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How Women in Ministry Can Close the Confidence Gap

The “confidence gap” is one factor that contributes to the shortfall of women serving in leadership in theological schools and churches, but it’s a factor women can change, the president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary said.

“Women tend to discount themselves,” seminary president Molly T. Marshall said. “If a woman looks at a job description, and she qualifies for eight of 10 points, she probably will not even apply. Yet if a man looks at the same description, and he meets five qualifications, he thinks ‘Hey, I’m good for that!'”

This is the “confidence gap.”

Marshall spoke to seminary students, mentors and ministers recently in Nashville, Tennessee, about the “confidence gap” that challenges women’s leadership.

The gap contributes to the reality that women are deans or presidents of only 13 percent of theological schools.

And women pastor only 6.5 percent of Cooperative Baptist Fellowship churches and less than 13.4 percent of American Baptist churches.

While the confidence gap doesn’t account for all the shortfalls in the numbers, it is one factor that women can do something to change.

The monthly gathering at Glendale Baptist Church brings women together to support and challenge one other and to close the confidence gap in their work or ministry.

The ecumenical gathering, called “Scholastica” and named for the fifth-century saint, draws women who are pastors, chaplains and community ministers. Other women who attend are still discerning their call to ministry.

Marshall began her talk by naming and rejecting common misconceptions of women as “too emotional, too bossy or too nice” to lead.

None of the stereotypes, Marshall said, is adequate to the reality of women’s leadership in church and society.

“Leadership can be learned,” Marshall said, “and there are things we must address if we are to learn it well.”

One critical component of learning to lead is having adequate “feedback, mirroring and mentoring,” Marshall said.

“Often women so fear failure that they discount themselves or opt out.” However, “failure is a means of growth,” Marshall said.

For leadership to expand, one must experiment and take risks. Learning to take risks requires a safe enough environment to test things out.

These components of learning to lead in ministry – mentoring, learning from failure and taking risks – are essential components of the Women’s Leadership Initiative (WLI) Master of Divinity program, which Marshall launched at Central’s Nashville campus in 2014.

Women in the program are building their confidence as they close the gap and learn to lead as ministers.

Following Marshall’s talk, women turned their attention to each other for conversations around deepening questions like this one: “Do you have any internal bias against female leaders?”

Current WLI student, Andrea Huffman, said about the conversation at her table: “My group expressed a lot of internal bias against female leaders, but it centered on the fact that we feel like we have to be them in order to be accepted.” The group talked about how they feel when they are compared to well-known female leaders.

“What if I can’t be as perky and put together or as cool and collected as these public figures? Do I have to be the women I see in order to be an effective and successful leader, or can I be me?” Huffman asked.

Both Scholastica and WLI are designed to push consistently against the confidence gap and to build confidence in women who can be themselves with authenticity. When women are called, they need courage, inspiration and support for stepping out of their comfort zones and into that gap.

Currently, Central Seminary is recruiting women for a third cohort of students for the WLI. A number of women listening to Marshall’s speech are currently in the application process to join that cohort. Those who are admitted will begin their studies in fall 2018.

“The confidence gap is something we work on,” Marshall said. “One of the ways we grow as leaders is to grant permission to be ambitious. Ambition is often thought to be a bad word for women. But women cannot simply wait to be invited. … Ambition is healthy for women, and it can sustain us on what is not an easy path.”

Eileen Campbell-Reed is coordinator for coaching, mentoring and internship as well as associate professor of practical theology at the Nashville, Tennessee, campus of Central Baptist Theological Seminary (CBTS). A version of this article first appeared on the CBTS website and is used with permission. Her writings can also be found on her website, and you can follow her on Twitter @ecampbellreed.