Women starting out in ministry need space to learn.

So do men. All people with a pastoral calling need room to grow into the practice of ministry.

Too often, however, a culture of disbelief surrounds well-intentioned churches that call women, undermining and disrupting the learning curve for new ministers.

In an extreme example last summer, First Baptist of Jefferson City, Tennessee, called Ellen Di Giosia as their pastor.

And the learning space she needed to cultivate a living, breathing, flourishing practice of ministry was soon disrupted by the actions of the Tennessee Baptist Convention (TBC) to remove First Baptist from fellowship.

TBC, a Southern Baptist-affiliated group, works intentionally to undercut female pastors and attempts to destabilize churches that call women. They epitomize the explicit culture of disbelief in women’s leadership.

While intentional moves like those made by TBC erode the learning spaces women need to become thriving pastors, the more common implicit gender bias infects both social structures and personal relationships that are crucial for healthy ministry.

Implicit gender bias fuels the culture of disbelief, consistently disrupts the learning process and undermines women’s leadership and growth.

Becoming a pastor is not an event but a process of growth over time.

In the Learning Pastoral Imagination Project, we have seen how learning the practice of ministry is a relational and embodied process that integrates ministry skills, spiritual and theological knowledge and pastoral identity within the minister.

The learning takes time and requires a pastor to immerse herself in the new context.

In other words, Di Giosia needed to learn her new work through building relationships with the people who called her, making use of her spiritual and pastoral gifts, learning the ropes and becoming at home in her new situation.

Although she brought years of ministry experience with her, a new place and a new role (as lead pastor) meant Di Giosia was on a new learning curve.

Integration does not happen overnight, but through trial and error and by taking risk and exercising courage.

“For women, the subtle gender bias that persists in organizations and in society disrupts the learning cycle at the heart of becoming a leader.” So say researchers Herminia Ibarra, Robin Ely and Deborah Kolb whose findings resonate with the LPI Project.

Ibarra, Ely and Kolb explore the many layers of implicit bias that women face in learning to lead in any profession.

Focused on business culture, they describe the problems and offer a pathway forward in their 2014 report, “Women Rising: The Unseen Barriers,” in the Harvard Business Review.

In “Women Rising,” three key insights emerge and translate easily into commitments that every church can make, especially churches who want to call women to their ministry leadership staff.

1. Educate everyone consistently and often about how implicit gender bias infects all areas of life including the church. We can only resist the powerful culture of disbelief in women’s leadership through intentional work and alternative visions.

Both treating female ministers as novelties and acting as if nothing about their work is unusual result in hindering pastoral growth.

Hosting monthly conversations that help all people in your church overcome sexism in their schools, workplaces and extended family networks addresses and dismantles implicit gender bias.

2. Create safe “identity workspaces” to support transitions for women into larger roles of leadership. The components of a positive identity workspace include room for learning, space for experimentation without constantly expecting success and a community of support.

For example, supporting your pastor to take part in a peer learning group beyond the church allows her to normalize her experiences as a minister rather than feeling isolated and as if she’s the only one to ever go through otherwise normal experiences.

3. Anchor women’s development efforts in a sense of leadership purpose rather than focusing on how she is perceived. Returning to the purpose for which one is called and the shared purpose of the congregation to be the people of God or body of Christ is grounding to every pastor’s calling in partnership with the church. For women, cultivating purpose is an antidote to overfocusing on whether she is acting like a pastor, which is often implicit code for “acting like a man.”

Ibarra, Ely and Kolb point out, “Overinvestment in one’s image diminishes the emotional and motivational resources available for larger purposes. People who focus on how others perceive them are less clear about their goals, less open to learning from failure and less capable of self-regulation.”

Novelty, isolation and image perception are strategies that keep women from flourishing in ministry. Each strategy reinforces the culture of disbelief.

Churches need to become partners to resist the culture of disbelief and implicit gender bias.

Making commitments to educate against gender bias, create supportive workspaces and focus on ministry purpose will serve everyone well, from God to the neighbor to the expanding number of women called to ministry.

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.

Editor’s note: This article is part of a series on women in ministry. Previous articles in the series are:

The Uphill Battle Women in Ministry Must Still Fight by Merianna Harrelson

How Churches Can Stop Stunting Women Called to Ministry by Tambi Swiney

2 Women – Different Centuries – Aid Women Preachers by Pam Durso

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