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.

ETHICS of GENDER Leadership Issues: And REALLY- This is Still a Debate in 2012? PART 1

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

A guest to the Miles family dinner table would often sit in quiet observation as affable conversation suddenly was interrupted by a comment or pronouncement, (usually our impish brother-in-law who deliciously relished getting the Miles women stirred up on one issue or another). In a blink of an eye, the previously affable dinner chatter would evolve and mount in decibels to a full-on debate in which youngest to eldest got in a point or two – or three – or four – with substantial enough fervor that the guest would inevitably whisper to me, “does your family fight like this all the time?” No, these weren’t raise-your-hand-in hopes-that-you’re-called on-debates; however in actuality, no fists flew; no derogatory exclamations or put-downs were expressed; and one gender was not often found pitted against the other even in gender debates. Each side of whatever issue at debate were clearly intent on articulating a viewpoint. After efforts to provide verbal substantiation, most of the time with hilarious reconciliation a vote was reached that we were going to agree that we just disagree on this or that point! When the excited exchange settled to mutual acknowledgement on a couple points and dinner or dessert banter resumed – inevitably another topic or comment sparked another issue and a new round of ‘family feud.’ By now, the guest realized this initiation into the Miles family gatherings was a regular phenomenon. Inevitably, he or she would be caught up in the second or third round, because somebody surely was going to pose to the guest “So really – what is your take on this mess?!” The positive impact of that childhood conditioning was the fostered climate that developed young people who not afraid to critically think, listen, and express their minds (secretly enjoying the rare legitimate opportunity to tell one or both parents and other adults, “How can you believe that? I wholeheartedly disagree” – and then, better be ready to state why!) Of course, that required us to read and investigate issues constantly (so you had a perspective to contribute).

I disclose that part of my formative context, because it developed my prophetic lens. Like my brother-in-law, I raise some issues here for the sake of exchange – since I still enjoy a hearty, mind stretching debate. My disclosure? I self identify as an African American womanist theologian with location in the seminary as a professor and in the church as a pastoral practitioner. Therefore (in case some didn’t know), I’m not shy about speaking, listening, or thinking deeply on thorny issues. With a womanist prophetic lens, I broach what follows on the ethics of gender leadership in my theological context of a Western Christian landscape. The majority of my faith journey has been mapped in a GPS of mores and customs of largely African-American congregations, collectively referred as the ‘black church.’ In denominational and congregational cases within the black church as well as in parts of the larger Church universal, I observe a still troubling ethical dilemma where the social implications of religion-based mores, customs, and practices conflict with ethical principles of dignity, freedom, fairness, and equity espoused in the hermeneutical call from scripture to be a liberative instrument of a justice-loving God. I am aware that the personal sensitivity of religious beliefs and derivative traditions sometimes complicate discussions of what is or isn’t ethical.

However, the proverbial ‘elephant in the room’ remains: in the 21st century… in 2012…there still is mixed receptivity to women in certain professional leadership roles as senior pastor leader or even as ordained clergy. In the so-called secular 21st century societal arena, religious ideology has weighed-in to voice a position on issues of women’s voice / choice in decisions on her body and reproductive access to the healthcare system. As media coverage brought to our living rooms, computer screens, and smart phones, the elephant was unavoidable, as nationally formed legislative panels comprised of male panelists –religious and secular – weighed-in to frame the issues of debate without one female representative. And the fact that the voices of those men were accepted as normative, but who haven’t or ever will give birth, gave me pause to utter: “And really…this is still a debate in 2012?” West’s ( 2006) call for a liberative Christian social ethic (pp. 36-39) raises questions of gender justice. The ethics of gender leadership and gender disparity will not fade by being silent and ignoring the elephant. Meanwhile, the elephant’s ‘sister’, the ostrich is burying its proverbial head in the other room: the private sector of corporate or professional enterprise continue wage disparities and hiring preferences, albeit with adept subtlety (Hellman, M.E. & Welle, B., 2006). The conflict between mores/customs and ethical principles is witnessed in the refusal to hire women in senior pastoral roles by some faith-based organizations and denominational affiliations, due to traditions and structures that follow an unvoiced paradigm of women having secondary status to men. In such an organizational culture of mores and customs, other gender-related harassment problems arise and are overlooked. Domestic violence too often is theologized–and the silence unfortunately prevails (West 2006, pp. 40-42).

Tucker-Worgs (2011) documented in a major study of the black mega-church that sexism was deeply entrenched; a climate of patriarchy resulted in ‘dual gendered spheres’ (p. 141) where women were valued to diligently fulfill informal roles, but few reached higher levels of formal leadership (pp. 142-144). Others approved females’ preaching but not as pastors. In some denominations, while approval of females in leadership rates high, evidence of placement is low (pp. 145-148). Unfortunately, Black Baptist denominations and churches are at the lower end of the spectrum. Surveys and personal testimonies confirm the elephant’s presence: Given similar levels of educational achievement, leadership experience from prior careers outside of the faith-based setting, and similar skill sets, females will not be given the same opportunities for placement. Some denominations have taken policy steps to affirm women while others just as vehemently denounce and refuse to recognize the credentials of women. Despite professed ethical stances in the public square against societal discrimination, undue cronyism, and favoritism, the practice in significant numbers of churches persists – including the venerable Catholic Church. Despite equal opportunity laws that prohibit against gender discrimination, the mores and customs of religious preferences are deemed by many clergy to be beyond the purview of the law or ethical principles of equality, fairness, and respect of person. Thus, like the ostrich, congregations bury their heads and carefully circumnavigate the elephant.

One result is that significant numbers of females who are committed to pursue religious service or theological study are bound to actualize their call in college or seminary level positions as professors, researchers, and administrative coordinators, or they are found in presumed ancillary roles to pastoral ministry, such as chaplaincy, prison ministry, community social service executives and youth services leaders (McKenzie, 1996, introduction and pp. 41-54). While these positions should be viewed as valuable and professional alternatives that still manifest ministry calling, the old paradigm places a priori value on pastoral ministry in seminary training and inadvertently devalues the options, and therefore, women’s leadership potential. Still prevalent are paradigms that say women cannot be called to preach and pastor, and still whispers that a woman’s place is in the home. Ignoring the elephant results in loss of potential talent, brainpower, not to mention people power in a core area of a vocational field that claims it seeks to demonstrate the beloved community and positive social change. The contradiction is disheartening and unethical. [Still, there were SF Bay Area pastors of churches that boldly pioneered to support women in ministry-more in Part 2]


Hellman, M.E. & Welle, B. (2006). Disadvantages by Diversity? the effects of diversity goals on competence perceptions. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 36(5), 1291-1319.

McKenzie, V.M. (1996). Not without a struggle: Leadership development for african american women in ministry. Cleveland: United Church Press.

Tucker-Worgs, T.N. (2011). The Black Mega-church: Theology, gender, and the politics of public engagement. Waco: Baylor University Press.

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