Probably the most exciting aspect of my first year as the first woman executive vice president and academic dean of the Interdenominational Theological Center has been my ongoing conversation with my inner voice. I spent the first year working with others on the design and implementation of improved systems, while simultaneously carrying on my own inner dialogue with God about what God wanted of me in my new setting and what I wanted of myself.
The most intriguing part of this internal dialogue has been the shaping of a more intimate relationship with my intuitive self. I think of myself as a highly intuitive person and find that my intuitive voice grows louder as I mature. When you experience the repeated privilege of being "the first," you learn how to handle silence and not to expect an external companion voice in your immediate setting. Frequently, to have someone to talk to, you must learn to raise the volume of your own voice.
Mary Field Belenky discusses this concept of listening to one's own "still small voice" in Women's Ways of Knowing: The Development of Self, Voice and Mind. The action arises out of the way women redefine and experience authority as an internal possessive rather than an external mandate. When they begin to discover a personal authority, women may hear their own voices for the first time. I support the conclusion of the author that the hallmark of a woman's greatest sense of self and sense of agency is the quality of the relationship she has with her interior voice. My new role at ITC gave me many opportunities to strengthen the vocal cords of my interior voice.
Clearly there were issues of gender. I am breaking new ground in a culture where men have always modeled acceptable performance, so simply not being male--in presence, perception, and performance--presented a radical departure from the behavior many associate with this position. Women leaders in theological education need to remember that most institutions of higher education in this country were designed by men, and most continue to be run by men. However, in recent years feminist and womanist preachers, teachers, and scholars have begun to question the presumptions, structures, systems, curricula, and pedagogical practices of these institutions as well as the authority model. As women form a choir of expanded inner voices celebrating new and different views of reality, new models of leadership emerge, confirming bell hooks's premise, "Every time a woman begins to speak, a liberating process begins," which she enunciates in Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black.
As a woman leader, I am more comfortable with a participatory model in which I allow myself to be both teacher and student. In keeping myself open to the discovery of the new, I model for those with whom I work the reality of any leader's finitude. Theologically I acknowledge the power of the Holy Spirit in the work I do, no matter how small or how great the outcome. As a Kingdom builder, devoted to justification by faith and not by works, I depend upon the witness of the gospel that "there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28). The gospel's inclusive character affirms my participatory leadership style. Unfortunately, in traditionally male-dominated cultures, insistence on a participatory leadership model may be viewed as weak authority or avoidance of responsibility. As such it may be resisted and resented.
As Servant Leader
What I have experienced in my present position and earlier in others is that no outcome I can produce by myself is superior to the outcome produced in collaboration with team members who share the same vision, acknowledge their own limitations, and thank God for their gifts and the gifts of others. As a fan of Robert Greenleaf (On Becoming a Servant Leader), I seek to be a servant first and a leader second. This stand, affirming inclusive and shared empowerment, has had its challenges.
As a servant leader, my need to lead is secondary to my need to serve. Consequently, the leader in me may be less visible than the servant. I am challenged to remember that my gifts do not belong to me and are to be used for God's purpose. In monitoring the careful balance between servant and leader, I understand that the degree to which I please others as a leader may reduce the degree to which God can rely on me to be a servant. In a world where even adults seek safety in being told what to do rather than risk the discomfort of discovering new ways of being and doing, a servant leader can expect to become engaged in conflict openly and frequently. Most of my first-year conflict had to do with differences in expectations. Nowhere was this test of my servant-leader calling more apparent than in personnel matters that, on more than one occasion, tempted me to be leader first and servant second.
Leader or Manager
Another thing I experienced in my first year was the power of the truth that I am more of a leader than a manager. I shared this declaration with the ITC community during my interview. In response they asked how I would tend to management. I responded, "With a great team."
The degree to which I please others as a leader may reduce the degree to which God can rely on me to be a servant.
Many experts cite the critical distinction between leadership and management, but I am particularly attracted to John Kotter's treatment in his book Leading Change. For Kotter, a leader is responsible for aligning vision, resources, and people, while a manager maintains the aligned systems and structures. Given my leadership gifts, I prefer to create that which works best. Upon the creation of an improved system, I seek to identify a manager to maintain it. My job as a leader is to identify the next area of the system or structure in need of improvement. For example, I identified a curriculum area in need of improvement in my first year. The Foundations Sequence designed to anchor and stabilize the student's course of study had not been thoroughly examined in a recently completed curriculum review. I accepted the leadership to work with the faculty and revisit the centerfold status of this concept. A review process was established, and a faculty member appointed to manage it so that I could move forward to attend to other unmet needs.
Systems change is my forte, and I am clear about it. Given the right team, it is what I do best. Earlier in my career, I allowed employers to hire me for my leadership skills but compensate me as a manager. Gone are those days. My first year at ITC reinforced my courage and commitment to fully utilize my leadership gifts in my own special womanist way without benefit of a blueprint or a prescription. I should hasten to add that my first-year experience represented broad strokes across my leadership canvas. The final art form will take time.
Student of Culture
I know that if leaders do not become conscious of the culture in which they are embedded, instead of managing the culture they are managed by the culture. To live and learn in a new culture is a prerequisite for being a leader in that culture. It is the only way one can respect and appreciate why the organization and people function as they do, and it is so hard to change them. I do not try to change people, but rather work on changing systems in a way that aligns vision, resources, and people while honoring the sacredness of the culture.
I am grateful to the ITC for a cultural experience unique to historically black theological education institutions. Too frequently in theological education settings, one finds a profound silence on issues of racism and white supremacy. And, more often than I can recall, as the only African American in these settings, I have been left with the responsibility of breaking the silence and uttering "the race question" only to encounter the darting eyes of colleagues who look at me as if to say, "Can't we just all get along in the name of Jesus and keep this racism mess out of here?" Their wounded looks plead for me to slip back into the silence so that the more palatable agenda items can move forward and the tension occasioned by my inquiry can abate. They do not understand that any effort on my part to honor their plea, now that they have finally opened the door to let me in, would occur at the cost of my soul. ITC spared me from this tension. I was not expected to legitimize my blackness. Now, that is what you call real good news. I will be forever grateful to the ITC and its bold Afrocentric ethos culture for this respite.
For all of that, my transition into my new cultural context was not entirely seamless. ITC's location in the southern Bible belt greatly shapes its value system and cultural dynamics. I was born in the South of southern parents, but most of my life was spent in the North. Southern in origin, I am clearly a product of northern migration. In returning to the South, I quickly realize that being Southern in the South is different than being from the South. One must slow down, become downright relational, not take oneself too seriously, and never miss an opportunity to extend hospitality. I became a student of the culture in order to understand the complex dimensions of its life.
As One Who Prays
One of the greatest challenges I experienced during my first year was obedience to what I thought I knew about the gospel until I found myself operating differently. As a child of Philippians, I cut my first sermon tooth thirty-one years ago on Philippians 4:13, "I can do all things through him who strengthens me." I thought I had attained maturity in honoring this scripture. Yet, there were days when "Do not worry about anything" (Philippians 4:6) seemed like a fleeting blur before my eyes as I hurriedly and anxiously moved from task to task. That hurried pace was fueled by the absence of an administrative team during my first year due to unanticipated budget crises.
I suffered mentally, spiritually, and physically battling the superwoman ego complex that more than anything else did not want to appear incapable of handling the responsibilities of my new position. Given the distinction of being the "first woman" in this role, much was at stake. It was time to pray, and pray I did. The words of Paul, "Pray without ceasing," (I Thessalonians 5:17) took on new meaning as I learned to give up the right to do my job my way and entered into a "have thine own way" covenant with God. When I started my new position, I had the perfect plan to demonstrate my performance and prove worthy of the work of the search committee. In prayer, God revealed a better plan that would prove worthy of God's grace and mercy.
In prayer, God quieted my spirit and granted me a peace that moved me beyond my fixed benchmarks for success into the more fluid realm and riches of grace and mercy. No matter how brilliant or sophisticated my process for shaping a new paradigm, the lesson I repeatedly encountered is that the intervention of the divine always produces a better outcome. As I prayed, I revisited the difference between reasoning and seeing. The mind reasons and seeks to know the will of God while the heart sees and discerns the will of God. It is not my mental answers but the wisdom of my heart and the daily time I spend in prayer that renders me ready to be relied upon by God.
Six First-year Lessons
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