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Rev. Dr. Emilie M. Townes

Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary 1989

Dean of the Divinity School; the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of Womanist Ethics and Society, Vanderbilt Divinity School, Nashville, Tennessee

While maintaining a very active schedule as Dean of the Divinity School at Vanderbilt University—setting the vision and tone for the school, overseeing finances and raising money, upholding rules and regulations, acting as administrator and ambassador—Dr. Emilie Townes intentionally makes time to teach. She loves teaching and understands it as crucial for the leadership of any divinity school or seminary. Without classroom time, she would not know the students, nor would she be able to understand their needs and concerns. This commitment to teaching stems from her understanding of collegiality:

Collegiality captures a commitment to relationship, a commitment to whatever the vision of the institution may be, and a commitment to working together, no matter what.

Reminding herself that everyone she comes in contact with is a partner in the work of teaching and learning, Dr. Townes believes nothing she does in ministry is outside the bounds of relationship and relationship-building.

Justice also is a key concept for Dr. Townes. In her writing and in her teaching, she explores justice as right relationship with one another, equity, and fairness (as much as one can be fair), a concept that expands beyond individual or group interest to the flourishing of all life. This kind of justice involves a care for the earth, and for all of God’s creation. Dr. Townes seeks to continually open spaces in which God’s creatures can flourish, all the while making no distinction between the sacred and the profane. In her view, all of life is spiritual and infused with the presence of God.

Dr. Townes is clear that she does not do the work of ministry for institutions—either to uphold them or to tear them down. When she walks onto campus, the first things she sees besides buildings are people, and it reminds her in a visceral way of the call to work with people. Because she is in relationship with those around her, she cares about others and creation and seeks to live this out in her daily life. She believes strongly in the promise and hope of possibility, and of refusing to settle for the present reality.

For Dr. Townes, faithfulness in ministry is far more than obedience; it is an informed, awake, and responsive commitment to God’s call, separate from what we want to do on our own. It is not about doctrines, dictums, or ordinances, but about being clear that “We are listening to God and responding to those ways in which God is asking us to step out into creation and partner with God in all the various ways we can do that.”

Garrett-Evangelical allowed her to see the possibilities of a theological education and honed the skills she brought from her earlier education and experience. CBE became a place of solace, much laughter and humor, and community—reminding her of the importance of not trying to do all the work by herself. Being around many different kinds of people was instrumental in helping her realize who she was and who she was becoming: “It played a key role in humanizing my educational journey.”

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