Neichelle Guidry: Leading the vocational journey through the lens of sisterhood

The Dean of Chapel at Spelman College talks about her vocation -- helping form black millennial women in ministry and faith.

The Rev. Dr. Neichelle Guidry takes seriously her job as counselor, coach, motivator and model for the young black women in her sphere of influence.

It has been her life’s work -- through the website shepreaches, which she founded to support black millennial women preachers, or her dual roles as dean of Sisters Chapel and director of the Women in Spiritual Discernment of Ministry (WISDOM) Center at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia.

“It really encourages me to work with students who recognize that God calls us in so many ways and to so many things,” she said. “At the chapel and at the WISDOM Center, that work is leading the vocational journey through this lens of sisterhood.

“I’m trying to demolish the idea that you can get to where God intends for you to go on your own -- this patriarchal idea that we can thrive in individuality, that we can do ministry without the strength and the fortification of other women.”

Guidry, who has been recognized as a national faith leader by Time, Ebony and Sojourners magazines, is a graduate of Clark Atlanta University and Yale Divinity School. She has a Ph.D. from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.

She spoke to Faith & Leadership about her work with young black women at Spelman and about where she sees exciting things happening in ministry. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: How do you see your work at Spelman fitting into your larger vocation?

I’m still pretty new to my role at Spelman. I’m still trying to discern and to feel out what this role is going to mean for me.

A big part of my preparation to fit into the role was having conversations with different people about what it means to be a dean at a chapel on a historically black campus. One of my most critical conversation partners was my direct predecessor, the Rev. Dr. Lisa Rhodes.

The role is part pastoral, part spiritual counselor. And this other part of the work that I find incredibly intriguing is coaching, motivating and modeling for my students how to integrate their intellect with their faith.

How to live comfortably in the tension that can arise from faith, which is the substance of things unseen, and your ability to deconstruct and to ask probing questions -- and the agency that the Spirit gives us to do that.

One of my predecessors in Sisters Chapel was Howard Thurman, and Howard Thurman is famous for writing many things. But one of his works is called “With Head and Heart,” and in that he talks about stewarding our intellectual capacities and nurturing our questions as acts of stewardship of faith. I’ve taken that really seriously, and I’m constantly reminded as I’m doing my work at Spelman about my own journey.

I was educated at Clark Atlanta, right next door, and I took a class at Spelman when I was an undergrad. Between my religious studies at Clark Atlanta and this course I took at Spelman with Dr. Cecil Cone, the brother of Dr. James Cone, I became deeply interested in the exercise and the process of mining my faith and intellectually deconstructing it. I felt really grateful that I had the best training from black theologians in doing that.

Part of my work as the dean of the chapel is to invite the students to do the work that maybe they were not permitted to do before. That is, to ask God questions -- even, in some sense, indict God. God’s big enough for that. In fact, so big -- look at all these books that have been written by our ancestors and our predecessors! Look at all the work that they have produced as acts of faith, as acts of obedience, because this was their calling.

In addition to being the dean of Sisters Chapel, I am the director of what’s called the WISDOM Center. It is an intentional living community that’s grounded by a yearlong curriculum of vocational discernment.

Some of them might be studying religion, but it seems like pretty consistently they’re the minority. It’s not a foreign concept inside the WISDOM Center to see being an educator or being a doctor or being a lawmaker as ministry.

It really encourages me to work with students who recognize that God calls us in so many ways and to so many things.

In 2012, when I started shepreaches, I started that work out of feeling a little isolated. I was working at a church at that time, and I was the youngest person on staff and I was also a woman. [It was] my first job out of seminary, and I really wanted to throw myself into that work. What was missing was a profound sense of collegiality by people who were a common age, in a common place in our careers and lives.

I see this work at Spelman as almost like a new iteration of the same work. Because here I am in this premier institution for the education of African-American women. At the chapel and at the WISDOM Center, that work is leading the vocational journey through this lens of sisterhood.

I’m trying to demolish the idea that you can get to where God intends for you to go on your own -- this patriarchal idea that we can thrive in individuality, that we can do ministry without the strength and the fortification of other women.

It’s also an interesting experience to live out this #MeToo movement in this context. All of a sudden, I don’t have to do the work of explaining what patriarchy means and the fact that it is rampant in the church like it is everywhere else. People are convinced of that now, even though so many women have been crying from the rooftops for generations that the church is actually quite problematic in this way.

So I find that there are people at Spelman, and now all over the country, who are willing to have some really uncomfortable but necessary conversations about gender and sexism and sexuality and misogyny as all being theologically sanctioned and practiced regularly in our churches.

Q: You wrote this piece for Sojourners, “Can an Institution Built on the Backs of Women Be the One to Liberate Them?” In the position you’re in now, how can you help women who may be considering a call to ministry in the institutional church?

I was having brunch with a colleague yesterday after we both finished preaching, and I was saying that it’s a challenge for me daily to be building close relationships with young women who are pretty sure they’re going to be doing some kind of ministry in a church.

And I swear, I’m trying to bite my tongue, because I don’t want to be the one to dissuade them. I don’t want to be the one to destroy their fantasy. I don’t want to be the one to demystify the call of God to do congregational ministry.

But I do feel called to be really truthful with my students: “There are going to be things that you’re going to face in these churches as young black women that you will not be educated on how to handle when you go to divinity school.” So in some way, shape or form, I pray and I hope that I can have some kind of conversation or give some kind of insight, foresight, into how to navigate racist and sexist spaces while keeping your sanity, while knowing that God still approves and affirms and loves you.

Because I have my doubts that the church will liberate women. I believe that women of faith can liberate women. I believe that strong women will liberate women. I believe that churchlike things can save and liberate people, right? I think about womanist churches that are popping up. I think about even the sacraments -- outside the structure of the church politic, the sacraments are so powerful for liberating people. But these churches being ridden with the politics that they are, I don’t see a lot of hope there. Maybe that’s God’s ongoing work that has to be done in my life.

Q: As you look around the landscape now, are there experiments or innovations, either within the institutional church or outside it, that you find particularly inspiring?

Two of my really good friends, Andrew Wilkes and Gabby Cudjoe Wilkes, are planting a church in Brooklyn called the Double Love Experience. I’m so excited that they’ve chosen to create an intentional community for people who have felt marginalized in churches.

They have such a heart for justice and such a heart for Christ, and so I’m excited to see how they build a ministry right in that intersection.

I’ll tell you a couple of people who have me excited about what God is doing. One of my girlfriends, Dr. Eboni Marshall Turman, is one of these people who represent that black women have a right to be frustrated but that frustration is sacred and it’s holy -- her articulation of not just how churches have failed black women but how black women have remained faithful to it. I love her work.

I love The Millennial Womanism Project spearheaded by Liz Alexander and Melanie Jones. They created this project that mined the whole country for black women under 40 using womanism as a framework for living out their callings. Maybe once a month, they have this thing they do called Millennial Womanists to Watch. And I wait every month for that to drop just so I can learn about some new sister who’s doing really creative ministry and activism.

I’m constantly circling back right now in my work to this book called “Just Mercy,” by Bryan Stevenson. Reading that book and visiting The Legacy Museum and the lynching memorial -- those have really blown on me with Spirit breath, causing me to really sit and think about, “How am I conceptualizing my call in this context of violence?”

As many books as I have read and people I have met and encountered, I don’t know that I have read a vocational discernment text that had me question, “Have I really discerned my call?” I love the way that that took me back to the drawing board and took me face to face with God.

And so these are a few things that have me feeling really excited and really hopeful.

Q: What do you see as most important in supporting and encouraging young women as they explore their vocation?

I think what’s most important -- to me, at least, at this time -- is encouraging them to think about what gives them a sense of excitement and a sense of passion coming alive. Howard Thurman talks about this as well: “The world needs people who have come alive.”

I really want to encourage them, as they’re thinking about ministry, as they’re thinking about vocation, [to consider] this question: “If you didn’t have an ordination process to accommodate and if you didn’t have to champion yourself and prove that you were called in some way, what would you do?”

I want to impress upon them to think creatively about their approach to ministry and also to think about what it means to come in a line, in a succession of people, black people, black women, who have had to -- in so many ways, shapes and forms and places across time and generations -- have had to pioneer their own spaces and create their opportunities to live into the call of God. And I want to impress upon them, “Don’t be afraid to do that.”

The WISDOM Center is grounded in this yearlong vocational discernment program, and one of the resources that we use for that is a collection of readings, and there are a couple from Daughters of Thunder. I selected these readings very intentionally, because they were all about women who started their own churches, who started their own denominations -- black women in the early 20th and 21st centuries.

And finally, I think it’s very important to me to introduce them to an African-American hermeneutic and a womanist hermeneutic for interpreting the world, interpreting their faith, interpreting the Bible and even interpreting their own lives, and once again seeing themselves as beneficiaries of the sacrifices and the lives of our ancestors.

I wholeheartedly believe that any of us, any African-American, black woman who has the privilege of sitting in an institution of higher education, is there because some ancestor made the journey across the Atlantic. Some ancestor was hung. Some ancestor was lynched. Some ancestor couldn’t vote. And far be it from us to not live and work in homage to them.

Part of what’s been my three-year plan, what I want to accomplish in my first three years, is connecting the curriculum of the WISDOM Center to different sites throughout Atlanta, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi that are integral to black history. My students and I are going to be taking trips, sojourns, to different sites where our ancestors made some kind of history for us, thinking about, “What does that mean for me?”

Maya Angelou talks about us being the dreams and the hopes of the slaves. In light of their dreams and their hopes, what does it mean for me, as a beneficiary of their lives and their sacrifices, to come after them? And so connecting vocation to the narrative of black people in America, to the narrative of black women in the United States, even to the narrative of black folks in diaspora -- that is very, very critical.

Because I think that it’s a completely different point of departure. It’s a completely different starting point when you’re thinking about the fact that I’m actually not starting anything. I’m just continuing work that was started far before I was even born.