by Christian A. Cheairs, (M.Div., 2015)

ann henley saundersAccording to the Association of Theological Schools, during the 2012–2013 school year women accounted for almost thirty-seven percent of Protestant seminary students. “I’m surprised that these numbers are so low…my experience at Princeton has seemed relatively balanced in terms of numbers within the classroom,” says Ann-Henley Saunders, an M.Div. senior at Princeton Seminary.

Saunders’s deep piercing smile coupled with her passion for ministry provides a breathtaking exemplar of a woman excelling in a very male-dominated field. “I quite frankly wish that these conversations were not so gendered…I am a woman, yes, but I am also a person and a pastor. All of these things help shape my personal and pastoral identity. What I have most enjoyed about PTS, though, is the diversity of voices God has called to ministry, be they male or female, black or white, Latino or Latina, Asian American or Pacific Islander, liberal or conservative, straight or gay, or those who don’t identify with these binaries. It’s this diversity that helped affirm and cultivate my passion for multicultural ministry.”

This experience for Saunders has been layered with a texture of service, commitment, and the honoring of all voices within the community. Since her arrival, she has been a consistent voice in raising awareness of the importance of diversity as expressed in respects to race, gender, culture, disability, and sexual orientation. Through her work with initiatives such as Navigating the Waters and The L.I.V.E. Symposium, Saunders says she realized, “I’m the only person I can speak for; I will never be able to speak for all. Princeton has helped me name my own blind spots in an effort to build bridges and inspire honest conversations.”

“I notice when my male peers are talking in class, I have to work really hard to raise my hand, not just because I want to hear a woman’s voice…it is not just about speaking as a woman, it’s about speaking when I feel the Spirit is compelling me to speak,” she says about gender dynamics in PTS classrooms. “I feel welcomed to speak by the majority of my male classmates, and I consider myself a proponent of women’s rights in all areas of life, but not at the expense of male rights too…I do not think to be heard as women we need to silence someone else’s voice in the process.”  

Yet in spite of her upbeat outlook toward being a woman in ministry, she recalls encountering this sometimes-minor detail in a very major way during her class trip to Jerusalem with Dr. Ellen T. Charry. “Before visiting the Dome of the Rock, my female classmates and I chatted about what we were going to wear and how we were going to present ourselves. These conversations—and our attire—informed most of our day (that day). I am left with many things to ponder from that experience, but mostly, I am reminded that what looks like liberation for some might not look like liberation to someone else,” she says, reflecting on her Jerusalem experience.

Saunders says this in response to her rich experiences while at PTS, “I think it is less about being a woman and more about being who God made me to be. Frederick Buechner said, ‘The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deepest need.’ God is calling me to ordained congregational ministry, and I cannot imagine a more fulfilling vocation.”