It has been ten years since Ruth Ann Foster died. In some ways, it feels like just yesterday that we were donning our tiaras and feather boas together. In other ways, so much has happened since 2006 that it feels like a lifetime ago.
Dr. Foster was a founding faculty member and associate professor of Christian Scriptures at Baylor University’s George W. Truett Seminary in Waco, Texas. When I first met her, I knew that there was something special about her. I was a doe-eyed nineteen-year-old who had grown up so deeply entrenched in patriarchy that I didn’t yet realize the dilemma of being a female student in a Baptist seminary. I remember meeting with her, learning from her to read the Bible with fresh eyes, overwhelmed by the sense of hope I felt that maybe God had called me without limitation. I felt drawn to her beyond what I could understand, and I have never been the same since I met her.
Dr. Foster was one of the first female professors that I had ever had and my only female professor in all of seminary. And now, ten years later, I have picked up her mantle. I am now a seminary professor myself, and as far as I know, I am the only female graduate of Truett serving on a seminary faculty. In many ways, Dr. Foster continues to be my most seminal example of being a woman in academia. I admired her prowess in the classroom. She was sharp, funny, engaging, and feminine. She was adored for her personability and respected for her high expectations of students. She didn’t sacrifice one for the other. She was her truest self, and she allowed me to envision how I could be my truest self as a woman in ministry and as a woman in theological higher education.
When she died ten years ago, I wrote: “Dr. Foster was a determined woman. She wasn’t scared to be a pioneer, to blaze a new trail for what is right. She was meticulous about her academic studies. She loved to laugh. She could articulate exactly what she was thinking. She knew what it meant to be a friend. I always felt an affinity with her in that our personalities are similar, and she was a particularly kindred spirit to me. I hope to emulate her commitment, excellence, and faithfulness.”
I will always look up to her and never expect to catch up to her. Now that I am a seminary professor, I realize that she offered students so much more than I knew. When you are a student, there is appropriate separation between you and the faculty, and you may not realize all that goes on behind the scenes. You have no idea how much work faculty members are doing for you and with you in mind in between classes. You have no idea what obstacles they are facing, and overcoming, in order to better advocate for you and equip you. You have no idea the life experiences and emotional investment that go into the wise things they say in class. For Dr. Foster, and many other women faculty, you have no idea the latent sexism they face every day, just for the chance to present an alternative community through their teaching.
Dr. Foster had been brutalized in the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention. She experienced great personal and professional cost. Despite the hardships, she continued to be very clear in her views of women in ministry and reliably spoke her truth, and yet she was never bitter. Even when “that student” (there’s always at least one, usually male) made an off-color remark just to challenge her authority in the classroom, she could keep us on task, maintain her composure, and prophetically correct the offender. She offered respect, love, and care to every student, even those who did not give her the same. Such beautiful character! Such hope in the power of theological higher education and transformational, redemptive community. Dr. Foster also seized every opportunity to nurture female students, including serving as faculty advisor for Women in Ministry at Truett.
Dr. Foster also dealt with significant personal difficulties outside of the classroom, and doing it alone. She cared for her mother, mentored dozens of students, and fulfilled her professional and church responsibilities, all while struggling with her own health issues. And yet, she was fully present wherever she was, every day, offering her knowledge and wisdom, sharing her sense of humor and cutting wit, and often taking students to lunch after class. And she always paid.
Students could stop in Dr. Foster’s office any time, where she talked about academics, ministry, relationships, television shows, and everyday life. She laughed and cried with students, going to great lengths to offer hospitality and pastoral care. She was reliably honest in her feedback, always pushing them to improve and grow. She gave grace, but never let students give up on themselves or lower their standards. I remember one month when I was having a particularly difficult time in the church where I was serving. Right before a class session, a wave of emotion hit me, and I felt like I needed to sit in the hall for a little bit before I could come in the class. Dr. Foster gave me that time to grieve, but then she held me accountable to get back up and continue the work. I will love her forever for that.
I have faced my share of issues as a professor and often find myself looking back to my time in Dr. Foster’s classes. She was such a brilliant professor. Not only did she teach us to be scholars of the New Testament, but she also taught us how to use the library, to ensure bibliographic diversity, to read sources critically, to write at the graduate level, and to organize our work for success. Her assignments forced us to learn good habits. At that exhausted moment when we submitted our finished papers to her, she would say, “All this work that you have done for this exegesis paper, you need to do at least this much for every sermon that you preach.” She was right. The Bible deserves our most devoted scholarship, and Dr. Foster made sure that we were prepared with the skills to faithfully serve our churches.
She had many famous sayings. The one I hear in my head the most is, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” Right as always. Ministry is not easy. Proclamation, pastoral care, and leadership are emotionally expensive, even when you serve a supportive congregation. Only those who are called and willing to be faithful to their calling will survive, and she wanted to be sure we were prepared. Her most famous lecture was “Adam is a wimp.” It was a rite of passage at Truett to sit through that lecture in her Intro to Scriptures class. I still use my packet from her class to prepare for my own teaching.
Dr. Foster forever changed my life, and even now, she is continually teaching me and shaping me as I carry on her mantle. I am pleased to say that I have developed a similar reputation among my students. I, too, have scared some students in the first week or two of class, but I have also been part of that miraculous, beautiful moment when a student trusts you enough to try something they didn’t think they could do, and then invites you into celebration when they succeed, that moment when they see the hero in themselves.
Ten years ago, I wrote: “The thing about Dr. Foster is that she never tried to be anyone’s hero. I don’t think she wanted anyone to see her as a hero. I think she wanted her students to see the hero in themselves. Everything she did was done in order to equip us for our ministries. She sought to challenge us, to push us, and to love us in the best way, not necessarily in the most comfortable way. She was a mobilizer: she mobilized her students to follow God as disciples and as ministers. She empowered her students to be the hands and feet of God in every aspect of our lives. She was a hero and a hero-maker.”
Thank you, Dr. Foster, for helping me see the hero in myself and for teaching me how to be a hero-maker for my students. I hope you are proud of me, and that you can feel even now how much you have meant to so many students who are forever better for having learned from you.
Thousands gathered to mourn Dr. Foster’s passing, and we reflected on her life with the words of Frederick Buechner:
“When you remember me,
It means that you have carried something of who I am with you,
That I have left some mark of who I am on who you are.
It means that you can summon me back to your mind
Even though countless years and miles may stand between us.
It means that if we meet again,
You will know me.
It means that even after I die,
You can still see my face and hear my voice and speak to me in your heart.
For as long as you remember me,
I am never entirely lost.”
Dear one, we still see you, we still hear your voice (and your laugh), and we love you. Thank you for all you have taught us, and for the ways you are teaching us still.
Courtney Pace is assistant professor of church history at Memphis Theological Seminary, Memphis, Tennessee.