No Woman To Watch

I had a rather enjoyable and sentimental experience this past weekend as I traveled back to Houghton College for my ten-year college reunion.  It contained just about everything you’d expect: lifelong friends, familiar faces, old memories, and emotional reflections on the course of life for myself and others.  I also enjoyed simply being on campus: strolling through memory-haunted old buildings, sharing a meal in the cafeteria, and walking around in the brisk autumn air.  It was a special few days.

There have been changes on campus in the past decade…and one of the major ones is Houghton’s president: Shirley Mullen.  Dr. Mullen has been president of the school since 2006, and is now well-established in leadership there.  Just this month she and 49 other women were featured in Christianity Today‘s cover article “50 Women to Watch: Those Most Shaping the Church and Culture.”  Seeing her picture on the cover of the magazine and reading about her within its pages encouraged me and gave me new appreciation for my alma mater.

President Shirley Mullen

In addition to Shirley Mullen, Christianity Today also highlighted Jo Anne Lyon (leader of the Wesleyan denomination) and Kim Phipps (president of Houghton’s sister institution Messiah College).  It is encouraging for me to see such qualified women not only in leadership roles, but also in settings that, because of their sometimes more conservative tendencies in other areas, might often be popularly viewed as patriarchal or close-minded.  It is a welcome new day in American evangelicalism.

My reflections on this intensified yesterday when, on the way home from Houghton, the news broke that my other alma mater, Princeton Theological Seminary, had just selected its new president.  After 200 years of history with a white male always at its head, I had simply assumed the institution would aggressively pursue a highly qualified female candidate and/or person of different ethnicity to fill the role.  While the school certainly has no theological issues with any particular individual’s characteristics, only having a white man as president does tend to send a curious message for a mainline seminary in a changing world.

President-Elect M. Craig Barnes

Imagine my surprise, then, when I heard yesterday that the school made its choice: M. Craig Barnes.  I do not know Dr. Barnes except by what I’ve seen online.  What I’ve read is intriguing and gives me hope that he will do an excellent job leading PTS as a Christian scholar-servant.  He is a student of Christian history (a plus in my book) who has also done extensive pastoral work and reflection (once again, a plus for me).  I think he will be a real benefit to the school and be able to provide helpful leadership for years to come.

And yet: Princeton has missed a golden opportunity here to send an important message to the nation and the world.  While there have been many qualified individuals of different gender and race in professorial and other roles at the school, a seminary president tends to be its public face.  I cannot claim to have know exactly what took place during the long deliberations that preceded Barnes’ selection…but I do hope that they at least realize the complicated and ironic symbol that their choice establishes.  While it may mean nothing, for the evangelical world to celebrate the rising voice of women in leadership within and without their circles in the very month that Princeton Theological Seminary selects yet another white male to lead it may point us to a very interesting future.

Your thoughts?

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7 comments on “No Woman To Watch

  1. Viletta says:

    I believe that selecting a white male is often the ‘safe’ thing to do. Even in denominations that say on paper that they license and ordain women, there are very few women Lead/Senior pastors.

  2. Mary Jo says:

    It will take many more men who are as enlightened as you to speak out and bring the truth to the forefront. Thank you for stating the obvious so well. But what is so very obvious to you is denied, or threatening to most good ‘ole boy institutions, especially our churches. Women are gaining ground slowly, but we need more men like you to explain in language that men can understand what we’ve been living. Maybe it was something in that apple Adam ate!

  3. aussiemef says:

    Craig Barnes was my Pastor when I was living in Madison serving as Associate Director of Mission and Urbana for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. He is a superb preacher and a great Pastor. I personally am thrilled at his appointment though really appreciate your perspective. His ph.D work was on E. Stanley Jones which I as a Wesleyan appreciate.

  4. Sam says:

    Can’t we just say Dr. Barnes was the best candidate for the job? Why must we label people by their sex, race or presumed privilege as opposed to their character and accomplishments? It’s almost as if one says “Dr. Barnes was the perfect candidate, I just wish he wasn’t a white guy.” It’s ironic that our attempt eradicate sexism, racism and classism, in-turn create contempt for a perceived privileged “group”, the white male. Thoughts?

    • I understand the point; I have no beef with Dr. Barnes. If there was just one perfect candidate and all others paled by comparison, the point is taken. If, however, there were a number of really good choices of which Dr. Barnes was just the best, perhaps going another direction may have been best.

      Consider, too, the message and symbolism the choice of PTS President conveys.

  5. G. C. Ames says:

    The Search Committees for both Dr. Torrence and Dr. Barnes had significant representation of very active and qualified women (and racial/ethnic representation). In my class at PTS there were six women B.D. candidates (in those benighted days before the M.Div.) only three of which were candidates for ordination. These days, when my Presbytery meets, the attendees are more than half women. The active leadership is well more than half women. I would like to say it is because of their qualifications rather than the efforts of the Committee on Representation. I would like to think the same is true of the faculty of PTS. Drs. MacKay, McCord and Torrance brought amazing gifts, each in their day, to the life of the seminary and to the church at large. If we avow that gender has nothing to do with the charisms of the Spirit, I think we should look forward to the gifts that Dr. Barnes has been given by the Almighty for the future of the seminary rather than carp on “if only he was a she.”

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