Teach, Pray, Lead

Credit: Daniel Dubois

Divinity students, faculty and staff will welcome new leadership when the Rev. Emilie M. Townes is installed in August as the school’s 16th dean. She is also the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Chair and professor of womanist ethics and society. Townes, an ordained American Baptist clergywoman, most recently was an associate dean and noted scholar at Yale Divinity School. She looks forward to the opportunity “to be in conversation” with people throughout the Vanderbilt community as she guides a school historically known for its devotion to social justice.

What particularly attracted you to Vanderbilt and its divinity school?

I was impressed with the school’s commitments to help clergy and laity not only prepare for Christian ministry, but to re-envision ministry to meet the needs of our times by combining spiritual and intellectual growth with a sense of social justice and the formation of new generations of scholars. This combination—ministerial and scholarly formation—sparked my application, along with the prospect of providing leadership for an institution that shares my own values of diversity, academic excellence, networking in a university setting, and a collaborative spirit in teaching and learning.

Since you grew up in North Carolina, what do you think about returning to the South after having spent most of your adult life elsewhere?

This was not something I thought about consciously during the search process or in making the final decision. But once the realization settled in that I would be coming back to the South, I realized I have missed the Southern rhythms of life and am looking forward to being one state over from North Carolina. Coming home feels right and good.

What propelled you to enroll at the University of Chicago and to pursue a career in theological education?

My high school was known for its sports teams and star athletes. Although my parents were both college professors, I did not experience students being courted for their intellect, only for their abilities in sports. When I did well on the PSAT, I started getting recruiting letters from schools. I realized I wanted to go to a small liberal arts college, and among those recruiting me was the University of Chicago. They were persistent, and I began to read their materials more carefully and liked what I saw in their Great Books curriculum.

I did not want to be a teacher—I wanted to be my own person. However, when I was asked to teach an adjunct course on black women and religion at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in the early ’80s, I agreed. My first day of class with 20 or so students, mostly black women and men, I realized I was experiencing a profound call to teach. As I neared the end of my Ph.D. program in the late ’80s, I made the choice of focusing on theological education rather than liberal arts teaching.

Your renowned scholarship includes the study of womanist ethics. Please define what that means and how it influences your life.

I am that young black girl the writer Alice Walker talks about in her first definition of “womanist”: wanting to know more than what was considered good for me. I drove my parents and teachers crazy at times with all the questions I had and wanted to understand. I think this kind of inquisitiveness pointed me in the direction of Christian social ethics. I am fascinated with structures and social phenomena and how they are created and maintained—something that is a strong feature found in social ethics. I use a womanist methodology that incorporates class, gender, sexuality, sexual orientation and race as the critical lens to look at issues as an ethicist. And for me, what is particularly fascinating is how we, as human beings, participate in them or not—how we dissent from inequalities and how we build systems of justice-making. This forms me as a scholar and as a human being, as I want to keep my mind, body and intellect integrated in healthy ways to work with others to build a better world for all.

What are some areas in which you hope to raise the bar even higher at Vanderbilt?

Christianity has become Southern, African and Latin American. I want us to focus more intentionally on the important integration of intercultural/global, interfaith awareness in our teaching, research and writing as students and faculty think through domestic issues in their world context. A school like VDS is positioned to consciously seek to be a world divinity school as we engage world Christianities within the context of interfaith conversations while building more robust interfaith commitments.

How does being an American Baptist minister and scholar in Christian ethics influence your leadership style?

[quoteit]As an ethicist I have learned to look at the ways in which we humans make the worlds around us—at times feeling as though we control them and other times feeling as though we are surviving them.[/quoteit]

Both have helped form me in deeply spiritual and intellectual ways. As a minister I have learned the importance of listening and presence before plunging into action. It is important to know who you are working with and what they hear and see in the worlds around them. Most people will follow your lead if they trust you and have a sense that you care about them and that you both basically want the same things. As an ethicist I have learned to look at the ways in which we humans make the worlds around us—at times feeling as though we control them and other times feeling as though we are surviving them. I know there will be times when I will make hard calls, but I always hope to do so within the context of folks having given their input and feeling heard.

You have talked about the importance of mentoring students and encouraging them to move beyond just getting that diploma to hang on the wall. How might you seek to engage our students in a school already noted for its commitment to social justice?

One of the hardest things for most students (and faculty) to do is hold fast to those commitments once we leave the institutions that birth us. From what I’ve seen thus far, VDS does a very good job in giving students a fine foundation to continue their commitments to social justice—but there is always room to give students more resources. I want to focus more, as I’ve noted before, on the global connections, and to help students be even better equipped to help those they will be working with in the future to understand the important links between the local and the global.

How do you see the role of Vanderbilt, as one among only five university-based interdenominational divinity schools in the United States, in comparison to other more traditional divinity schools?

As a university-based divinity school, VDS has the ability to draw on a much larger range of resources than most traditional divinity schools. We are able to forge, as we have, relationships with the other professional schools and university departments to broaden our conversations among the faculty and expose our students to a wider range of ideas and methodologies they can use in their course work and the work they will do once they leave us. This also means we can engage a wider range of conversation partners in the community as well as in the academy to help us think through how we can use our expertise to shape a more life-affirming society.

What kinds of alliances or partnerships might be explored with Vanderbilt University Medical Center?

I have already agreed to participate in an upcoming Center for Medicine, Health & Society conference, “The Politics of Health.” It will explore political exigencies of health in the United States and around the world, and it will fall in line with my focus on African American health, health care and healing. I will see where this leads me as I settle into the university and explore other possibilities.

Do you pray frequently? What is the nature of your prayers?

Every day. My prayers vary from the very formal in which I include thanksgivings and petitions to the very informal as friends, colleagues and students share with me their joys and concerns, at which point I will stop and offer a word of healing and hope on their behalf. I will sometimes do walking prayers when I am in nature, in which I give particular thanks for the glories of creation. I also do breathing meditation in which I try to be wordless (mostly impossible) and get myself as still as possible so I can hear God’s finest whispers.


Dean Emilie Townes was interviewed by Ann Marie Deer Owens, senior public affairs officer for Vanderbilt University News and Communications.

Read more about Dean Townes in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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