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Her missions journey: from orphan to a doctorate

WAKE FOREST, N.C. (BP) — Mary Ann McMillan never intended to earn a full degree when she enrolled at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. She just needed 20-30 hours of course credit to go back to the mission field full-time.

On May 12, McMillan received her doctorate in Christian education, adding on to her master’s degree in intercultural studies that she received in 2013 after deciding it would prove useful for her future.

The Lord was cultivating in McMillan a desire to go overseas to minister in closed countries, so she realized that having a doctorate in education would provide the platform for that goal.

For McMillan, it’s incredible that she received her doctorate, knowing that she came from humble and challenging beginnings. She was an orphan until the age of 7, moved into foster care and then was adopted “into a family that should not have adopted a child at all,” as she recalled.

Her time in college was spiritually transformational as she became involved in a campus ministry and decided to follow Jesus as a junior in college. It was after she became a believer that God began giving her a heart for the mission field.

“Right before I was graduating college I really felt the Lord calling me to do missions full-time. I just didn’t know what that looked like so I actually went overseas with the IMB as a Journeyman,” she said of the mission board’s two-year program.

McMillan’s first year in a closed country was difficult stemming from obstacles to her ministry as an African American woman. She remembers times being chased down the street or having items thrown at her due to racial oppression.

“I had a curfew at 4 in the afternoon because it got dark at 4 and the majority of the ministries started at 8 at night, but I had to be in early because of my race,” she recalled. “So that’s why they decided to allow me to switch countries so I ended up in the Czech Republic my second year.”

Even in the midst of spiritual and racial oppression, God proved Himself powerful during that first year as McMillan and her teammates were doing ministry one day. While some women were gathered in a field listening to a translator share his testimony, one of the women spoke up.

“She stopped him and said, ‘I don’t want to hear your story. I want to hear hers,'” McMillan recounted, “and pointed at me. She said that ‘I’ve never seen a person of color before and I want to hear how she became a believer and why the Lord is so important for her.'”

At that moment, McMillan had the opportunity to share the Gospel with the group of women.

She had finished her two-year Journeyman term when she stepped onto the campus of SEBTS. Everything was new and the difficulty of reverse culture shock was in full swing. She remembers a professor who noticed she was struggling and encouraged her lovingly but truthfully.

“I can teach you anything you want to know in your classes, but your relationship with the Lord is more important than anything,” he said. “You can get all the schooling you want, you can have the best job, succeed in life, but if you don’t have a good relationship with the Lord you’re not going to make it.”

McMillan eventually became involved at Imago Dei Church, worked for SEBTS and, in April 2016, moved to California to work at Saddleback Church, pastored by Rick Warren. She is the training director for the PEACE Center, a program in which churches in different countries partner together in church planting, leadership development, health care and educational needs.

The PEACE Plan became very personal to McMillan when she took a trip to Rwanda, a country that Saddleback has partnered with for years, where she saw how local churches were caring for orphans. In fact, 35 orphanages had been emptied because children were being given a home through families in local churches.

McMillan was so impacted by the experience that she used this orphan care model within the local church to inspire her dissertation at SEBTS.

Ken Coley, director of Ed.D. studies at SEBTS, said he will never forget the first time he met McMillan “and she shared her dreams of completing her doctorate in preparation for being prepared for God to use her on His mission field. Well, she’s seen two dreams come true — she has earned her doctor of education degree and has a very special base of operations there at Saddleback to reach the world for Christ.”

The Great Commission is still the heartbeat of McMillan’s calling on her life. She hopes to one day either go overseas as a career missionary or stay in the States to train others to go from the classroom to the nations. Graduation is a little surreal for McMillan this time around as she knows that this is the last degree she will receive from SEBTS.

“It’s so weird to think about this whole journey and going to seminary and it’s like, man, [I] started out as an orphan and now I’m becoming a doctor,” she said.

The doctor of education program is a 60-hour degree involving learning through the classroom, mentorship and research to be grounded with a biblical foundation in order to teach the next generation. To learn more about education degrees at SEBTS, email [email protected] or call 919-761-2490.

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  • Lauren Pratt