Tailoring theological study to fit women's real lives

Equipping women for ‘rubber hits the road’ ministry

Louise Gosbell has spent much of her working life advocating for inclusion and accessibility.

Over many years, she has played a key role in helping the church – both in Australia and overseas – become a welcoming, attainable place for people with a disability.

This passion for accessibility continues to drive Gosbell as she steps into a new role as principal of Mary Andrews College (MAC) in Sydney – the only Bible college in Australia founded to equip women for ministry.

“We have a very one-size-fits-all approach to tertiary education and to theological education,” Gosbell tells Eternity.

“I’m really passionate about theological education that’s accessible for the widest range of users – to take it out of the ivory tower and to make it actually doable for the everyday woman in the church community.”

“So many of them are juggling all of these different things at the same time – kids, caring for their parents, working, ministry.” – Louise Gosbell

All but 2 per cent of MAC students are women. Many have never undertaken tertiary study or are returning to study after raising a family. Not only can the study itself seem daunting, but often students are juggling other responsibilities, Gosbell explains.

“Many of them are caring for families or older parents. We also have a number of students who are carers to a family member with a disability. So they carry a lot.”

Yet despite the challenges, these students are willing to tackle theological study in order to help them better serve the church.

“A lot of women come to MAC because they just want to better their biblical knowledge. They want to have a better handle of God’s word for teaching Sunday school or women’s Bible study groups or whatever it might be. And so they’re not looking for academic qualifications per se or trying to get a prestigious role,” says Gosbell.

“They just want to be better equipped for the everyday ministry they are involved in. And so their achievements are not always recognised. So many of them are juggling all of these different things at the same time – kids, caring for their parents, working, ministry.

“It is actually a huge achievement to get a diploma in theology in the midst of all of that. And it’s lovely to see a lot of our graduates go into pastoral care roles or become community chaplains. These are really beautiful, service-oriented positions.”

“I’m very passionate about wanting to make it as user-friendly and accessible as possible.” – Louise Gosbell

In order to cater for these students and for others with particular needs, it means scrapping the “one-size-fits-all approach” on which traditional theological education has been based, Gosbell argues.

“Making the theological classroom available to a wide range of users means recognising that every learner is different,” says Gosbell, who recently wrote a chapter on how to make Christian higher education inclusive for students both with and without disabilities for a book published earlier this year.

“Whether you have a student with a disability in the classroom or not, you already have a very wide range of users in your classroom,” she continues.

“So I’m very passionate about wanting to make it as user-friendly and accessible as possible – as a lecturer, as a teacher, but also to facilitate that in all stages of the student’s journey, right from the application and enrolment process.”

Somewhat ironically, Gosbell herself is an accomplished academic. After a Master of Theology, she went on to complete a PhD in Ancient History, for which her thesis on physical and sensory disabilities in the gospels – The Poor, the Crippled, the Blind, and the Lame – was published in 2018. She has gone on to publish extensively on disability and the church.

However, alongside her research, Gosbell has years of hands-on engagement with organisations that aim to create a more inclusive church for those with a disability. She’s served on the leadership team of Jesus Club (for people with intellectual disabilities) and as Sydney coordinator of CBM Australia’s Luke14 program. As well, she’s on the Resource Team for Our Place Christian Communities, is a board member of Embracing Ministries, and is a newly appointed member of the core council of the Institute on Theology and Disability in the US. After all that, she is mum to a teenage daughter with special needs (along with two other daughters).

On top of these achievements, Gosbell has lectured in New Testament at MAC for more than seven years and also teaches Disability Studies. Before taking up the top job, she spent a year as MAC’s dean of students – a time that coincided with the college’s move to online learning because of the COVID pandemic. While it was challenging, this timing was also fortuitous, as Gosbell started implementing ways to make the college more accessible for students.

“We’ve worked really, really hard to support students through that transition. It was a huge thing for a lot of our students who weren’t savvy with Zoom or other online platforms at that particular time. So we had one-on-one sessions with students if they needed it,” she explains.

“We have these people’s needs on our radar and we can journey closely with them to support them.” – Louise Gosbell

The college has also introduced support plans to better accommodate students’ individual needs.

“I was able to develop a whole lot of systems as dean of students that were really about supporting people who are on the margins, people who have higher dropout rates,” Gosbell explains, “so students with disabilities, students with mental health challenges, and students who are carers to someone with a disability or a chronic health issue. We have particular student support plans in place for any of those students …

“It means we have these people’s needs on our radar and we can journey closely with them to support them.”

She gives examples: “We can make it easier for students to access extensions [on task deadlines] if that’s what they need. We have some students with hearing or vision impairment, so we can set up a particular desk in the classroom to cater for them or we can provide large-print handouts. We work closely with students to make study accessible to them, to make this doable.”

Gosbell notes the positive feedback the college has received about these measures: “We’ve had students say, ‘Wow! I’ve never been somewhere where I’ve had a support plan in place because of my mental health issue before.'”

Creating a sense of community and connection is another key way to meet their students’ particular needs, according to Gosbell. Hence, the college is keen to keep some face-to-face learning, starting this year with a mix of in-person and online learning. Even now during Sydney’s COVID lockdown, Gosbell says the college is trying to maintain this connection.

“We don’t do pre-recorded lectures. Everything is still in synchronous mode. So that means people who are joining us online still get all of that group discussion, get to know other students, and have access to their lecturers …

“It’s a great joy for them to have this time in their week where they can meet with others who are in a similar space to them and talk about what it is that they’re going through and have the opportunity to dig deep into God’s word in the midst of what is a really challenging time at the moment for a lot of people.”

“We’re really thinking about how we can reach people that perhaps don’t have that traditional access to theological education.” – Louise Gosbell

In taking up the role of principal of MAC, Gosbell acknowledges she is part of a chain of women in the college’s 130-year history who have helped others become equipped for ministry.

“One of the things that stood out to me was the story of the deaconesses and their desire to want to take the gospel out to people on the margins. This was equipping women for the rubber-hits-the-road kind of ministry – taking the gospel to places where male ministers didn’t necessarily have access to. And so it was really about taking the gospel out in this really practical kind of way,” she reflects.

Fortunately in this modern era, Gosbell has a lot more tools at her disposal.

“Online learning gives us a brand-new way to be able to encourage women, to offer a great community of support, and to be able to train people in knowing God’s word better and how to put that into practice,” she says.

As she looks to the future, Gosbell intends to keep her eyes fixed on the need for inclusion and accessibility in theological education.

“I would love to be able to work in partnerships with churches, particularly in more remote and regional parts of Australia, to be able to give access to our courses to women there. I’d also love to see greater opportunities for students with disabilities and people with mental health challenges.

“We’re also looking at developing more short courses that we might be able to run in church communities, again in more remote areas. We’re really thinking about how we can reach people that perhaps don’t have that traditional access to theological education.”

She concludes: “I’m very passionate about wanting to see women embrace their gifts and use them. And to be comfortable in doing that. That’s one of the things I feel very passionately about as a mum, to see that in my own girls, but I also want to see that replicated in all the women who come through MAC.”