipped. It was like magic happening. It was wonderful.
Guthrie: Wow. All right. So let’s talk a little bit about the content. You met once a month?
Swanson: Yeah. So we started in January. I had kind of developed a scope and sequence of the curriculum, and so we were gonna just move through the scope and sequence. And I was able to pick faculty members who had an area of expertise. And so, in January, we started with “A Doctrine of Scripture and Observing a Text” with Scott Swain.
Guthrie: After that first night, what did you think?
Swanson: Oh. I mean, we hit a home run. I could not believe how excited these women were. You know, there were women who had driven two hours. I mean, Scott had never felt more popular in his life. People were having so much fun.
Guthrie: Oh, that’s so cool.
Swanson: Women were packed into this room. We wound up having to move rooms eventually because we had so many women. But the other beautiful thing that happened that I had not really anticipated, I had thought might happen but I wasn’t sure, but women who teach or who aspire to teach in their own church are often sometimes isolated like…
Swanson: Lonely. They don’t have anybody to bounce ideas off of or, you know, ask what resource material are you using. So I had 120 women in a room who were all women who had different experiences with resources and podcasts. And there was an exchange that was happening around the tables. I’d made sure we had big nametags printed with people’s names and their church so people could immediately engage across a table, “What do you do at your church? And what have you taught lately and what resources did you use?” I think relationships have been built over this past year that will endure and just sharpen all the churches in our area.
Guthrie: So I’m just scanning some of the topics then you talked about over the next few months. You did “Understanding Genre” with Mark Futato, “Cultural Backgrounds of the Bible.” I’d love to hear that one because I think that’s an area where when we’re researching, it’s really hard to find how do I understand some of the cultural aspects of the text I’m looking at, “Redemptive History” with Greg Lanier, “Seeing Christ in All the Scripture.” Now, here you have two women listed. What did you do with that one?
Swanson: So, I felt like it was important for our women to also experience good female teaching. And so, for one class, we had two women both of whom have seminary degrees and both of whom are in our area. And so they taught on “Seeing Christ in All of Scripture.”
Guthrie: They taught on the topic or they just taught a text?
Swanson: Both. So they taught on the topic and then they were great at walking through particular text and how you would pull Christ out of the text. And I can also remember they did a really great job of showing exaggeration sometimes when…
Guthrie: A contrast of how to misuse a text, you mean?
Swanson: How to misuse a text and how to drop Christ into something…
Guthrie: That was a stretch.
Swanson: …is a little bit of a stretch.
Guthrie: All right. Drawing application from a text. I’ve been doing a number of “Help Me Teach the Bible” little mini-workshops. So I’m putting together a Bible talk lately. And I found over and over again, this is a real need of women. When I go around the room and ask something they want to get better at, so many wanna get better at making application.
Swanson: Yeah. And it was funny because keep in mind, even though I am organizing this whole thing, I’m a teacher, and so I’m sitting in these lectures learning. And I thought I was pretty good at application. And Dr. Mike Allen talked to us, and there were things that I realized I had gotten very sloppy on in making application and that I had not done a good job of giving a lot of thought to who my audience was. I was making application for myself.
Guthrie: Yeah. I struggle with this because there’s a sense in which where the scripture meets and convicts me of need for change or adjustment. I figure in a lot of situations, I’m a lot like people there. You know, the way it hits me, I can use that as the resource for application. But I hear what you’re saying too because I think sometimes I stumble with that because I don’t think enough about people who are different from me, a different stage of life, different marital status, different set of ongoing temptations.
Swanson: I think that was probably my biggest aha was that when I teach, I look around the room and I see a lot of women who from the outside look a lot like me and so their struggles must be just like mine. But that’s not the case at all. And so, Mike had us go through an application grid that was…
Guthrie: So an organized way of really looking at our text or our talk to evaluate whether or not we’re really giving a broad sense of application.
Swanson: Yes. Yeah, Mark Dever has an application grid that we used as a tool. And it was really helpful. I just found that I love this. I love the study and the research part of getting ready for a talk. And I have a tendency to shortchange the application. But Mike gave us some tools to use that force you to spend more time thinking through appropriate application.
Guthrie: That’s awesome. All right. So during the summer, you didn’t meet. What did you do?
Swanson: Well, so over the summer, you’re right, we did not meet. But what we did do was we offered library nights. And people could come out to the library at RTS and learn how to use a theological library.
Guthrie: Now, I really wish I could have come to that one because…I mean, I’m about, let’s see, nine years into taking seminary classes. You know, a lot of them I take online but some of them I’ve gone to campus to do. And I walk into the seminary library and I feel like I am seven years old again or eight years old again. I’m so embarrassed sometimes like I don’t know how to do it.
Swanson: Well, I’ll give you a hint. If you’re ever in a theological library…
Guthrie: Okay, please.
Swanson: …the librarians love, love, love, love for people to come and ask them how to use the library. It’s what they’re paid to do. It’s what they love to do. You should never be afraid to ask a librarian in a theological library how to use the library.
Guthrie: So what did these library nights look like?
Swanson: So, in our May meeting, people signed up to study one of four passages. They could pick. We had an Old Testament narrative, a Psalm, a New Testament narrative, and a letter. And people could pick one of those four texts to do exegetical work on with the hope that then some would sign up to live teach in October or November. And so, the library nights were an opportunity for people to come, learn how to use the library, and also get one-on-one help with their research if they were thinking about doing one of the live teaching opportunities. So, we did 3 library nights and had about 15 women at each of the library nights. And those were so much fun.
Guthrie: What made them fun?
Swanson: I love research. So it was fun watching women reading a commentary and actually making a connection, like here’s their text and they’ve done observation, they’ve understood genre they are maybe starting to outline the text, and they come across something interesting in the text and then they start doing a little more research and they draw a conclusion. And they needed the reassurance the conclusion they were drawing was biblical. And I could stand over their shoulder and say, “You did it. Yes, that’s great. I think that’s great.” I mean, it was like kids learning how to ride a two-wheeler. They were thrilled to be able to trust the Holy Spirit living inside of them to…
Guthrie: Was leading them into truth.
Swanson: Leading them into truth. Right. Right. So there was an instance where one of the women called me over because she had two commentaries laid open and the commentaries disagreed with each other on the meaning of a particular couple of verses. And she said, “What do you do when you come across this kind of…?”
Guthrie: That’s a huge challenge, especially if you know they’re two sound sources and they’re two theologians you respect.
Swanson: Right. Have come to different conclusions. Now, it’s interesting because in both of the commentaries, neither one of them were dogmatic about the interpretation but both clearly were leading in opposite directions about the ultimate meaning of the text. And so she said, “What do I do?” And I said, “There is nothing more endearing when a teacher stands up and says, ‘I’m not sure, but here are some options.” And that seemed to really free her up to know, “Oh, sometimes even…” I mean, if these two writers who are writing commentaries on the text came to different conclusions, then we have to just stand up and say, “You know, we believe all of Scripture is clear but not all of Scripture is equally clear.” And there are some things that people have disagreed on, and that doesn’t mean anything other than this is maybe not as clear as some other parts of scripture. And so, I think it is appropriate to communicate to your students where you just are not sure.
Guthrie: So you came back together in September.
Swanson: So we came back together in September. And Mike Glodo who teaches practical theology for us gave a lesson on moving from exegesis to exposition.
Guthrie: Yeah. I think that’s another huge hurdle, especially for women teachers because so many men, they’ve been to seminary, they’ve taken homiletics courses but then figuring, “I’ve done all of this study. I have all these things I want to say about it and all these discoveries I’ve made right. But how do I turn this into a compelling and clear argument and introduce it and work through points and conclude it?” That’s a challenge.
Swanson: Right. It’s a huge challenge. And I know for me, as a teacher who loves the research side of it, I wanna cram every single thing I learned into a talk. And so, a long time ago, I heard somebody say, “If you try to say everything, you’ll say nothing.” And I repeat that to myself often when I am trying to prepare a text. And that was one of the points of the September class was it doesn’t matter how much you might love a particular insight that you gained in your study. It might just not fit in this particular lesson that you’re gonna give. We spent an hour on the topic of going from exegesis to exposition and then we spent a little bit of time on just some practical things to think about when you stand up and speak in front of a group.
Guthrie: Like what?
Swanson: Voice tone and intonation, things like how to use a microphone. I did a little additional thing. As a woman teacher…Mike Glodo is obviously not a woman teacher. But there are some things that women just need to think about that maybe men don’t have to think about.
Guthrie: Like what?
Swanson: Well, I have made the mistake of wearing a dress to speak and then not having any place to clip…
Guthrie: The mic on,
Swanson: Yeah, that little battery pack that they give you. I encourage people, you know, to think through a lot of these details. You know, I’m now in my 50s and I need reading glasses. And I’ve had times where I’ve printed out a text, my lesson, and I just can’t read it in 12-point type anymore. But if you’re wearing reading glasses, you don’t wanna be pulling your glasses on and off.
Guthrie: Off and on.
Swanson: Yeah. And then they fall on the floor. You know, lighting can be an issue. So, all these things that I feel like you just learned practically over years and years of making mistakes as a teacher, those were things that I wanted to be able to communicate to our women because I think sometimes because they’ve never done it, they don’t know the questions to ask. They would know that they need to look nice and modest and not draw attention to themselves based on their dress. But they wouldn’t necessarily think, “Oh, I need to wear a button-down shirt or a jacket where it’s easy to clip the mic on too.”
Guthrie: Okay. So finally in October, you had some women teach.
Swanson: Yes. So in October, we did live teaching. We broke into four groups. Each group had a leader who was gonna help lead feedback discussion. And I led a group and there were about 25 women. And 2 of them were teaching from Luke 24. And it was interesting because the 2 women who taught from Luke 24 went completely different directions. And so, it was a great opportunity for me to say to the group, “What you have seen is that there is not just one right way to teach a text,” because they both did a beautiful job. And I think sometimes what keeps women from teaching is a fear that they’re gonna get it wrong. And that’s a healthy fear. You should fear that. But you need not fear that you have to uncover the one secret way of doing it right.
Guthrie: What are some things that coming out of this experience that just sticks in your mind that you’ve really learned from leading this “Teaching Women to Teach?”
Swanson: Well, I immediately learned that women know that there’s a problem in women’s ministry and pastors know that there’s a problem in women’s ministry.
Guthrie: Because the pastors were responsive for the opportunity.
Swanson: Yes. And so, I think that there is a need in communities or in presbyteries or however it makes sense in a particular context to provide something like this to train women. This is not a Bible study. This is an opportunity to train women to rightly handle the Word of God in women’s ministries. And what was evident from the very beginning is that everybody knew this was a need. So if everybody knows it’s a need, somebody should be stepping up to try to meet the need. And so, it was just such an encouragement to be able to do that.
Guthrie: Yeah. And for the women who came, who got taught by seminary professors, what did that do for them?
Swanson: Oh, they felt a sense of confidence because if seminary faculty were taking the time to teach them, then women’s ministry suddenly wasn’t relegated to something that’s hidden or unimportant but because our faculty took it so seriously, then the women took it seriously and understood that the task of teaching in the life of the church is also serious.
Guthrie: Well, I have to believe that this is a model that could be replicated that certainly other seminaries or Bible teaching institutions could do it. But also just, you know, in a city, if a group of pastors got together and over the course of the year they involved women from all different churches and every month a pastor teaches on one of these topics like you’re talking about that it could give that same sense to women that they’re being taken seriously and that what they do matters.
Swanson: Yes. Through the course of the last 10 months, several women have had babies. And they have brought their nursing babies into class. And I would think, wow, they really look tired, and, “You’re here?” And they would say, “I get to come here and use my brain.” They said, “I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.” There was a woman there last week with a four-week-old. And she said, “I just really wanted to be here because this engages my brain in a way that it’s just not being engaged in this season of my life.”
Guthrie: Have you heard back from any of the pastors who suggested that women come to this?
Swanson: I am getting emails from pastors thanking me weekly.
Swanson: Yeah. I mean, now a lot of these women haven’t really started…
Guthrie: Using it.
Swanson: …using it. I mean, we’re getting there. And some of them were already teaching in the life of the church. But there has definitely been a sense of appreciation from local pastors because they knew that this was something they just didn’t have time to do, and so they have been particularly grateful for what women in their church have been offered through this.
Guthrie: All right. Leigh, as we close, you’ve just had these times that these women have been teaching and you’ve been giving feedback. Is there anything, in particular, you have noticed about women and the way they teach that you would challenge the many listeners of “Help Me Teach the Bible” who are women teachers, anything unique to us as women?
Swanson: I think so. And the thing that I tried to say to women before they ever get up and teach for the first time is, “Don’t get up and apologize.”
Guthrie: What do you mean by that?
Swanson: Well, I feel like I have, on many occasions, seen inexperienced teachers stand up and they begin a talk with something like this. “Well, I’m sorry you got stuck with me today. I’m not quite sure why I’m up here. I guess no one else was willing to teach today.”
Guthrie: Why do you think we do that?
Swanson: I don’t know. It immediately undercuts the significant work that you’ve done, not to mention, as a listener, I tune out. I mean, if you don’t have something to say to me, why am I here? Why have I put my kids in the nursery and come up here if you don’t feel good about what you’re about to teach?
Guthrie: That sounds a lot like in these workshops that I’ve done recently. And I go around and I ask women to share about a way they wanna get better in their teaching. I’m hearing over and over again they wanna grow in confidence. And I don’t think they mean self-confidence, although there’s gotta be a certain measure of that. But we wanna grow in our confidence that we’re getting the text right, our confidence that the Holy Spirit’s gonna use what we do. But I think sometimes as women we’re afraid to take even appropriate authority for teaching.
Swanson: I totally agree that I feel like women have a lack of confidence. They’re so afraid to make a mistake because they’re taking it seriously, which is a good thing. But I would just encourage people to reach out. If they have a question about something that they come across in a text, if they are unsure about what they’re about to do, get sure, reach out to a pastor. I mean, so many people are available by email now. I know that women will email me who I don’t necessarily know them, but they’ll ask for resource material on a particular book of the Bible or they’ll have a question about something. You know, I work with all these wonderful men who have PhDs, and I can go just knock on their door and say, “Hey, what do you think about this?”
Guthrie: I do this a lot. I’m in the middle of something, I email my pastoral or some other pastoral friends and say, “I’m confused about this. Can you help me?”
Swanson: Yeah. And that’s the thing is teachers love to teach. And so, I try to encourage all of our women, if you have a question about something in a text or about a resource material, reach out to somebody and get an answer. Ask a question so you can get confidence in whatever it is you are delivering.
Guthrie: Well, thank you for sharing with us about this, Leigh. I mean, this is so exciting to me.
Swanson: It’s been so exciting to me too.
Guthrie: I appreciate all you’ve invested in this “Teaching Women to Teach” at Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando. And I say, may your tribe increase…
Swanson: Thank you. Thank you.
Guthrie: …all over the country that theologically trained men and women would begin to expand their investment in training women to teach the Bible, what a beautiful thing that would be.
You’ve been listening to “Help Me Teach the Bible” with Nancy Guthrie, a production of The Gospel Coalition sponsored by Crossway. Crossway is a not-for-profit publisher of the ESV Bible Christian books and tracts. Learn more about Crossway’s gospel-centered resources at crossway.org.