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Emilie M. Townes: The church is being transformed

The dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School rejects the notion that the church is dying and sees the job of the divinity school as preparing students financially, spiritually and professionally to lead in a church that is changing.

March 25, 2014

It’s an exciting time in the life of the church, even if we don’t know what form the church is going to take, said Emilie M. Townes, the dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School and E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of Womanist Ethics and Society.

“There’s the drumbeat we hear so much that the church is dying. I think that’s absolutely wrong. I don’t think the church is dying,” Townes said. “What I want to help our students understand is how to read what’s going on and become leaders and not just followers.”

Townes took over the helm at Vanderbilt in July 2013 after a distinguished career at Yale Divinity School as a scholar and administrator. Her areas of expertise include Christian ethics and womanist theology. She is an ordained American Baptist clergywoman.

Emilie TownesTownes is a pioneering scholar in the field of womanist theology and is the author of books including “In a Blaze of Glory: Womanist Spirituality as Social Witness” and “Womanist Ethics and the Cultural Production of Evil.”

Her other areas of teaching and research include critical social theology, cultural theory and studies, and postmodernism and social postmodernism.

Townes spoke with Faith & Leadership while at Duke to deliver the Murray and Burroughs Lecture on Women and Religion, hosted by the Office of Black Church Studies.

Q: I understand that you were reluctant at first to consider the job of dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School. Why did you have that reaction and what made you overcome it?

I had just been through a dean search at Yale and was not the chosen candidate, and I had decided in the midst of that search that I really enjoyed being academic dean and working with faculty and students. So I really wasn’t looking for another dean’s job.

[But] when I was talking to the chair of the search committee about the way [Vanderbilt University] works and how it sees the divinity school in it, the ability to work with other departments of the university around common projects and interests caught my imagination initially.

I started to think more and more, “What would it look like?” Because you could do those things at Yale, but Yale, like Harvard, is still very much a siloed university. It’s very difficult to break down the silos and keep them broken down, because the tendency is you just stay with folks that look a lot like you.

Q: Which professional schools do you think would be the most important to partner with, and why?

We have a program, the Cal Turner Program for Moral Leadership in the Professions, that works in the divinity school, the school of business, the law school and the medical school at this point. The whole point of the program is to talk about leadership education for students who are in those four schools and to give them opportunities.

We also work with the school of management, the law school and the nursing school with joint-degree programs.

We are clarifying our relationship with the school of nursing and hoping to come up with a certificate program on religion and health for laity, clergy, students or whoever might be interested.

The most intriguing possibility so far is the school of engineering. Their dean brokered the idea of doing something with the school of engineering, the med school and the divinity school around bioengineering and biotech and the moral life within that.

Those are fascinating projects, I think, and I firmly believe they stretch our students’ imaginations to see what could be possible when they go out in their various forms of ministry. What networks and what partnerships can they form to be more attentive to the needs of the people they’ll be working with?

Q: You are an incredibly accomplished leader. When students come to you for leadership advice, how do you advise them?

One of the first things I try to impress upon students is the importance of integrity and consistency in how they work with people and understand themselves.

It is so easy in ministry to try to become all things to all people, and therefore you lose the power of your witness. I tell all my doctoral students, “Get into therapy -- you have to know who you are if you’re going to survive in a doctoral program.”

Knowing who you are, knowing where your buttons get pushed, knowing where you’re likely to step back, developing a capacity of actually listening and then, even more so, of hearing, and then putting all of that together in something that is consistent in how you live your life, how you carry out your ministry.

People don’t like unpredictable pastors. That’s probably one of the worst things we can do to people. Not to be boring, but to be consistent, to have a sense of values that are soul-deep. And if you are going to run counter to them, you have to have a really good reason to do so.

Those are the first things I tell people.

Q: What do you think are the most important things for the divinity school to do for students?

Well, I’m going to start at a place that you might not expect. I’m going to start with stewardship. I start there because so many of our students come in not knowing how to manage their financial resources, let alone the financial resources of a church.

One of the things that we are launching is a dedicated staff person to work with students on financial stewardship and vocational counseling. That is to give students an opportunity to learn how to handle their money and, by extension, and as the program builds, work with them and churches they may be going to.

So many churches are in dire straits financially, and you really do need a money manager in the pastor or somebody in the church. Also, our students, particularly our students in the M.T.S. program, are not always sure where they’re going to go next. Many of them come in thinking a doctoral program is the next step. Well, doctoral programs are shrinking.

What other options are there? For students who are M.Divs. who don’t see themselves going into parish ministry, what are the other forms of ministry they can be involved with?

If they’re not going to a church, maybe it’s a social agency, maybe it’s a church-based agency. They’re all going to need people who know how to do a spreadsheet, raise money and be responsible with the expenses.

I think many schools -- particularly schools that are not denominationally based -- get a fair number of students who are in the “seeker” category. We see them in seminary trying to put the pieces together.

My hope for us is that, even if they don’t figure it out in the two to three to four years they may be with us, that we give them the tools to recognize it when they find it after they’re out.

Then there’s the drumbeat we hear so much that the church is dying. I think that’s absolutely wrong. I don’t think the church is dying. The church is being transformed.

We don’t know where it’s going, but it’s not going to look like the church I grew up in in the ’50s and ’60s. We’re going in another direction.

What I want to help our students understand is how to read what’s going on and become leaders and not just followers. And certainly, not just acquiescing to some of the models out there that I think are light on mission and substance and heavy on personal, individualized salvation. That’s no way to run a church, and it’s a very difficult way to be in a country.

Q: Are there any new models that you find exciting and hopeful for the institutional church?

Nothing I can point to definitively, but I can see churches trying new things.

It’s been interesting to me to watch from afar a church like Trinity United Church of Christ that [had fewer than 100] members in the early 1970s and, through careful and constant discipleship, built the church -- not to build the church, but to build disciples.

Jeremiah Wright gets a terrible rap for what he said or didn’t say [there], but the one thing that I watched him do over the years is be very responsive to people’s spiritual growth along with the growth of justice and mission.

What that church did was, as it started to grow -- from my perspective (and they may say they did something else) -- was they were intentional about knowing who was coming through the doors. They didn’t let it become this big, impersonal thing. Now, did everybody know everybody? No. But many people knew somebody as they came in, and so it gave them a place of welcome and a place where they could launch into whatever ministry they were going to be called to in the church.

That takes a long time, and in our fast-food generation that is often seen as a waste of time, when in fact I think the work of discipleship is something that never ends, frankly. As people are coming through the doors of the church and trying to decide, “Is this where I’m called to be?” you have to be patient with them.

I haven’t seen a church yet doing what I hope in my mind’s eye I see one day. But I see churches making attempts.

And you see it often in some of the small churches -- not the family churches, because they’ve got their own vibe going -- but in the smaller churches where they’re trying very hard to understand how to make disciples, how to be engaged in mission, how to keep the doors of the church open for everyone so that folks feel welcomed in.

I actually think it can be an exciting time for the life of a church if we would just stop singing the dirges and really pick up and look and see the kinds of incredible resources we have in so many of our local churches.

Q: What is important about citizenship and the church’s role in creating good citizens?

I teach a class on black moral thought, and one of the people we were reading was former Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, who was a staunch Baptist her entire life, taught Sunday school her entire life. That speech she made at Watergate, “My faith in the Constitution is whole” -- I mean, that still echoes.

Somewhere in her writings, she talked about “we the people.” I started working with that notion -- we the people of faith. Suddenly it morphed into looking at how we, as people of faith, look at or should look at citizenship in a country with a separation of church and state.

First, there’s never really been much of a separation of church and state to begin with. So if we haven’t much done it, let’s not do it really well.

For me, it became a question of putting together all the lessons I learned as a little kid in church in the ’60s, where the pastor of our church helped us understand it was important to be spiritual and it was helpful to be out on picket lines.

Not that they let little kids go [picket], but we caught the bug. We got it. I got it, and I saw this combination of spirituality and social witness that has deeply formed me as a person. You take that with the question of, “How can we be good citizens as people of faith?”