Closing the mentoring gap

A major key to closing the gender gap in ministry is mentoring to help women improve skills and knowledge and introduce them to networks that lead to jobs.

By Eileen Campbell-Reed

This week more than 2,000 Baptists, who openly support the call of women to pastoral ministry, will gather in Atlanta for worship, learning and networking. The General Assembly of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and annual meeting of Baptist Women in Ministry will feature and celebrate women’s preaching voices, gifts for ministry and leadership. Yet the percentage of women employed as pastors in CBF churches remains under 6 percent. One key to closing the gender gap is mentoring that helps women improve their skills and knowledge for ministry and puts them fully into the networks that lead to jobs.

Mentorship can include both peers and more experienced ministers. Multiplying the number and quality of mentoring relationships for Baptist women can help them to sustain their vocations, increase the number of women in the pastorate, and empower the ministries of more congregations. Closing the mentoring gap requires letting down one’s defenses, creating space to learn from failure and networking so that ecologies of support for women grow.

Barriers to good mentoring relationships include failing to learn from failure, feeling overwhelmed as a new minister, reluctance to embrace the mentoring role and defensive behaviors that undercut support. The following analysis suggests how to close the mentoring gap, empower both mentors and mentees, expand networks for women in ministry, and in the process strengthen the faith communities that women serve.

Learning from failure

Learning from failure is key to advancing in any professional practice, but failure without adequate feedback loops rarely results in growth or improved practice. Good feedback includes both an exploration of mistakes, and also constructive and supportive suggestions for improving on the next try. The role of senior and peer mentors is to make space for exploring the missteps rather than simply pointing out problems. The lasting gift of good feedback is how the learning sticks.

Failures are a normal part of learning to lead. For example, when I started out in ministry, I preached sermons that were less than stellar. Sometimes I attempted to lead groups into new ideas too quickly. And occasionally I did things pretty well, yet in the process received a lot of push back. My responses to that push back could sometimes be overly defensive, hurting my relationships with the very people I was trying to lead. I needed mentoring in many areas.

Even the most experienced leaders continue to learn from failures and missteps. The goal is never failure, per se. Yet learning from mistakes on the way to effective leadership is essential for growth by women (and men) called to that responsibility. Good mentors build relationships that allow ministers to learn from their failures.

Failures in mentoring

Mentoring itself fails to be effective when it breaks down on either side of the relationship. Often new female ministers experience a lack of support or belief in their own abilities. This can lead to a search for a mentor who will help with everything. Reliable advice on mentoring suggests, however, that a better approach seeks advice or guidance for specific tasks. For example a new minister might ask for consultation on a difficult ethical situation, working with lay leaders or preaching. This approach avoids the problematic “guru” mentoring model that expects all needs to be met by one mentor.

Failure on the side of senior ministers comes when they hold back rather than leaning in to meet their younger colleagues. Experienced religious leaders are tempted to watch new ministers from a distance. When the newcomer makes mistakes, rather than reaching out to begin a relationship, which makes space for feedback, the experienced leader leans back in judgment, wondering if the newbie will never make it. This kind of “sink or swim” thinking, unfortunately reinforces the likelihood that the new minister will indeed not make it.

Defenses

On both sides, for mentors and mentees, psychological defenses can play a significant role in keeping people apart and keeping them from actually helping each other. New learners in ministry, for example, feel both the external expectation that they are supposed to know everything already, and the internal anxiety that they do not know anything. Neither feeling is accurate, yet those feelings can remain unchecked.

On the mentor side, defensiveness comes when experienced ministers wonder if anyone even notices their expertise or wisdom. They wait for someone younger to ask for help. In their own struggles for survival and self-preservation, they had to overcome isolation and lack of support. As one woman says, “I grew up in a ‘role-model-free’ environment.” Relational patterns of isolation are hard to change.

Networking

In June I taught a seminary class, and I took my students (all women) to five ministry sites around Kentucky to practice their observation and interviewing skills. In several congregations we sought permission for each student to speak briefly from the pulpit. These small steps contribute to helping seminary students normalize ministry tasks and reduce the beginner’s anxiety over preaching.

At our final site visit, our time was nearly over, when I decided to do some intentional networking. I said to the pastor as we prepared to leave, “You know, Laura is a great preacher. She doesn’t really need to practice standing in your pulpit today. But you could invite her here to preach the next time you are away.” When I listed other nearby churches where Laura preached in the past year, I could see the pastor’s interest grow.

While other professions have similar mentoring and employment gaps, ministry continues to be among the largest. To close these gaps for female pastors, expanding networks of connection and support is essential. Closing the mentoring gap requires counter-intuitive action from both mentors and mentees. It means taking small risks, making connections to larger networks, and letting down one’s defenses, to make safe space for processing learning, failures and all.

This week if you are attending the CBF General Assembly or BWIM gatherings, I hope you’ll make a point to hear a young women preach. Then reach out and get to know her personally. Ask yourself: who in my network needs to meet this woman? When can we invite her to preach at our church? What might be keeping me from cultivating the ecology of support?

OPINION: Views expressed in ABPnews/Herald columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.