Rhashell Hunter, at the Racial Ethnic Clergywomen's Leadership Institute, smiling and holding her hands.

Rhashell Hunter. Photos by Kim Hayes.

If the mountains deliberately invoke a feminine aspect of the divine, as Biblical scholars have posited, it was only fitting that a select group of racial ethnic clergywomen in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) – nominated by their presbytery and synod executives – gathered here in the heart of the majestic Blue Ridge Mountains to be inspired, connected, equipped, and encouraged to pursue key leadership positions within the denomination.

Held here from September 19-22, the inaugural Racial Ethnic Clergywomen's Leadership Institute was presented by the Racial Ethnic and Women’s Ministries/Presbyterian Women ministry area, PC(USA), in partnership with the Center for Faith and Life at Montreat Conference Center.

Affirming the institute's spiritual dimension and its "serene setting" – including break times, networking opportunities and wisdom sharing – as equally important as its programmatic content, the Rev. Dr. Rhashell Hunter, director of Racial Ethnic and Women's Ministries/Presbyterian Women for the General Assembly Mission Council (GAMC), described partnering with Montreat as "a beautiful thing," essential toward achieving both the institute’s practical as well as its spiritual objectives.

"As you see, the Christ candle is lit again today," Hunter told the gathering, "reminding us that Christ is here among us, that we are all children of God, and that this is a spiritual time as well as a time of learning."

The institute's leadership team was composed of members of the GAMC staff, the Office of the General Assembly (OGA) staff, executive presbyters, pastors, Montreat Conference Center staff, and others, to help the thirteen racial ethnic clergywomen explore leadership styles, strengthen management skills, and receive support in their calls to ministry.

"We felt it was very important for this first institute to address a body of people who have not been attended to in the church," Hunter said, citing her ministry area's vision for women's leadership development in the PC(USA), which will eventually include opportunities for elders and other church leaders. "In women’s ministries, we are seeking to provide practical ministry opportunities for women, so we were very intentional and focused for this particular institute, which was designed to strengthen and nurture the gifts of racial ethnic clergywomen and inspire them to greater leadership roles in executive and senior leadership in congregations, middle governing bodies, and in the General Assembly."

Diverse as to age, geography, racial-ethnic heritage and ministry background, the participants found that they nevertheless shared common dreams and visions.

"From my experience here I already know I have great sisters," said the Rev. Johanna Lee, a Korean-American member of the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta, on the institute's first night.  "I'm not alone, I have great support, great care, and all of that is from God."

Of her recent experiences in life and ministry – including having recently taken an extended leave from chaplaincy to care for her infant granddaughter who underwent a heart transplant in January – Lee said, "I learned and I received. Now I’m ready to give."

Headshot of Johanna Lee.

Johanna Lee, a participant at the Racial Ethnic Clergywomen’s Leadership Institute.

Participants, like Lee, who came to the institute open to the leading of the Holy Spirit in pursuing new calls, heard in Hunter’s opening presentation the encouraging presupposition that opportunities exist for racial ethnic women as heads of staff, middle governing body executives, General Assembly staff, and in other leadership roles in the church.  Hunter added that because such opportunities require preparation in areas often not addressed by a seminary education, the institute would play a key role in introducing such subjects as managing large staff organizations, understanding multi-million dollar budgets, employment and legal issues, interviewing skills, and human resources policies.

"Some people have done some management and they don’t know that they've done it," Hunter noted. "We had an interview once with a racial ethnic woman for a fairly high position, and we said, ‘You’re going to manage a large staff. Have you managed people before?' When she said no, I asked further clarifying questions and learned that as pastor of her church, she had a small staff, but she did not recognize her own management experience."

Hunter said that one of the institute’s objectives was for participants to be equipped to do well in such situations as they become inspired to seek out greater leadership roles in the denomination.

Because there are more clergywomen than ever in the history of the church – 27% of ordained clergy in the PC(U.S.A.) are women – Hunter emphasized the importance that women understand not only the unique leadership styles and gifts they bring to ministry, but also how they will shape the church of the future, especially toward ensuring greater diversity in church leadership.

"There are many leaders, including Linda Valentine, executive director of the General Assembly Mission Council, who are currently asking for diversity, but she needs folks to come forward and she needs folks to submit names and she needs folks to work with her,"Hunter stressed. "She can't just say, 'I've got to make sure the church is diverse,' it's all of our jobs to make sure the church is diverse."

Both Hunter and Valentine – who was also an institute presenter on the subject of "Governance as Leadership" – addressed critical issues of how leaders lead, acknowledging that factors and lenses of gender, race, ethnicity, education, and others profoundly influence leadership style.

"Women and racial ethnic people operate differently," Hunter told the gathering. "Your gift to the church may be that at a certain point you figure out authentically who you are and you share your authentic self. My hope for all of you is that you get to a place where it's your leadership and not the leadership that you think someone else wants from you."

A women in a traditional blue Kenyan dress speaking from a lectern.

Lucy Mungai, an ordained Presbyterian elder and Kenya native, who serves at the Church of All Nations in Minneapolis, Minn; a presenter at the institute.

In addition to Hunter and Valentine, presenters on the institute’s first day included Nancy Young, coordinator for Racial Ethnic and Women’s Leadership Development/Racial Ethnic Schools and Colleges in the GAMC, Lucy Mungai, an ordained Presbyterian elder and Kenya native, who serves at the Church of All Nations in Minneapolis, Minn., Helen Locklear, regional representative of the Board of Pensions for the Synod of the Mid-Atlantic, and Merri Alexander, vice president for the Center for Faith and Life at Montreat Conference Center. An evening “Conversation with Executive Leaders in the PC(USA)” was facilitated by Marissa Galván-Valle, associate for Resources and Relationships with the Hispanic/Latino-a constituency of the PC(USA), and featured Linda Valentine, Barbara Campbell Davis, executive presbyter/stated clerk of New Hope Presbytery, and Arlene Gordon, recently retired executive presbyter of the Presbytery of Tropical Florida. Presentations later in the week featured Arlene Gordon, Jewel McRae, associate for Church Leadership Connection Administration and Racial Ethnic Referral in the PC(USA)'s Office of Vocation, Valerie Small, Assistant Stated Clerk, manager for General Assembly Nominations, Office of the General Assembly, and Diane Givens Moffett, pastor at St. James Presbyterian Church in Greensboro, N.C.

In her morning devotions, based on Psalm 90, the Rev. Betty Gilbert Griffin of Indianapolis, Ind., perceptively spoke to the heart of the institute's short and long-term goals.  "This is the beginning of a new day," she said. "We have been given this day to use. We can waste it or use it for good. What we do today is important because we are exchanging a day of our life. When tomorrow comes, this day will be gone forever and in its place will be something that we have left behind. Let it be something good."