Stephanie Friend, 72, waited until husband Jeffrey Friend crossed the graduation stage with his D.Ed.Min. degree in 2016 before she enrolled in New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary’s professional doctorate program.
This year, Stephanie crossed the graduation stage herself to receive her D. Min. and become the second “Dr. Friend” in the family. The milestone marked a completion – though perhaps not an end – to an academic journey that began when she enrolled in NOBTS’ Leavell College, in her 50s.
Along the way, people often asked why the busy senior pastor’s wife at New Orleans’ Suburban Baptist Church would bother with school.
“When God calls you, He doesn’t say it will be easy,” Stephanie said. “God has given me this passion and once He does that, you just don’t have any peace until you follow.”
Stephanie’s passion for reaching the women in a diverse community that includes Muslims, Vietnamese, Indian and Hispanic neighbors inspired her doctoral research project. As women from varied cultures joined the women’s conferences and Bible studies at her church, she saw the need to equip women in inter-cultural discipleship skills.
“I want to empower the women closest to me, not to impose our culture, but to know how to talk to a Muslim about Jesus,” Stephanie said.
Engaging others for the Gospel begins with conversation, Stephanie has learned. Mistakes will be made, but those of other cultures will understand and will be eager to offer guidance, she said.
For Stephanie, her doctoral degree is a beginning point, not an end. She hopes to build on her research, produce a conference, and perhaps “take it on the road.” Pursuing another degree is also not out of the question, she said.
Church and ministry responsibilities, plus the financial burden of both being in the program at the same time, led to the couple’s decision that Jeffrey would earn his doctorate first while Stephanie took occasional classes and helped him with research.
After Jeffrey graduated, he returned the favor.
“My husband is my hero. He is God’s masterpiece,” Stephanie said. “Next to Jesus, of course, he’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me. He encouraged me in a strong, strong way, but always deferred to what God says. I’m so thankful.”
A former police officer and an Army veteran, Stephanie is no stranger to difficult experiences. Still, the unexpected came along as she worked toward the doctorate.
An EF3 tornado early in Stephanie’s second semester of the D.Min. program devastated the couple’s home and the church’s three-building campus, and turned life upside down. The eerie destruction was similar to the rebuild the church experienced 12 years earlier after the flooding in Hurricane Katrina’s wake.
Another interruption came to Stephanie’s writing and research when COVID’s quarantine and continued restrictions made it difficult to interact with others. Still, Stephanie sees each season of life as bringing assurance of God’s faithfulness, she said.
“[Difficulty] has shown me how powerful God is,” Stephanie said. “At every turn, I was restored to a better place.”
A New Orleans native, Stephanie points to her mother’s example of succeeding despite obstacles, as her mother earned a nursing degree towards the end of WWII even as Jim Crow laws meant roadblocks at every turn. Stephanie said her mother encouraged her to be whatever she wanted to be, remembering always first to “be equipped.”
Now equipped with a doctoral degree, Stephanie looks to equipping other women to also follow God’s call to take the Gospel to the nations, wherever the path may lead.
“God’s hand is in everything,” Stephanie said. “He did not promise a primrose life. It wasn’t easy for Jesus. Nothing is easy. But He promises He will never leave us or forsake us.”