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“Work-Life Balance of Women Leaders in the Association of Theological Schools,” Kelly Campbell’s 2015 doctoral thesis, addresses an important question: how do female seminary administrators handle the relationship between their profession and their personal lives? 

This is a question often raised about professional women in particular, a fact that has generated some controversy. (See this column by Margaret Gould Stewart and this story reporting Jennifer Garner’s complaints about such questions. For more positive perspectives on the phenomenon, see these articles.) 

Campbell, who is associate dean for information services and director of the John Bulow Campbell Library at Columbia Theological Seminary, doesn’t address the controversy directly, but she points out that women are underrepresented in senior leadership positions in academic institutions, particularly in theological institutions. (Obviously the fact that some traditions ordain only men contributes to this underrepresentation.) Surveying how female administrators deal with work-life balance may help institutions learn how to attract and retain qualified women, so asking the question specifically about women makes sense in this context.

Campbell draws on research in “organizational commitment” — what makes people remain at an institution for the long haul. The most popular theory in this field is the “side-bet” theory proposed by H. Becker in 1960. Becker proposed that people are more committed to a course of action when they have a number of “side-bets” which would fail if their “main bet” failed. For instance (and this is a personal example, not from Campbell), a young academic who takes out a mortgage on a house is more committed to his/her job than someone who is renting. While Campbell acknowledges that some scholars have challenged this theory, she refers to it frequently with respect.

Campbell’s pool of research subjects is 10 female senior administrators from ATS schools whom she asked a series of questions about their motivation, their sense of identity, and the relationship between their work and private life. She asked them to discuss these themes in the context of childhood, early adulthood, the present, and expectations for the future. This “qualitative” approach, rather than a statistical one, yielded a collective portrait of strong female theological leaders. The full transcripts of the interviews are available to future researchers as part of the Digital Women’s Project, a study conducted at Pepperdine University to address work-life balance.

Most of Campbell’s subjects describe challenges in the pursuit of their vocation as ordained women and female seminary faculty/administrators. Many describe parents who encouraged them to pursue an education but were dubious about women’s ordination. In most cases, they chose to pursue theological education because of a conviction that God had called them to this path. They frequently describe a desire to mentor and inspire others as one of their chief motivations.

Campbell concludes that the organizational commitment of these women leaders derives largely from their faith — an ironic conclusion, because religious objections to the ordination of women constitute one of the chief difficulties mentioned by the participants in the study. One profitable conclusion from Campbell’s study may therefore be that a purely secular approach to promoting female leadership within theological institutions is inadequate and counterproductive.

Campbell’s research points in interesting directions, but she does not draw many specific conclusions. The nature of a dissertation is, of course, to be cautious in making generalizations or direct applications from one’s research. Clearly the questions she is asking are questions that merit further exploration, and the stories that she tells are stories that need to be heard.

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