From “Mom” to Biblical Scholar—in Six Years Flat

Once a busy stay-at-home mom, Melissa Serra S’23 felt a distinct call to pursue a seminary education—and found a supportive community and completely new career trajectory along the way.

By Monique Kleinhuizen ’08 GS’16, contributing writer

May 03, 2023 | Noon

Melissa Serra S’23

Melissa Serra S’23

In 2017, Melissa Serra S’23 heard an ad on the radio for seminary.

“Do you want to learn more about the Bible?” it said, simply. 

She heard the ad three times that week. She’d never heard it before, and has never heard it again since. But the stay-at-home mom felt an unmistakable pull, and a deep feeling that yes, she absolutely wanted to learn more about the Bible. She contacted her former pastor and trusted mentors, asking them whether they thought she should consider pursuing ministry, out of the blue, at age 39. 

“It was an affirmative ‘yes’ on all fronts,” she says. 

That day, her journey shifted dramatically in a way that she can only attribute to the Lord’s provision and timing. Serra was not new to Christian faith, but her path had been a winding one. She grew up in a Christian home and had gone to Bethel for a few semesters as an undergraduate student. She started out pre-med, ended up declaring majors in communications and Spanish, transferred to finish her degree, and started to work in retail.

“I had my sights set on the wrong things. I was a follower of Jesus, but following my own desires. I wanted to make money and be independent. To be honest, I became very shallow,” she recalls. She went into finance for a time, got married, and hit a low point when her first husband left her with an infant daughter. She moved back in with her parents and started school to become a Certified Nursing Assistant, desperate to find a stable job that would provide for the two of them.

“But God had another plan!” she says. She met her current husband—a father of two—and they raised their three kids together. Serra threw herself into being “mom” full-time and seven years ago, the Lord worked in another unexpected way. That time, it started with a letter from a friend of the family, the wife of her childhood pastor. She was involved with a nonprofit called Asia Frontier Outreach, whose mission is centered on keeping young women out of trafficking in Myanmar. She began to hear stories of desperation, systemic poverty, and oppression. As a mom to two daughters, she couldn’t stand on the sidelines.

“It shattered my heart,” Serra recalls. “I realized how the closer you get to the broken-hearted and poor, the more alive and rich the Bible becomes. It’s been a huge blessing to be a part of that ministry.” 

She became a board member and started helping with public relations for the organization stateside. When the radio ad stopped her in her tracks, she had a sneaking suspicion that God's intention might be for her to go to seminary in order to take on a more significant role within the organization upon graduation.

Melissa Serra S’23 (second from left) and her daughter Sophia introduce leaders from Asia Frontier Outreach to a local pastor.

Melissa Serra S’23 (second from left) and her daughter Sophia introduce leaders from Asia Frontier Outreach to a local pastor.

She started applying to seminaries, including at Bethel. She was accepted, but didn’t get financial aid, something she saw as a hard-and-fast barrier to enrollment. She made a bargain with God that if she got financial aid, she’d go—something she now realizes was very poor theology. The original recipient of the Louis and Anne Dunlop Memorial Scholarship backed out, and she was next in line! A closed door opened, and she began her coursework in Bethel’s online Master of Divinity. 

It had been a while since she’d been a student, but Serra was pleasantly surprised by the flexibility and community she found in the online format. Through forum discussions and video conferencing for classes and group discussions, she felt connected and supported by her professors and classmates even though they were geographically scattered.

When she enrolled in the Hermeneutics course with Jeannine Brown, David Price Professor of Biblical and Theological Foundations, she didn't quite know what to expect. She dove into biblical interpretation, learning from some of the first strong female spiritual leaders and mentors she’d ever had in her life, starting with Brown. In class, they did an exegetical analysis of the historical contexts behind certain texts, how the words would have been understood in the culture at the time—and what they mean for us today. And that’s when the floodgates opened.

“I couldn’t get enough. I was just so hungry for truth,” she says. In Systematic Theology with Professor Emeritus of Theology Glen Scorgie, she says the Lord did a “lot of ‘undoing’ of mental constructs that weren’t right.” 

“My perceptions of God weren’t quite accurate. I don’t know why God called me to have these skills or want to pursue them—and I didn’t even know this was a passion of mine until I came to seminary,” Serra explains. “But I felt like if I didn’t pursue biblical languages and interpretation, I was disobeying God. I’ve never felt that strongly about anything in my life!” 

Serra eventually chose the Master of Divinity - Dual Language Track, which would put her on a path toward proficiency in both biblical Hebrew and Greek. And while she felt a crystal-clear confidence that this calling and passion were coming straight from God, she felt frustration that it had taken Him so long. She’ll be 46 when she graduates this spring—and she’s still not quite sure where she’ll end up afterwards—but she’s come to terms with God’s timing in it all. 

“I’ve had to sit with that ambiguity. I’ve had a great education, amazing professors, and I’ve gained an incredible foundation and integration,” Serra says. “As I’ve looked back, it’s become really clear how much I learned in six years. But the beautiful thing is that you can’t exhaust God’s word; you learn and grow in it until you die.”

“I’m equipped, and I’m ready for the next leg of this journey—whatever that is. There are no words to express how God has changed my life, and my heart, over the course of the last six years. My love for Him has grown—and it’s impossible to sum up in a few words. My heart’s desire is to glorify Him with the rest of my life.”

— Melissa Serra S’23

This past January, Serra started an internship as a research assistant at her church, Appleton Alliance. She’s using her passion for Biblical languages to provide exegetical research, which includes spending lots of time in the Word digging up historical context to aid in sermon series preparation. She’s also doing curriculum development covering Jesus' life and ministry. She’s contributing a module for a boot camp program that Appleton Alliance is developing to provide comprehensive, foundational training for youth in the church.

As she nears graduation, she’s worked with her seminary professors and mentors to think through her beliefs about women in leadership and ministry—and how her calling and education line up.

“Our classes provide places for further theological exploration of views about women in church leadership. In fact, it is often in class settings that I hear from students who want to have personal conversations with me about their ministry calling. I am grateful that I have the opportunity to be a part of such formative moments in the lives of students, and I love to see God work to bring clarity to women seeking to serve Jesus Christ and his church.”

— Jeannine Brown, David Price Professor of Biblical and Theological Foundations and Director of Online Programs for Bethel Seminary

Her husband Chris has been a big support during seminary and as Serra considers what’s next. One sure thing on their list is to become Bethel donors. “We want to help other students in the way I was helped,” she says.

The entire Serra family will be in Benson Great Hall when she walks across the stage in May. She says, in a way, it’s been like they’ve all gone to seminary along with her. It’s become the norm for her to do homework right alongside her daughter, who even refers to her mom as “her little scholar.” She looks back on the last few years and her journey to Bethel and is quick to encourage others reconsidering their own goals.

“Never doubt God’s calling. Absolutely pursue it, and He will take you by the hand and not let go. I have a deeper connection to God than I’ve ever had before,” Serra says. 

“I get a lump in my throat every time I think about it. My experience at Bethel, just, wow. Bethel is a special place, and God is so alive there. You’ll never, ever regret it.”

Explore Bethel Seminary

Bethel Seminary offers online and in-person programs that’ll help you develop your God-given talents while gaining the biblical foundation you need to think critically and act wisely. No matter your stage of life—or calling, no matter how sudden—there’s a seminary program to fit your goals and timeline.

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