Self-Efficacy in Church Leadership: The Difference It Makes

[Note: All personal names, geographic locations, and names of churches or other organizations in this article have been changed to protect the anonymity of study participants.]


One of the indicators of clergy effectiveness that our research has identified is self-efficacy, a fundamental belief that you can succeed in a particular situation. We saw signs of strong self-efficacy in many of the most effective clergy we interviewed, including the Rev. Tim Pearson, an Episcopal priest serving in the Midwest.

Psychologists believe that self-efficacy starts to develop in early childhood but continues to grow and evolve through life experiences. One story told by Pearson suggests he had strong self-efficacy when he began seminary.

Pearson realized that the seminary he attended provided no formal training about working with alcoholics and issues of alcoholism. As someone in recovery himself, he recognized this as a problem—most of his peers would need to provide pastoral care or counseling for individuals addicted to alcohol at some point.

“I talked to the administration—to the people that are in charge of such things— and said, ‘Could we do something?’” Pearson recalled. “And they said ‘Well, we don’t have the resources. You want to do something?’ And I said, ‘Sure.’

“So I put together a day-long program that involved people from Al-Anon but also people from the big [local rehabilitation center], … and [I] put together a day-long program, which they then said, ‘Okay, you can get some credit for this if you go and do it.’ And we had tremendous turnout for it; it was a good day.”

3316624350 - CopyThis “can-do,” entrepreneurial spirit demonstrates a strong sense of self-efficacy. Instead of treating the lack of alcoholism training as a permanent flaw or failing of the seminary, Pearson approached the situation as an opportunity for growth.

“People with high assurance in their capabilities approach difficult tasks as challenges to be mastered rather than as threats to be avoided,” wrote Albert Bandura, the psychologist known for defining the term self-efficacy.

Not all religious environments are so supportive of individuals with high levels of initiative and self-efficacy. During Pearson’s Transition into Ministry residency program following seminary, he clashed with his supervising priest over issues of authority.

The incident started with a connection that Pearson made with a young married woman in his TiM congregation. She wished more young adults were active in the church, and she and Pearson spontaneously started brainstorming what a young adult ministry might look like, who might support it, and where they would advertise it. Pearson got as far as discussing the idea with local businesses—without having the plan thoroughly vetted by his supervisor.

“I got called on the carpet for not consulting effectively with my boss about this before making any real plans,” he said. “And I felt that it was an ego thing more—that her response had more to do with my not respecting her authority to ask her, and maybe she was sensing the fact that I had some trouble in other ways respecting her…. Anyway, she said, ‘You know, you didn’t ask me about this. You can’t do this—this is not appropriate. I don’t want the church spending its time and effort to do this. I don’t think it’s going to work. Don’t do it.’”


For Your Consideration

  • How would you respond in this situation, with a leader who reacted this way to your efforts?


Pearson admits that he had difficulty respecting this supervisor, a “deeply conflict-avoidant priest” who refused to take on tasks she found challenging and uncomfortable, such as making fundraising appeals.

“There were times when I would go outside of the channels and (maybe this is what got me in trouble) look to … the leadership of the church itself, but also leaders who were members of the church,” he said, explaining that the TiM residency was set up as a program in which not just the supervisor but the whole congregation was mentoring him.

While Pearson states that his TiM supervisor wasn’t ideal, he also emphasizes what he learned from the experience—and he recovered quickly. This is another aspect of self-efficacy: the ability to recover from setbacks and disappointments.

“I learned that you need to talk to your boss,” he said, later adding, “I think I learned how important it is to take risks for me, and that not being allowed to do that helped me to make the decision that it was going to be time to leave before too long. I really wanted to be able to make my own mistakes, and I’d had that freedom in my field education placement as a seminarian. Here I was, an ordained priest, and I was not being allowed to screw up on my own.”

Pearson praised his field education supervisor for the way she encouraged him and the other seminarians that she supervised:

“When I started, she said, ‘You know, I want you to make your own mistakes. The only thing I expect is that if you screw up, you let me know—you don’t hide it, you don’t try to sweep it under the rug, just say “I messed up,” and we’ll work through it….’ She encouraged us to step outside our comfort zones.”

In our research, we have found that clergy with stronger self-efficacy are less likely to consider leaving congregation-based ministry for another venue and form of Christian ministry. They are also less likely to consider leaving ordained ministry altogether.

Today Pearson’s strong sense of self-efficacy is infectious, permeating the way he serves his own church and manages his staff, striving to nurture self-confidence and creativity in others.

“I encourage innovation in my staff; I encourage innovation and rethinking in my vestry and other leadership,” he said. “I want to be a coach, and I want to be an encourager and a supporter. I don’t want to be a micro-manager.”


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