ETHICS of GENDER Leadership Issues: And REALLY… This is Still a Debate in 2012? PART 2

Rev. Dr. Valerie Miles-Tribble, ABSW Visiting Professor in Ministerial Leadership and Functional Theology

By now, some lively debate likely has been exchanged among the readers and in the hallways, or at the very least, some self-reflection on ethics and gender leadership issues. An important disclaimer: The purpose of raising gender issues under the rubric of ethical discourse is not to pit male against female – if that’s been the undercurrent of your discourse, then the points in part 1 were sadly missed. My aim is to simply raise some inconsistencies in our ethical practices as they have been systemized in our institutions and in our thinking. Notably, like my family “feuds,” male and females sit on both sides of the gender debate, particularly when the topic focus is female leadership in the church…Women are as likely to run into female opposition as male. On the other hand, many male clergy have become more tolerant if not advocates for women in ministerial leadership when God touched daughters, sisters, or wives whose faith was indisputable. Just as my family debates helped us find our voice, my aim is to urge you to give voice to your experiences and concerns, while genuinely listening and considering the views of others; otherwise we keep avoiding the real issue (as when I hear folks say their concern with President Obama is whether or not he’s an American or Muslim…and I’ll leave you to ponder the undercurrents of that one!) Alas, true to scriptural prophetic tradition, the people of Israel, upon hearing a prophetic challenge, would be disturbed and go after the messenger rather than reflect on the message. Those prophets were often attacked, chased, and sent running to the next assignment! Still I can’t help but wonder – if an all knowing, omniscient Creator is against women in ministry, why are so many experiencing a divine spiritual call in significant enough numbers to become the majority percentage of enrollment in seminaries across the nation? And really…this is still a debate in 2012?

Yes, a framework of ethical principles has gained momentum and many of the mainstream Protestant denominations have adopted written anti-discrimination policy as part of governing ethical principles that resulted in increased hiring practices. Certain denominations changed their restrictive stance to now ordain and place females in senior pastoral positions (Lebacqz, 1985, pp.126-127). And yes, black pastors like Dr. James Alfred Smith, Sr. and a few others in the San Francisco Bay Area faced dissention among male colleagues to pioneer in training, ordaining, staffing, and encouraging female clergy in ministry. Nevertheless, those women are challenged to find leadership positions. In what is termed “traditional” or “conservative” settings, an unfortunate paradigm entrenchment continues across cultural and racial lines, and is readily identifiable not only by particular denomination, but also by congregation. For example, a search committee is influenced by the informal culture of an organization that often is more influential than the formal culture relayed in policy documents and procedures.

West (2006) distinguishes social ethics from a liberative Christian social ethic noting that the latter has theological rooting in the Gospel practices and approach of Jesus to differing moral concerns (pp. 49-50). Central to the ethical agenda is confronting that which denies human dignity and well-being. Gender disparity as an ethical principle also is not limited to faith-based organizations, but is influential in perceptive disparities in gender preferences in business organizations (Duehr & Bono, 2006, p. 815). In case it is not clear by now, I find that discourse on ethical principles that guide seminary training in leadership development must include an ethical framework that materially addresses the disparity issues by faculty and leadership. If our aim is to prepare for and become transformational leaders, we must start with a willingness to be transformative. What’s the difference? I’m glad you asked…According to Shields (2010): “Transformative leadership begins with questions of justice and democracy, critiques inequitable practices, and addresses both individual and public good” (p. 559). Transformational leadership effectively focused on guiding organizational change while transformative leadership lives with the “tension and challenges” of moral courage and activism for individual, organizational and societal transformation (pp. 563-565); inherent is an ethical commitment to deconstruct frameworks that generate inequity and reconstruct gender equity and gender justice (p. 566).

Fortunately, ABSW is at the forefront (in my opinion) of incorporating both conceptual approaches in a re-envisioned emphasis on increased leadership preparation and ethical analysis of social and faith-based systems. In seminary, we have the opportunity to examine and dialogue to stretch one another and grow together in understanding the crucial implications for women (and men) in ministry. After all, brothers and sisters, we need each other – that’s a central tenet of a womanist ethic. Voices of feminist / womanist theologians and published works of college-level professors raised and keep these critical issues of inequity and entitlement at the forefront of ethical debate (Cannon, Townes, & Sims, 2011). What we find is that even our treasured and somewhat idolized Western European male ethicists, as architects of religious and social thought, articulated justification for exceptionalism and influenced discriminatory systems (Floyd-Thomas & De La Torre, 2011). Strategic resistance calls for scrutiny of institutions that “interpret universal moral understanding”(West, 2006, p. 71). Therefore, the prophetic agenda of a liberative social ethic is to challenge institutions that simply tolerate inequity.

Finally – isn’t it amazing that in the wondrous socio-technical landscape where global proximity has been reduced to a mouse-click or pad-touch, we are able to witness extremes in human condition and religious ideology that has fueled geopolitical differences among cultures. Interreligious difference is part of the vast worldview brought to our conscious as the nation states inextricably tie religion to power identity. Perception of the ‘enemy’ sometimes is influenced more by religious typology than by a moral compass on policies and practices. Ethical values that we find are downplayed when economically or politically expedient instead require a constant reflective process of critiquing our individual assumptions and our systems in order to examine the dissonance of disparity. Perhaps it’s a good time along the 21st century timeline to engage in additional interreligious dialogue, but this time to engage across the table on specific social justice issues – like gender leadership issues. For example, an exchange might help us to compare and discover how similar are injustices that we as Christian America rage against when pointing fingers at questions of Muslim women’s rights, yet after a closer look at inconsistencies in our community of churches, we might see alert signals cautioning that the elephant is growing bigger in our church family. A disclaimer: I understand that stirring this ‘family feud’ where sensitivity of religious beliefs commingle with social and behavioral ethics, comes with a risk that some will consider my views as antithetical, blasphemous, and revolutionary. Yet, Thomas Kuhn might delight that such a revolutionary view is a necessary precursor to shift paradigms “as one conceptual world view is replaced by another.”

Last disclaimer without the rapid-fire voice on the commercials: The sentiments expressed here are solely that of the author and those of cited materials used. The comments in this blog or positions stated by the author are not intended to represent any view of ABSW, the institution, its leadership, faculty or staff.

Cannon, K.G., Townes, E.M. & Sims, A.D. (2011). Womanist Theological Ethics: A Reader. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Duehr, E. E., & Bono, J.E. (2006). Men, women, and managers: Are stereotypes finally changing? Personnel Psychology, 59(4), 815-846.

Floyd-Thomas, S. & De La Torre, F. ed. (2011). Beyond the Pale: Reading Ethics from the Margins. Louisville: Westminster John Know Press.

Kuhn, T. (1962). The Scientific Method. Excerpt retrieved from

Lebacqx, K. (1985). Professional Ethics: Power and Paradox. Nashville: Abingdon Press.

Shields, C. M. (2010). Transformative leadership: Working for equity in diverse contexts. Educational Administration Quarterly, 46(4), 558-589

West, T. C. (2006). Disruptive Christian Ethics: When racism and women’s lives matter. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

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