Leader Profile: Connecting the Church and Community
Juggling a faculty assignment at Andover Newton Theological School and a part-time staff position at Union UMC In Boston, Rev. Carolyn Davis acknowledges ministry is quite a 'balancing act.' Read this leadership Q&A for insight on juggling multiple ministries and maintaining a margin for fun.
Rev. Carolyn Davis is an ordained deacon in the Texas Annual Conference. Deacons are United Methodist clergy called to Word, Service, Compassion, and Justice. Deacons lead the church in bridging and relating Christians to their ministries in the world through worship leadership, preaching, teaching, nurturing spiritual vitality and leading ministries of service, love, and justice. They work in congregations and many other settings like hospitals, social-service agencies, mission agencies, schools, counseling centers, denominational agencies, and more.
Q: What does your ministry focus currently include?
A: I wear a lot of hats at the moment. After a year devoted purely to research and writing, I am now also teaching at a seminary, serving in part-time ministry at a local Boston church, revising my dissertation, and entering the academic job market.
Q: What changes have you experienced recently?
A: The biggest transition lately has been coming on staff at Andover Newton Theological Seminary in Newton, MA. Here I am teaching systematic theology and a course on theories of gender and sexuality as a visiting Lilly Faculty Fellow in Theological Education. In my Vanderbilt doctoral program, I hold a fellowship from the Lily Foundation through the Program for Theology and Practice. From them, I’ve received six years of funding and special training in teaching for ministry and practical theology. This position serves as the capstone to this experience.
Q: What insights have you learned from your new teaching position?
A: The program has taught me how to continue making what I do directly relevant to the practice of ministry, and vice versa. So for instance, I designed a final project that I use in my classes which requires students to reflect on a real issue they’ve faced in ministry and then use the material we’ve covered in class to develop a constructive theological response. For instance, how do theologians like Karl Barth or Katherine Tanner help us think differently about preaching a funeral?
Q: How can the classroom setting be used to effectively share Christ, and to teach all nations (Matthew 28:19)?
A: I love teaching, and I firmly believe that we model as much about Christian ministry in seminary classrooms through the way we teach as we do in what we teach. I want my students to learn how to create effective spaces for theological reflection, because I think that this should also be a part of their practice of congregational leadership as they pursue their vocations. In my classes I spend less time lecturing and more time planning strategic discussion activities and collaborative learning projects. I spend a lot of time researching learning styles and methods, and the payoff has been great. My students are lively, engaged, and frequently report to me, and others, that they are absorbing and beginning to comprehend what is incredibly challenging material. We also laugh together a lot, and my students have helped me learn how to be authentic in the classroom. When you’re new to both teaching and scholarship, like I am, you often feel as if you don’t quite belong. It takes a while to grow into your own skin, as it I’m sure does for anyone new to a leadership position. Learning to be vulnerable, to be O.K. with making mistakes in front of those you serve, helps folks know that it’s ok if they do too. And I think that will help make them better ministers
Q: In what other ways are you serving?
A: Recently, I was brought on staff at Union United Methodist Church in Boston as their part-time interim minister of youth, young adults, and community service. Union is a historic, multicultural church right in the heart of Boston. Like many urban churches in transitional neighborhoods, it is also working to reconsider its mission and identity. A few weeks ago we held a special day of conversation for our congregational lay servants. They had been through extensive training, and all had areas of ministry they were excited about. However, the senior pastor and I wanted to help them concretize their vision and how it fit into Union’s strategic vision. To do that, I walked them through a discernment exercise that featured a “lectio divina” style of reflective reading. We read through the Magnificat several times, seeking God’s voice as it led each of us to specific places in the life of Union that connected to our gifts and passions. Afterward, each lay servant wrote and shared an ideal job description that led to a lively conversation about the relationship between our passions and our vision for the next steps we planned to take as a church.
Q: How do you help others find their passion and calling in ministry?
A: As I work with both students and congregation members, I find again and again that passion is not hard to come by. Everyone has something that makes them come alive. However, they often struggle with putting that passion into words. And, once it’s in words, they struggle with figuring out what the next step is – what resources they need, what relationships they need to foster—to make their own ministries as Christians a reality.
Q: What does transformational leadership mean to you?
A: The way I understand leadership, as a process of discernment and equipping, probably grows especially out of my identity as an ordained deacon. I have always resonated with the call to help all Christians find ways to live out their baptisms through ministry in the world. As such, in ministry I think an essential part of leadership in ministry involves helping others practice discernment and, as part of that, helping guide them to the resources they need to live out God’s call in their lives.
Q: How have you grown as a leader?
A: I’d have to say that I feel much of my growth in learning to lead has emerged from my efforts to grow in my spiritual practices. Activities like lectio divina, contemplative prayer, and meditation have shaped my ability to engage my students and congregants. I’ve always been known as a pretty strident, outspoken person, for better and for worse. I can’t say that I’ve completely set that aside, but I can say that intentional spiritual practices have helped me learn to be patient, to live on God’s time, and to remain committed to making space for others to grow and succeed in their ministries. It's a balancing act, but I have a great support system and have learned a lot from TAC folks about good time management and self care, so I manage OK and even find some time for fun here and there!
Q: How have you been influenced and inspired by others along your ministry journey?
A: In all my work, from my research on the theology of youth sexuality education to my teaching and my ministry, I’d say I’m especially influenced by the work of strong women leaders and theologians. I grew up greatly influenced by my mother, who has built a strong career as a leader in her field despite the challenges of being both a single mom and a woman in a male-dominated field. Throughout my theological education, I’ve watched feminist theologians push the boundaries of what we can say about God and God’s relationship with creation. How exciting it is to have theological leaders like Mary Elizabeth Moore, Traci West, or Catherine Keller emerge from our tradition and expand the field of theology! And from our own conference, leaders like Bishop Huie and Dr. Laceye Warner have modeled new ways of thinking about how we administer the institutions that support our connection. I am consistently inspired by all of them and others in my own ministry, and also especially in how I encourage younger women to pursue their calls in Christian leadership.