A report from the Feminist Liberation Theologians’ Network:
The Feminist Liberation Theologians’ Network met for its annual gathering in conjunction with the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meetings in San Francisco, CA, on Friday, November 18, 2011. Introductions by the more than fifty colleagues present revealed a very diverse group from many countries (including Brazil, Germany, Japan, New Zealand, Philippines, Sweden, Canada and the United States). A good number of students and activists joined the scholars and professors in a discussion of a few of the successes and many of the struggles that colleagues have had in feminist liberation theological efforts.
The group heard from four colleagues:
Shannon Clarkson is affiliated with San Francisco Theological Seminary (SFTS) and Yale Divinity School (YDS). She collaborated with Letty Russell in founding and directing the SFTS Feminist Liberation Theology Doctorate in Ministry program. Also with Letty, she was co-editor of the Dictionary of Feminist Theologies (1996).
She detailed the Feminist Liberation Theology Doctorate in Ministry program at SFTS as follows: 104 participants (equal numbers of clergy and lay) from 37 countries including 16 women from 8 African countries, 34 women from 8 Asian counties, 29 from the US, Canada and Puerto Rico, 14 participants from 10 Central and South American countries, 3 from Europe, and 8 women from 5 South Pacific countries. Most of the participants were Protestant with 10 Roman Catholics identified. They were pastors, social workers, seminary leaders, and the like. Of these, 47 finished the program; two also earned Ph.D.s. Nine women had their theses published as books.
The program’s success was evident in many ways; the many women present at this meeting who had participated were a strong witness. They offered insights into its impact on their lives. Some women have gone on to teaching and/or church bureaucracy jobs that would have been closed to them without the credential.
There are significant barriers to the program’s continuation, including the difficulty of obtaining visas for women to study abroad, the lack of a DMin. director at SFTS at the moment, and the lack of financial resources to make such a program viable.
Nonetheless, Shannon reported that the network of participants is helpful on many levels, not the least of which is finding jobs. The program is currently on hold pending personnel additions at SFTS.
Margaret R. Miles is professor emerita at the Graduate Theological Union (GTU) from which she received her Ph.D. in 1977 and where she was dean from 1996-2001. She spent 18 years at Harvard Divinity School (HDS), the first woman to receive tenure there in 1985. She has published widely on church history, art, and film. Her latest book is a memoir, Augustine and the Fundamentalist’s Daughter. After retiring from academia, Margaret has turned a great deal of her attention to the arts.
Margaret observed that we have made a lot of progress but that there is much more work to do. She spoke about the Religion, Gender and Culture program at Harvard Divinity School that began in the late 1980s.
She described the early years when the question was whether feminist and gender studies could be considered an academic field. The Doctoral program was first approved only as a Th.D. program, later as a Ph.D. program. Some feminist colleagues in the university were not hospitable to work in religion, and some feminists in religion did not read secular feminist theology. That has changed. Claims of objectivity have been put to rest. The program continues to date.
HiRho Park is Director of Continuing Formation for Ministry, Division of Ordained Ministry, The General Board of Higher Education and Ministry of the United Methodist Church in Nashville, TN. She has both a Ph.D. and a DMin. so she is prepared as a minister and as a scholar for the work she is engaged in with women in the Methodist Church.
The study of Lead Women Pastors ran from 2008-2011 in an effort to see how women are faring in ministry. The stained glass ceiling is a reality with 82 women in 2004 and 94 women in 2010 in large church leadership compared with 1100 men. Several findings stand out:
—women tend to have a 27% lower salary than men
—90% of the lead women pastors are the first woman in such a position in their congregation
—69% of the women are married compared with 99% of the male pastors
—25% of the lead women pastors report some form of physical threat.
Much more needs to be learned about this cohort. But coaching and retreats help to nurture these women as they continue in their pioneering roles. Likewise, large churches are getting some training before a woman takes the pulpit so as to facilitate the process.
Sharon Welch is a Senior Fellow of the Institute for Humanist Studies, a member of the International Steering Committee of Global Action to Prevent War, and a member of the Unitarian Universalist Peace Ministry Network. She is the author of five books, including A Feminist Ethic of Risk. Sharon currently serves as Provost and Professor of Religion and Society at Meadville Lombard Theological School where she is pioneering interfaith theological education.
Sharon focused on women in the theological academy. She remarked on the underrepresentation of women in leadership. At Meadville, she described feminist liberation theological work being done by the faculty as it relates to the larger curricular project. Students include successful businesspeople, therapists, and engineers who have come back to school to prepare for ministry. The goal of the work as she sees it is to free the oppressed from their oppression and free the oppressors from their alienation.
Learning modules are set up accordingly to help students act their way into new ways of thinking. There is a big emphasis on hands-on learning with internships and other direct service experiences.
She discussed the need for cultural competence to deal with diversity. She observed the importance of developing the spiritual resources necessary to cope with contemporary complexity. She spoke of the skill needed to observe when a group is ready to cross boundaries and move to the next phase of its work.
An outline of the Congregational Studies Signature Sequence Seminar indicates that the site of ministry is the actual “text” for the class with academic learning and structured reflection on preaching, pastoral care, etc. making up the curriculum. Meadville also offers an M.A. in Leadership Studies in conjunction with the M.Div. degree.
Animated small group discussion flowed from the input. Plenary conversation included comments on backlash as a common phenomenon as illustrated by the lack of inclusive/expansive language used in worship and teaching. Other comments involved the role of undergraduate institutions in the teaching/learning of feminist liberation theology. Geographical limits were raised as the situations vary so widely around the world that, for instance, a Meadville-type program could not work everywhere.
Discussion moved to the need to look at feminist principles as they inform the practical efforts to overcome racism, for example. Epistemological issues included how we learn and from whom we learn (including our students). Another issue raised was the move beyond identity politics to individual and collective identities; most of us claim more than one identity. Still another comment focused on activism ala the Occupy Movement and how people from religious starting points can be part of that.
The next meeting of the Feminist Liberation Theologians’ Network will be on Friday, November 16, 2012, 4-6 PM in Chicago where the AAR/SBL meetings will be held. The exact location remains to be determined, but it will likely be in one of the conference hotels. The focus will be on the role of feminist liberation theological thinking as it informs concrete work for justice such as Occupy, government service, peace-making and the like. Please feel free to suggest speakers who might contribute to our analysis and discussion.
For an interesting reflection on the FLTN by longtime participant Dorothy Jensen Rupert interviewed by Mary C. Churchill, see the current issue of the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion. “Religion and Politics: A Feminist In the House and Senate, An interview with Dorothy Jensen Rupert,” JFSR 27.2(2011), pp. 109-117.
Report shared with permission from WATER