By Debbie Gin
It’s been nearly two years in my role at ATS, and what has surprised me the most, interacting with many many seminary faculty and lead administrators, isn’t what you would expect.
I’ve learned priceless wisdom about how theological education works, what’s important to churches and why, and just how delicate, yet robust, is the ecology of donor and beneficiary. But I suppose these were expected areas of learning.
What has surprised me is just how strong and deeply embedded is the belief that “I don’t belong here. I’m not good enough.” We know it most familiarly in the form of that internal script. You may also have heard it named the “Imposter Syndrome.”
It doesn’t matter whether the context is a highly ranked research school or an independent freestanding school or the smallest denominational school, people in this world seem relieved when I name this script explicitly and challenge them to lay it down. Why do I name it? Two reasons, at least. It gets in the way of deep learning, as we give more energy to trying not to appear “dumb” than to absorbing new knowledge. And it gets in the way of deep connecting because our habit of competing in order to stand out or somehow be unique keeps us from being authentically open with each other.
I understand how this world that preaches a humility in the presence of God can, in actuality, promote a kind of false humility (an attitude that looks like humility but really stems from pride). But I’m not sure this is what is at play here. The people I have met truly feel like they’ve somehow fooled everyone and don’t deserve to be in that leadership position or hold that faculty post. I know I have had my moments, angsting against my own internal script, and it can be paralyzing.
For women, the script’s voice is especially deafening. But can anyone blame us? There’s plenty written about the glass (bamboo) ceiling, structural obstacles that keep women from upward mobility — yes, even in the church and theological academy. There’s the social obstacles, expectations that we’ve been raised to fulfill to get married and have a family, sacrificing the calling to a different kind of vocation in God’s kin-dom. There are also the double binds that women face — “a behavioral norm that creates a situation where a person cannot win no matter what she does”.
The way to leadership demands an authoritative approach (which men do without being suspect), but women who use these approaches are considered “b-chy” because they’re considered too aggressive. Another kind of double bind is when women don’t get hired because they don’t have the experience needed, but they don’t go for positions (and get the experience) because they feel they’re not competent enough. Such self-effacing, self-denigrating, and self-limiting thoughts help to create the self-fulfilling prophecy. We’re caught in the double bind.
So what’s the way out? I’m sorry to say there aren’t easy answers. The structural, social, and psychological obstacles are real and not painlessly overcome. But we must work on what we can. We can unlearn those damaging scripts. They have taken a lifetime to become internalized, but with work (and often help), we can say “no” to the harm that keeps us from pursuing the vocations God is calling us to. At the same time, we can say “yes” to our God-given competence, passion, commitment, and sense of agency and internalize healthier scripts. And growing in our confidence, just maybe, we won’t talk ourselves out of that pursuit, on that one day when the timing is right and God provides a way to buck the system. Then we can help to dismantle unhealthy structures and let our other sisters in.
Dr. Debbie Gin is Director of Faculty Development and Research at The Association of Theological Schools/Commission on Accrediting, the support and accrediting organization of most seminaries in the US and Canada. She was formerly Associate Professor of Ministry at Azusa Pacific Seminary and Fellow for Faculty Development and Evaluation in the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Assessment at Azusa Pacific University. She and her husband currently live in Pennsylvania.
 Judith G. Oakley, “Gender-Based Barriers to Senior Management Positions: Understanding the Scarcity of Female CEOs”, Journal of Business Ethics 27: 321-334, 2000.
 Phyllis Bronstein, Esther D. Rothblum, Sondra E. Solomon, “Ivy Halls and Glass Walls: Barriers to Academic Careers for Women and Ethnic Minorities,” New Directions for Teaching and Learning, no. 53, Spring 1993.