Bishop LaTrelle Easterling, Resident Bishop, Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference
The leader I am reflects the women who gave me life, literally and figuratively. I am honored to contribute to the 2018 WellSprings Journal, focusing on the leadership style of women. As I engage this topic, I do so from the perspective of a womanist hermeneutic. A womanist hermeneutic values the lived experiences of one’s community, and expects leadership to embrace that ethos. This approach understands that everyone is nurtured within the womb of community, and is formed and informed thereby. As I recall the names of the women who are giants in my life, I give thanks for them, and their indelible mark. I pay homage to these remarkable leaders.
I am the daughter of Mary Lawton Miller, the granddaughter of Clara Striggles Lawton, and the great-granddaughter of Hattie B. Striggles. These were strong, spiritual, praying women whose gifts made room for them, and who refused to be relegated to relative obscurity. The women who contributed to my voice spoke up on matters of importance, took their seat at decision-making tables, and climbed secular and sacred ladders. As I reflect upon my own leadership style, I must acknowledge and affirm the women who modeled excellent, confident, and spirit-filled leadership in my life.
Mary Miller was a woman who led with a confidence born of fierce academic achievement, wisdom, and a deep relationship with God. She lived her life steeped in prayer. She rose in the morning with prayer, knelt at night to pray, and bathed every decision in between in prayer. As a daughter of the South, she could have been filled with rage and resentment resulting from the racism and Jim Crow environment she experienced. Instead, her life was infused with forgiveness and a commitment to equality, which she modeled in her leadership.
Whether in her professional or church responsibilities, she arrived prepared, ready to work with whomever she encountered, and worked until the task was done. Although my mother never sought leadership, it was often bestowed upon her because she was so committed to excellence and collaboration. As I watched her preside over church council meetings, teach DISCIPLE Bible Study, or captain her softball team, she listened before she spoke, encouraged and empowered others to become involved, and always tried to resolve issues through consensus and collaboration.
My mother was raised to believe that the ground at the foot of the cross is level. At a time in the Black church when homosexuality was still taboo, she believed that everyone was created in the image and likeness of God. She did not privilege one over another, and spoke up for those who were ostracized or simply ignored. Although she did not see herself as an advocate for justice, her life and leadership demonstrated that characteristic.
Emily Buckner babysat me from the age of six weeks to age thirteen. Although Emily, or Aunt Emily as I affectionately called her, wasn’t an elected leader or person of rank in a traditional sense, she was well known and respected as a leader in the African American enclave of Irvington, a neighborhood on the east side of Indianapolis, Indiana. Aunt Emily was respected and revered because she led through loving. She cared for the latchkey children of the neighborhood as a surrogate parent or guardian. She fed them, corrected them, bandaged their wounds, and broke up their fights. Aunt Emily encouraged us to be our best, overcome obstacles, and be proud of who and whose we were. She asked to see our report cards, and proceeded to reward us when we excelled, and chastise us when we failed to live up to our potential.
Emily Buckner was barely five-feet tall, but she cowered before no one, and stood her ground against male and female alike. Aunt Emily had a deep and abiding faith in God that put feet to her beliefs. She prayed with those who were experiencing life’s challenges, wept with those who were in pain, and provided tangible support whenever a family needed assistance. She demonstrated an “Acts faith” by sharing all she had with everyone, so that all things were held in common. From Aunt Emily, I learned that leadership is not reserved for those who are elected or appointed; rather, leadership is bestowed upon those who live a life of generosity, compassion, and unconditional love.
The Rev. Dr. Teresa Fry Brown, the Bandy Professor of Preaching at Candler School of Theology, helped me forge my homiletical acumen and style. I met Teresa in Denver, Colorado, as she was pursuing her PhD at Iliff School of Theology. For the first time, I witnessed a woman unafraid to preach with passion, precision, and pedagogical brilliance. Teresa offered preaching classes to those on the pastoral team, where she encouraged us to embrace our call, find our voice, and walk in our true identity. She modeled and taught us that the most effective leaders lead from within the community, not absent from it.
She also offered and expected leadership grounded in authenticity. Teresa often shared with us that you cannot lead where you have not been, preach what you have not experienced, or teach what you do not know. Likewise, she taught us, it is unwise to attempt to copy another’s style or voice. She could pinpoint with precision when someone was attempting to preach in an assumed persona, even calling the one they were imitating by name. Teresa empowered us to claim our own gifts by stating, “God called YOU; trust God.”
My leadership gifts and graces have been influenced, formed, and refined by the cloud of witnesses in my life. The aforementioned women were instrumental in shaping my leadership because they were inspired, admired, and fruitful leaders in their own right. Each possessed a unique ability to lead through connection, empowerment, and love. I am because they are. In addition, my style has also been honed in the crucible of my corporate experience and pastoral ministry.
It is my belief that within the context of ministry, effective leadership requires a deep and abiding relationship with Jesus the Christ. It also requires a firm commitment to the spiritual disciplines of prayer, Bible study, meditation, generosity through tithing, and service. Unless one is committed to a life of discipleship, I do not believe she or he can lead with integrity. Spiritual leadership is enhanced by intellect, but it does not bear fruit that will last unless the Holy Spirit guides it.
My womanist grounding leads me to first build relationships with my partners in ministry. Without first establishing a foundation gestated in the womb of relationship, it is difficult to form a partnership born of trust. Once that trust has been established, my leadership style continues to be collaborative and inclusive. I seek input from a wide range of stakeholders, inviting everyone to speak from their experience and understanding. I believe in open and honest dialogue that leverages our strengths and privileges every voice at the table equally. Then we are able to build consensus that will effectively meet the needs of the mission and purpose of those we serve.
While I do not believe effective leadership requires leaders to be the smartest persons in the room, good leaders arrive prepared. My ability to be prepared is fueled by my intellectual curiosity, commitment to pedagogical excellence, humility, and a desire to listen before I speak. These elements enable me to facilitate meaningful discussion, maintain focus, offer helpful insights, and empower others to excel.
One of the critical elements missing in the toolbox of many leaders is establishing clear expectations. I am amazed by how many leaders within the church are afraid to make their expectations known for fear of losing their constituents. And yet, our ministries flounder or stagnate because we do not set expectations, hold one another accountable in love, and evaluate our outcomes. In most other professions, that would be grounds for termination. I do not shy away from setting clear, concise expectations, and offering the necessary resources to ensure they can be achieved. After those expectations are shared, I make it clear that the only real failure is a failure to try. I believe we learn as much from our failures as our achievements, perhaps even more so. Therefore, risks should be encouraged and any failure capitalized upon as a source of learning and development.
Perhaps most important, as a leader I have learned to embrace who I am, and claim who I am in Christ. I am passionate, demonstrative, sometimes given to shedding tears, and I possess a wicked sense of humor. Also, I am not afraid to wait on the Spirit before making a decision. Some would counsel me to hide those aspects of myself in favor of a more normative, traditional leadership style. However, the voices of Mary, Emily, and Teresa whisper into my spirit to remember that God formed me, God knows me, and God called me. I can trust God in claiming who I am.