The Messy Stuff of Ministry: “Am I Alone? How to Build a Network of Support”
Conversation with Molly T. Marshall
February 4, 2014
Introductions by Pam Durso: Molly Marshall is a transformative leader. She has been the president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary for 10 years, leading it from a dying seminary to a creative, transformative seminary that we as Baptists need. She is first and foremost a theologian. Molly was one of the founding members of Baptist Women in Ministry, and she was one of its primary writers, preachers, and speakers. Personally, she is a person of warmth and kindness, and I am grateful to have her as a friend. Molly, could you tell us about your background? Your early journey in life and faith.
Molly Marshall: I grew up in conservative Northeast Oklahoma in a very conservative Southern Baptist church. I never even saw a woman pray in that congregation until I was well into adulthood. When missionaries came, the men would do the talking. It was a pretty provincial, patriarchal church. I was a church mouse, meaning I was always there. I was grabbing at every opportunity to learn and lead. There was a three-fold call every Sunday: to salvation, to membership, and to the call of ministry. I also have a rich heritage in my family of ministers, and I grew up with the lore about the frequency of my relatives being called to ministry.
Growing up in church we often sang the hymn “Wherever He Leads I’ll Go,” and I thought that meant girls, too. I felt a deep calling to ministry as a fourteen-year-old at church camp. I had a pastor ask, “Have you ever considered working with youth?” It was a marvelous question, and something that he nurtured in me. Youth ministry seemed like a wonderful thing. That was the beginning of the pilgrimage, working with youth in college. The heritage in Baptist life was thick, and I am grateful for this conservative background, because I learned the Bible. I think everyone should start out with conservative scholarship, and then get over it.
I went to Oklahoma Baptist University, where I received an ACT scholarship, and promptly lost it, because I was too interested in mischief. I finally got serious about studying in seminary. But college was simply too much fun!
After college, I worked at a church in Comanche, Texas, so naturally when I began to think about seminaries I went to look at Southwestern Seminary in nearby Fort Worth. I knew that the women’s dorm at Southwestern was called the “barnyard,” and I could not see myself being thought of that way. I pray for my sisters who have gone there, that they had a different experience, but that was in 1972.
So instead I packed up my car and went to Louisville, Kentucky to Southern. When I was admitted to the school, the registrar automatically placed me in the Religious Education degree program, but I enrolled in all theology and language courses. Very few women were getting an M.Div. at Southern in those days. The registrar (and the Dean of the School of Religious education) tracked me down and asked why I was taking so many M.Div. classes, and the school finally moved me into the M.Div. program.
When I graduated in 1975, there were about eighty students in my class. Three were women. There were no women teaching in the School of Theology. It was a hierarchical place. There were flashes of social justice, but some of the old heads just could not realize why women wanted to be in seminary.
PD: Did you immediately go into the doctoral program?
MM: No, because I did not have a vocation for teaching. I was encouraged to get a Ph.D, but I did not know what to do. I went to Little Rock, Arkansas as the Minister to Youth and Single Adults at Pulaski Heights Baptist Church. There was a great deal of talk at the church about whether to call me “Associate Pastor.” They started to call me “Director,” but I said that we needed to use the language “Minister.” I stayed there for three years, and during that time I became more and more aware that it would not become easier for women in the church until it became easier for women in the seminaries. So back I went to Southern.
I began a Ph.D. in 1979 and served as an academic TA right away—and did well. I was just exhilarated by doctoral study. I knew that this was where I was supposed to be. As you know, this was the beginning of the heating up of the Southern Baptist controversy, and women in ministry was a hot button issue.
I wrote a pretty progressive dissertation, which addressed the salvific possibilities of other ways of faith—a lifelong theological concern for me. I finished with a good record, having done some external work at Cambridge with a Universalist scholar, and universalism became a common allegation against me. As I was finishing my Ph.D., I sent out 120 resumes, and nobody wanted me, not even Central. I kept that letter. I realized that it had nothing to do with me, it had to do with gender. And that is when I began pastoring a rural Baptist church. Finally, I was hired by Southern Seminary to teach, but I kept my pastoring job. I was the designated hitter for the theology department in teaching “Formation for Ministry.” Theological education is not about what you can do, but about who you are becoming. I introduced feminist theology into the curriculum at Southern (I do not think feminist theology has remained in the curriculum). I was there 11 years.
PD: Do you want to say a word about leaving Southern?
MM: It was deeply painful and humiliating. I was fired the same year that I got the teaching award—if that tells you anything. I felt a deep wound for the female students who had to have thought “Gosh, if this can happen to Molly, a tenured professor, can this happen to me?”
PD: When you left Southern, you went immediately to Central?
MM: Not immediately. I was released by “forced termination” in 1994. Had I not resigned, I would have had to go through a heresy trial. It was a Byzantine structure. I would have put five professors and my doctoral students at risk. I had a meeting with my students and made the decision to resign with the proviso that I could complete a doctoral seminar and continue work with my doctoral students. I stayed and worked with students through the fall semester of 1994. In the spring of 1995, the time that CBF was cranking up at as state organizations, and I spoke at every one. Quite frankly, I was worried about my well-being after being wounded by a place I love, so I had to keep busy.
PD: So now you’ve been President at Central for ten years.
MM: Yes. I am halfway through my tenth year.
PD: I would love for you to tell us a bit about how you managed to turn things around and about your early vision for the seminary.
MM: The seminary was quite fragile. We were in an old decaying campus that had been there since 1923. There were all kinds of challenges, but especially cash flow. I served as the Acting Dean for about six months prior to being elected as President. The Dean had resigned. He was exhausted. I said I would serve in this role until they called a new President. A member of the board came to me and asked if I would consider submitting my name for the President. I entered a time of great discernment. I said if the board offers a strong affirmation, I will accept the work. [Like the Benedictines, I believe the community can voice the call of God.] I was reading everything I could get my hands on, in case I got an interview, or in case I made the short list. It was down to four, then two, then there was a very, very strong affirmation that I should lead the seminary. One day I’ll write a little bit about this. When the board gathered for the vote, I was excused from the room, and later learned that I was voted President unanimously.
At the time I was elected president, I was serving as Acting Dean. There was no one in the business office, so I had to build a leadership team immediately, including a Dean, VP for Finance and Operations, and Development officer. The first thing I did was run a focused audit. We were spending a dollar and a nickel to raise a dollar. I studied all spring what it might mean to lead the governing board to declare financial exigency, which is like bankruptcy in academia.
We released a third of the faculty, and half of the staff. It was a very difficult time. I had to think institutionally rather than personally. I had friends that had been released. That was a new lesson in leadership. I had studied, and I was persuaded that this was the only thing we could do. The next challenge was that we could not stay where we were. So, the following November, I lead the board to vote to move. We had so much deferred maintenance—$16 million dollars. We had FTEs in the low 80s. That is not sustainable. We voted to purchase a property in Shawnee, Kansas, and we have been here since 2006. We have, little by little, become more successful in fundraising and new programs.
PD: One of the questions I have is while you were in the midst of hard situations how did you get your board to follow you?
MM: I always knew where all the votes were. Part of it is clear communication, getting clear data, having a vision that our mission is not dependent on a specific place. We began to explore a variety of things. I used task forces for the board to help me explore different places. There was a lot of communication—a lot of indexing where we were –a pretty careful assessment of what options lay before us. So, the board has been willing to follow a clearly articulated plan. Not until we had some stability were we able to do longer term strategic planning. These first years were “heroic rescue.”.
PD: For most of this time, you have been self-taught.
MM: Not entirely. I am not afraid to ask questions.
PD: But you knew to reach out and you knew that you needed training.
MM: Yes, and I was coached by a leader of a seminary who had been president for many years. He has been helpful to me as far as ethics of a leader. I have come to understand that a president does not have ONE presidency within an institution but multiple presidencies. I have had three presidencies at Central. The first was heroic. The second was fundraising. This current one is about setting the school up to be a healthier, stronger school for future leadership.
For gaining support, I also joined a group—the WITS “Women in Theological Schools.” We are not a sponsored group, we just meet several times a year. We each bring a case study, and discuss it.
PD: How, in the midst of the journey, have you taken care of yourself? What points of connection have you called on?
MM: I am a woman of prayer, and that’s an important practice. I get to my office early. I have the lectionary open at my desk, and I write each morning. I am a member of Prairie Baptist Church and a member of Sunday school. I have drunk deeply from Benedictine spirituality. I have some good friends who help keep me grounded, and who care about me. And I have a dog, a wonderful new friend, Ellyw. She is the new meme for the president’s office. She punctures any shred of presidential pomposity through her commentary. And humor—I pull an April Fool’s Joke every year. We have a good community. We take hospitality seriously here. We take spiritual formation seriously here. I am buoyed by this community, even as I serve it.
PD: Now is the time for us to invite questions. Does anyone have any questions?
Alejandra: Hearing you speak at the Latina leadership convention has confirmed what we are doing. In the Latina community, we are living what you lived decades ago. What kind of advice would you have for me, in a Hispanic church, reaching out to those that are hurting in the midst of change?
MM: It is always important to have some sisters around you who will pray with you and support you. I would begin a conversation with the pastor about including women in worship, in prayer, in testimony. We must not ever neglect the power of testimony. People then begin to trust and know those women. Then the issue of women in ministry wears a face, and it is not an abstraction anymore. We have to be willing to take baby steps. It is my inclination that churches are stirring to be more accepting of women.
Be of good courage. The spirit of God always likes to transgress boundaries.
Allie Kilpatrick: I graduated from Southern in 1956. I find myself dealing with conservatives who downplay women. I enjoyed your statement about being conservative then getting over it.
MM: Thank you, and I’m grateful, and dependent on the women like you who came before me.
Ken Maynard: I would like for you to comment on a very important person in my journey, William Hendrix. How did those early years at Southern mold your experience as the president?
MM: Bill Hendrix was my great friend. He accused me once of having a frozen feminist agenda. And I said, “I beg your pardon, I don’t think so.” As we got to know each other, we grew to respect each other. We became grand friends. Of course, I was always a junior colleague. I wrote a story after he died where he entered heaven and said “finally, a room worthy of me.”
My experience at Southern thickened my skin. I do not see myself as someone who spoils for a fight. I was an icon in a time when they [new leadership at Southern] were trying to rearrange the icons along the wall. I didn’t fit the new symbol system.
KM: Let me finish this by saying that there are many men in Southern Baptist life who value women in ministry.
MM: Thanks for the affirmation.
Britney Krebs: As someone who has just graduated and is experiencing a lot of “no,” based on gender, how would you tell someone to wait?
MM: I am excited about pastoral residencies as a constructive interim step. My friend, Amy Butler, is going to have two residents coming up in the fall. There is a residency in Rhode Island. Be open to whatever ministry opportunity there is. Be an interim pastor. Do supply preaching. That is when I became a rural pastor. I just kind of stuck my nose there, and then after about six weeks they called me as their pastor. Sometimes you just have to stick your nose in.
PD: Molly, tell us a bit about this new cohort, your women’s leadership initiative.
MM: I am concerned about underemployment for our qualified grads, many of who are women. We have created a program, a 72-hour M.Div. program that teaches many skills that you don’t get in normal seminary. We teach grant writing skills, leadership skills. So, I have wanted there to be a cohort of ten of the best women across the nation—an intentionally diverse cohort of a Master of Divinity. The program will be conducted at Scarritt in Nashville. There will be space for intensives—face to face, some online. It’s a bit of a hybrid program. I think it will be a wonderful program, four years, fully scholarshipped, and funded by a woman. I want us to turn out ten exemplary leaders who can be a force to shape the church and non-profit world.
Devita Parnell: For the lucky ten that sounds great, but for those of us who have already completed a M.Div., have you thought about how you might expand the cohort?
MM: That is our long-term dream, to create a center for women’s leadership development. We are willing to be creative to accomplish this!
PM: Tell us about the best gifts that you have received from ministry.
MM: Seeing my former students flourish is a wonderful gift to me. Seeing them transition into colleagues is deeply moving. God did not give me children, God gave me students, and watching them flourish is a great joy. I have been blessed with wonderful colleagues. I hold in reverence my teachers, and my present colleagues. Perhaps another great gift of ministry is to be a life-long learner. I had to learn a whole new skill set when I became President, and that has been a great joy. “Something is your vocation if it keeps making more out you.” [Gail Godwin, Evensong] And my vocation has made more out of me.
PD: I think your story needs to be put in writing. I am looking forward to the day that we all get to sit down and read your story. I think your story has empowered more people than you will ever know.
MM: I will write it right after I raise $25 Million.
PD: Molly, would you like to leave us with the last word? Some words of wisdom?
MM: Simply, be of good courage. The supply of the spirit will see you through.