Pastor-splaining and the Dunning-Kruger Effect

I wanted to pick up on some of the points that Hannah Anderson made. She wrote:

It seems to me that the question under the question is this: Where does a man in pastoral leadership derive his sense of authority? Does he see it as stemming more from his maleness or from his office?

I wonder whether this is suggesting a degree of self-conscious reflection on the part of many male pastors—and on the part of men in general—that simply doesn’t exist. One can have a very strong sense of one’s own authority without ever having reflected upon where it comes from. One’s sense of authority probably has more to do with the typical ways that people have responded to one’s words than it does to a considered sense of the grounds that would justify such a response (this also suggests that the way that other people act around a person may perhaps be the most crucial element for their development of a sense of their own authority).

The connection between maleness and authority in such situations may not be a theological or theoretical one at all. Rather, it may be one that arises fairly organically from certain heavily gendered dynamics. It may also depend more upon the functioning of a particular sort of male personality than upon the valuation of men over women.

A key factor here, I believe, is (over-)confidence. People fairly naturally respond to confident persons, leading such confident persons naturally to develop a sense of their own authority and naturally to be propelled into positions of formal leadership. Men, as a general rule, and for a variety of different reasons, both social and biological, have considerably higher confidence levels than women.

Confidence can be a great thing and is an important factor of leadership. However, this is only the case when it is accompanied by other aspects of competence. By itself, it just makes people susceptible to acute forms of the Dunning-Kruger effect. Given the different confidence levels between men and women, the converse of the challenge of putting forward highly gifted but self-doubting women is the challenge of pushing back over-confident yet utterly unqualified men. Male groups are often very good at policing the over-confident in their ranks. One way in which this is typically achieved is by highly combative interactions, which force men to reveal the actual level of their strengths, leading them to adjust their confidence to more realistic levels.

I suspect that one of the problems underlying the issues that Jen Wilkin identifies in her post is that the operation of the processes that check the over-confident is limited in many evangelical churches. Pastors in such churches are not kept in their place by the criticism of pastoral peers, because their affiliations are optional, rather than institutional and they are typically big fish in small ponds. They are used to relating to their congregations primarily in the one-way conversation of the sermon, where the authoritative pastor speaks and the congregation listens. The result is often personality cult ministries, which run on the overblown confidence and charisma of the unchallenged big man at their heart. Of course, such a pastor’s confidence isn’t matched by competence, so he will often become overly aggressive/defensive when questioned—his authority is a brittle one.

Women often complain about the phenomenon of ‘mansplaining’, where a man explains something to a hearer, typically a woman, in a manner oblivious to the fact that she knows much more about the subject than he does. This phenomenon is one caused by a mismatch between confidence levels and reality and probably has more to do with men’s proneness to overconfidence than to an explicitly sexist dynamic (men habitually mansplain to men too). Having been at the receiving end of ‘pastor-splaining’ more times than I wish to count, I suggest that the dynamic is the same. The solution probably is in part institutional, in forms of ecclesiology that hold pastors in non-optional relations with pastoral peers, who can cut them down to size when they get distorted notions of themselves.