Molly T. Marshall is president and professor of theology and spiritual formation at Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Shawnee, Kansas. She is also one of the founding mothers of Baptist Women in Ministry.
Molly, tell us about your early years.
I grew up in Muskogee, Oklahoma, in the fifties and sixties, surely not a time of feminist fervor! I was an adventurous child, once climbing so high in a pin oak tree that the fire department had to come and get me down. My family was involved in church, and I was always there. I found Bible study exhilarating and loved the rhythm of GA’s (although I thought memorizing addresses of Baptist agencies a rather inane aspect of “Forward Steps.”) At school I was a good student, but would rather wreak mischief than study too hard.
How has your family background influenced the way that you lead?
My maternal family came to Oklahoma Territory prior to statehood. My great-grandfather was a colporteur, a pioneering preacher, and a planter of Sunday Schools and churches among the “Five Civilized Tribes.” Pioneering is somehow in my DNA. My great aunt attended the Woman’s Missionary Union Training School in Louisville, Kentucky, graduating in 1920. She described sitting at the back of A. T. Robertson’s New Testament classes at Southern Seminary—only able to observe, not speak. It was always ironic to me in my time as a professor at Southern to stand at the front of the class and speak forthrightly.
My family had ministry in its bones. On the paternal side, my great uncle Jasper Newton Marshall was called “The Prophet of the Pedernales.” No one was really surprised that I experienced a calling to ministry; they just wished I would have kept it in “proper bounds”—like marrying a preacher, going far away as a missionary, or doing WMU work.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I am determined, collaborative, and empowering. I set goals, invite widespread participation, and allow good people to do their work without too much micromanaging. I do like to be kept informed, even if I do not have to weigh in on the decision too heavily. I enjoy encouraging the work of others, and I try to set a high standard of industry myself, so that I am never asking of others what I do not require of myself.
Who shaped your leadership style or mentored you as a leader?
Since becoming president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary, I have paid a great deal of attention to other seminary presidents. I learned from Dorcas Gordon of Knox College in Toronto the importance of some of the “sacramentals” of the office, such as honoring traditions of her school even while bringing her own hospitable identity into the mix. I paid considerable attention to Barbara Wheeler and Tony Ruger as they wrote “Leadership that Works,” a study of new and experienced seminary presidents. I was one of the new ones in the study, and their perceptive questions were a form of coaching for me. I have learned a great deal from Dan Aleshire over the years about owning particular gifts and acknowledging ones that I do not possess. Thankfully, I am quite comfortable not being the smartest person in the room when our leadership team talks about facilities, investments, and legal concerns.
What qualities have you observed in other leaders that you have incorporated into your own leadership style?
As a high “J”, my tendency is to try to decide things too quickly rather than allow them to simmer longer. From Central’s executive vice president I have learned about taking very measured steps in making critical decisions so that due diligence could ensue.
From an Abbot friend, I have learned not to work all the time—which is hard for me since I measure myself by accomplishment too frequently.
What are some key leadership lessons you have learned in recent years?
I have learned that not everything rises to the level of presidential concern. As Central has grown, I have had to delegate more things all the while. I cannot have the intimate relationship with all employees and students as when the seminary was smaller. I have also learned that some of my decisions will be second-guessed by faculty or other employees. I have learned to keep my own counsel better when considering personnel issues.
What have been some areas of growth for you as a leader?
I have continued to deepen my life of prayer. I know that no one is sufficient for this task, so daily I pray for wisdom, compassion, and patience. There is a “spiritual maternity” to my role, and I try to keep this aligned with administrative tasks. Not only do I embody the mission of my school, I have a pastoral role with its varied constituents.
I continue to grow in listening to the real concerns people carry, especially donors. It is essential to learn what they care about most deeply.
How have you changed over the years as a leader?
As i move into the summative years of this leadership vocation, I am aware that developing the capacities of others is much more important than ensuring others are aware of my personal competence in the role. There comes a point with a board when you have earned the right to be forthright about the trajectory of the seminary, with all its challenges and opportunities. Yet, one cannot presume and must continue to earn the trust of others.
What words of wisdom would you share with recent seminary graduates as they move into new leadership roles?
Be sure to ask for opportunities to do those things you don’t yet know how to do. I asked to be in the preaching rotation at my first church out of seminary; it was a time of growth. Observe how your supervisor manages life, both positive and negative. Find a group of peers to support your growth. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.