Raising the Dead: Embodied Leadership

Emilie M. Townes

(Adopted from an address made in Pittsburgh last fall at the Women in Leadership Program’s Emerging Leadership Development Institute, sponsored by the Association of Theological Schools.)

“… Invisible things are not necessarily ‘not there’; that a void may be empty, but it is not a vacuum. In addition, certain absences are so stressed, so ornate, so planned, they call attention to themselves; arrest us with intentionality and purpose, like neighborhoods that are defined by the population held away from them. Looking at the scope of American literature, I can’t help thinking that the question should have never been ‘Why am I, an Afro-American, absent from it?’ It is not a particularly interesting query anyway. The spectacularly interesting question is, ‘What intellectual feats had to be performed by the author or his critic to erase me from a society seething with my presence, and what effect has that  performance had on the work?’ What are the strategies of escape from knowledge? Of willful oblivion? … Not why. How?” – Toni Morrison

We are part of traditions of schooling that are well practiced at silences. This is ironic given how much talking goes on in our classrooms, at professional gatherings, our committee meetings, our writing, and our public speaking. Yet, we have our silences that haunt us like so many methodological loose ends and mangled analyses. These silences include more than race: ethnicity, sexuality, age, class – the list goes on. Some will dismiss this as a familiar, threadbare list of gripes. Latter-day versions of “what do they want?” or “they get all the jobs, don’t they?” are far too prevalent in our academic musings in print, in professional societies, at dinner parties and social hours, in the offices of colleagues, and in the halls of our institutions. Somehow, and quite remarkably, a few women in the theological academy have become, for some, akin to Joel’s Biblical horde of locusts – cutting, swarming, hopping, destroying, and entering leadership positions like thieves.2

The persistence of these attitudes should cause all of us in theological education to be careful about how we understand and craft leadership. We must be wary of veering too far into silences that merely contribute to willful oblivion. We must instead take a measured look at what it means to lead with integrity, vision, and courage.

Now, there are many things I have taken with me over the years that echo Morrison’s question, “Not why. How?” Perhaps the most important is the imperative that visionary leadership respond to the issues of the day while pushing our understanding of what kinds of institutions, colleagues, staff, and students we are trying to create and sustain. Doing these things helps to map out leadership strategies for justice-seeking and justice-making, which are, for me, the natural outgrowth of attending to the intersection of race, gender, class, and sexuality as a woman trying to forge healthy leadership models and then inhabiting them.

I’ll focus here on what holds me to this task and my lifelong journey as a minister, scholar, teacher, and now administrator, with Morrison as both guide and prod as I think through this as a relatively new academic dean.

However, long before I came across Morrison’s words, I was shaped by strong influences that taught me the importance of truth-telling and the potency of wisdom in faith-filled strategies of leadership. Perhaps the strongest and most profound were the old black folks of my grandmother’s generation who helped raise me.

A Cloud of Witnesses

And I can still hear them now … the older black women of my grandmother’s generation – Miss Waddell, Miss Rosie, Ms. Montez, Ms. Hemphill, cousin Willie Mae – as they visited with each other (it was never called gossip) … in their kitchens, front yards, beauty shops, porches (stoops were a city thing in Southern Pines, NC), Sunday school classes, church socials.

I can still hear them now … the older black men of my grandmother’s generation – Mr. Waddell, Mr. Press, Bad Bill, Mr. Hemphill, Monkey Joe … as they sat and discussed (it was never called gossip – that was what the women did) … in the barber shop, un- der the tree of knowledge outside the barber shop, out in the front yard or side yard tinkering with their cars, after church, during church socials.

Yes, I can still hear them, and you know, the only person I thought was older than these folks was God. And because they were old I was taught they had wisdom, or should have, and they knew things that I thought I could never know because I couldn’t believe that I’d ever be as old as they were.

They had something that sustained them in the tightly drawn, color-lined world dividing Southern Pines and West Southern Pines, separated by U.S. Rt 1 and money and power and privilege, separated from the white folks they worked for in their kitchens, yards, driving their cars, buying their groceries, tending to their dogs and horses, and carrying their golf clubs.

They were a white-starched-shirt, best-hat-wearing crew on Sunday morning, and I simply loved being in their presence, sitting quietly and saying nothing so that they would forget I was there (or did they?). They turned to the joy they found in the Lord and to the strength they found at the altar to put their children through college and love all the children in that small community because that’s what grown folks are supposed to do.

And in that love they taught us more than our ABCs and times tables. They taught us what it meant to be wise by their actions and not just their words.

Evil is as evil does, they told us, and stay out of corners, and keep your legs together, and a hawk always circles his prey.

Yes, I still see them: proud black people who knew when to bend and not break … going to their jobs … making a way out of no way … succeeding … failing … And the wisdom and giving of it never left them, because they believed with every ounce of their being that they had to pass good things on to the next generation. And the one thing they had that no amount of the KKK, paddy rollers, or sheriff departments could take away – even with fire hoses and lynching trees – was what they knew about life and how to survive it and even thrive. They had what ethicist Peter Paris calls practical wisdom.

Keeping Time, Keeping Faith

So these exemplars of practical wisdom help me keep the time beat. Such exemplars teach all of us about where we’ve come from, so that we are not tempted to make decisions in thin air but instead lean into the thick isness of our lives – the agonies and the ecstasies – to find our bearings for the journey. This wisdom, this way of truth-telling, is not showy, but it is steady. It brings the past into the present and the present into the future, so that we remember we are a people in time and of time, and nothing we do puts us outside of time – because we can never get away from the history that brought us here, even if we do not know it. And it is dangerous to be in a position where we cannot remember what we never knew, and then repeat well-worn atrocities and failed strategies instead of building on the past even while refusing to succumb to appeals to the past that keep us from stretching into a tangibly better future.

I use Toni Morrison’s question, “Not why. How?” as a starting point to think about the challenges at the intersection of race and gender, class, and sexuality that women in leadership in theological education face – and to devise strategies for managing these challenges. Morrison’s question provides us a methodological frame for defying the willful, harmful oblivion of ornate silence and absence in a “seething” society. And those old black folk of my grandmother’s generation provide the heart and beat of the strategies we need to address the void.

This is crucial for me because black bodies are a seething presence in U.S. society. We are found in the American literary canon – Stowe, Hemingway, Cather, Poe, Twain, and others. We are found on television and other media forms as thieves, murderers, dangerous, foreboding, violent, pathologized, fetishized, demonized. We are the hyper-sexualized other: folk build legends around our imaged sexual prowess – lascivious hips, alluring breasts, big and bigger penises – because we are a hot, black hot people, and we are only looking for the next lay, the next conquest, the next victim.

We disrupt these images from time to time with those who are deemed exceptional or special or presidential. This disruption cheers some and threatens others. We are a society in chaos about many things, and black bodies are only one element of this chaos. But we are an illustration of the othering – the demonizing, the objectifying – that goes on in the U.S., whether it be class, gender, sexuality, sexual orientation, geographic origin, age, and on and on.

Body Shame

In my work and career, I try to face the fact that religious bodies are too often of little help in calling us to account on this. They and those of us who participate in them are far too quiet in our dissent against racial or gender prejudice, preferring, oftentimes, to create enclaves of holiness to survive the blight and wait for a time that is ripe for change, reformation, transformation. Far too often, our theologies fail us and we fail them. We create a bad infinity of stereotypes and rationalizations about others – and ourselves. We are terrified of our bodies, so we try to control them in often misshapened ways. We put too much into them or we starve them. We abuse them with overwork, or with controlled and uncontrolled substances. We blind our terror with dyspeptic bouts of conservatism, liberalism, progressivism.

On my more cynical days, it feels like I and others are rearranging the deck chairs on our pedagogical and theological Titanics as we deal with incredibly complex human bodies in a cultural climate fueled often by heterosexism, empire, racism, imperialism, and homophobia. However, my response is to refuse to accept, in my life and work, a not-so moral stance that asks of us – tells us, demands of us – that we view our bodies and spirits as separate, antagonistic, and unequal as the condition for living out traditional or corporate models of leadership rather than embracing a Biblical witness blended with faithful discipleship for our day and time.

An Everyday Refusal

I try to live out my everyday refusal to confine my own complex body in “acceptable” but basically demonic stereotypes of what and who is a black lesbian, raised in the South from a normal dysfunctional family that was middle-class and highly educated, who attended the Protestant church on the regular until it became irrelevant for a teenager who had large questions about the nature of the universe, who was coming to understand her sexuality and sexual identity, race, and gender, who played sports, played in the band, went to school in the Midwest, who has by now lost both her parents, loves her baby sister dearly, and works in an Ivy League institution – much to my surprise – and tries not to forget all those influences and people who brought me to this time and place through their love and their anger at a society that marked my black female lesbian body as disposable unless I’m working 16-hour days and neglecting rest and renewal, as if that neglect is normal and essential to good leadership and sound administrative principles.

Hence, as a woman in theological education, I refuse models of leadership that inspire fear or shame or sycophancy. I refuse to perform a post- modern minstrel act as if this were what leadership should be about. We should not be promoting a comic skit of learning or buffoonish ideas that obscure the beating heart of deep engagement with our institutions and the people that give them life and breath. We should not be promoting research, teaching, advising, writing, or administration in black-face caricatures that bear little resemblance to the thoughtful or wise reflection that leadership with integrity, vision, and courage encourage. Many of us in theological education have been told to live in split, if not fractured bodies, to deny the gift that God gives us body and soul, to ignore the warning signs of stress, to push through exhaustion. And sometimes you and I have been told this is holy.

Leadership should not be about tearing body and soul to shreds or inviting colleagues and students to perform this demonic shake dance with us. I try to avoid participating in bouts of leadership that place the folks I work with or myself on a postmodern auction block of expediency, expendability, and relentless bottom lines. We cannot be about the work of raising the dead if it means adopting leadership styles that endorse overwork with little time to think through the long-term consequences of a decision made in a pressing now.

Breathing Spaces

Instead, I am looking for breathing spaces, faithfully, to understand that leadership in theological education should be about building communities of learning and discipleship. I try to maintain a sense of integrity and accountability by connecting with the foundations of my life and work, viewing leader- ship through windows of individual and communal memory. This helps me challenge my own assumptions and values when they are placed on a wider playing field with the assumptions and values of others. I want to make better and healthier use of my time rather than spending time craving, hording, amassing, or tackling budget cuts or problematic student performance with a rote and rigid clipboard, or using my office and my life in the quest to prove I’m right and the only one with a good idea. Turn- ing to a framework of integrity – visionary yet pragmatic – helps me out of the hegemonic endgame of lifeless administrative models, which appear to treat people more like bottom lines than God’s gift of creation.

Our challenge is to seek to build and sustain institutions that bring mind, body, and spirit into educational spaces that train people for a wide vari- ety of ministries – “embodied vision” in institutional settings that often fear embodiment. This demands courage to acknowledge that our bodies carry our past, our present, our future. I have to think through how I craft integrity and vision in institutions that are often terrified of … the curve of our hips, the arch of our backs, the slow swing in our walks, the glide of our fingers, the fire in our eyes, the coil of our hair, the deep moans and shouts of our ecstasies, the bottomless welling cries of our sorrows, the slow bend of our smiles, the precision of our minds, the sass of our talk. Morrison’s question, “Not why. How?” helps me stay honest to this challenge.

I will always argue for rigor in deep-walking visioning. But what I stand against is the kind of disinterested, “objective” visioning that doesn’t factor or reckon that our work is going to have a profound impact on someone’s actual life. For most of us, I suspect, our training did not teach us how to be scholar and teacher and administrator and whole person in the schools where we work. We should do our work with passion and precision – and realize we are not random bits of disembodied informa- tion drifting or running through space ungrounded in history and interpersonal relationships. Such assumptions lead to a leadership style that is so terrified of the complexity of institutions and the people who inhabit them that it shapes answers before hearing the questions, crafts admissions poli- cies that look like the high side of misery, sanctions curricula that seek to segregate the mind, body, and spirit, and rolls over and plays dead when faced with budget constraints.

Don’t Be Too … Female

Embodied vision refuses to accept this cartel of dehumanization. Embodied vision challenges us and our institutions to think boldly, recognizing our humanness, recognizing the promises found in each of us, holding our selves together, hold- ing the body and the spirit together – and whirling, whirling, whirling with a God who delights in all of who we are and who we are yet to become as individuals and as institutions. Any institution that feels that the questioning, the dancing mind is a threat to God is likely a wasteland that consecrates timidity as love, blindness as faithfulness. It is likely to demand: don’t be too queer, too out, too black, too Latina, too native or indigenous, too Asian, too female, too male, too bisexual, too transgender, too anything but straight and white and usually male as an administrator because failing to do so is practicing essentialism or identity politics.

No, embodied vision begins with the concrete- ness of our humanity rather than esoteric concepts abstracted from life that lure us into believing it is better to live in an unrelenting ontological suicide watch than in celebration of the richness and responsibilities of what it means to be created in the image of God and to help shape institutions that are witnesses to this.

The practice of leadership with integrity, vision, and courage learns from many sources and not solely from the echoes of our minds and intellects, or from our various social locations or disciplinary expertise, or from our gender roles or theological viewpoints. The epistemology of knowledge is al- ways contextual, always fraught with our best and worst impulses. It is never objective, never disinterested, no matter how many rational proofs we produce to argue to the contrary. Leadership should recognize the utter humanity of this and embrace it and not obfuscate it. There’s a big world out there for our institutions to craft learning paradigms so that our students can deepen their abilities to see it, experience it, know it, and change it.

For women standing at the intersection of gender and race (and more), the challenge is to integrate integrity, vision, and courage into leadership so that objectivity is not the sole marker of administrative brilliance. These do not displace objectivity but be- come part of our methodological toolkit, because our leadership models often forget God’s laugh- ing side, and this makes too much of what we do humorless and inept. We forget that a serious and capricious God has a hand in creation. Recognizing these things, we can do relevant scholarship, excel- lent teaching, ministry, learning, and administration.

An Ultimate Womanist Move

Negotiating all this can be a tall order. Working our way through vocational challenges, we may choose, unwisely, to suffer through on our own and in silence. One place to begin unpacking this is in our approaches, right now, to our various academic programs:

Consider integrating theory and practice in order to find a model that doesn’t create another rigid hierarchy of disciplines but a synthesis that provides relevant and rigorous education for our students.

Recognize that the job of a good registrar has always had an element of pastoral care, and this shouldn’t be neglected despite the ever-increasing demands to provide statistics, track students, and make sure that folks graduate.

Ensure that the business office functions to keep good accounting of our institutions but also sees its work as ministry and encourages faculty to become comfortable with the world of numbers and good record-keeping practices.

A strategic framework of integrity, vision, and courage, embraced with passion, takes seriously

that we are called to work with each other and with God to craft a new heaven and a new earth. It means developing leadership skills that help mitigate bravura spells of ignorance and arrogance. It means setting aside impulses to control or dominate and allowing the richness of insights and experiences beyond our own to deepen our leadership and beget more piercing analysis, more trenchant critiques, more relevance.

I love what I do. It is nothing but sheer and utter joy to walk into the classroom and see what we will learn. I love:
having the time and space to form a sustained thought and maintain it long enough to recognize its strengths and weaknesses.
working with faculty colleagues on joint projects or offering a listening ear or guiding voice to them as they work through a tough classroom situation or research idea or how to get published or how to survive.
working with administrators and staff to create structures where students and staff can do their best work and be challenged and find some measure of nurture.
spending time with younger scholars and future administrators and thanking God Almighty that the next generation is coming and I should get ready to retire and let others step to the fore.

Because regardless of how tough it gets some days, I am encouraged to live my work with joy and passion and to remind myself that I want to be very old when I die – because dying of old age is the ultimate Womanist move of effective and faithful leadership in theological education. 

Emilie M. Townes is YDS Associate Dean of Academic Affairs and Andrew W. Mellon Professor of African American Religion and Theology. Her teaching and research interests include Christian ethics, Womanist ethics, critical social theory, and postmodernism. Her books include Womanist Ethics and the Cultural Production of Evil (Palgrave, 2006), Breaking the Fine Rain of Death: African American Health and a Womanist Ethic of Care (Wipf & Stock, 2006), and In a Blaze of Glory: Womanist Spirituality as Social Witness (Abingdon, 1995). She served as president of the American Academy of Religion in 2008 and is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She is also ordained in the American Baptist Churches USA. 


  1. Toni Morrison, “Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature” in Michigan Quarterly Review 28 (1) Winter 1989, pp. 11-12.

  2. See Joel 1-2, especially 1:4 and 2:3-10 (New Revised Standard Version).