Changing Church: Rev. Dr. Cheryl F. Dudley, Global Religions Director, Arcus Foundation

Rev. Dr. Cheryl F. Dudley

All of us have a tendency to imagine our lives within the frames of what is familiar. We often begin by looking at traditional models of church and traditional models of leadership, and wonder if substituting a woman in the traditional male role of pastor will bring about transformation and eradicate the discriminatory energies of sexism, racism, and classism. Our pre-judgments of who would be a good fit for our church defaults to the predominant make-up of a given congregation. An “elite” church is often looking for an “elite” pastor who mimics the pastors who have served the church in the past. We have to be aware and change our default settings. The best pastor for a given church may not be male, or the same race or from the same socio-economic background as once was customary for a congregation. When an alternative voice or leader appears, rather than rejoicing in the gift that has been sent, there is sometimes a lament of what may be lost in changing the model. I think that is faithlessness. Like Lot’s wife, churches can crystallize and freeze their salt for looking back rather than becoming the salt the community now needs to experience God’s presence anew. We need to find ways to encourage churches to be surprised by who God may be sending to shepherd them.

Rev. Dr. Cheryl F. Dudley makes these comments on the challenges that the interlocking injustices of sexism, racism, and classism pose for many clergywomen. She believes, however, that women pastors have the gifts to eliminate these “discriminatory energies” and create inclusive, multiethnic, multicultural churches. “Women pastors can be great catalysts for cultivating cross-cultural competence, i.e. sensitivity, awareness, etc., in congregants. It doesn’t just happen on its own, but cross-cultural competence happens through planting and tending the seeds in growing a diverse community of faith.”

In her various leadership roles, Rev. Dr. Dudley has made significant contributions to diversity and social justice. She contributed to economic justice through serving as Program Manager and then Executive Directive of Peoria Friendship House of Christian Service, a community-based ecumenical anti-poverty organization, and through serving on the Homeless Youth Task Force and on the Fair Employment and Housing Commission. In Peoria, Illinois, she also served as Acting Director of African American Studies at Bradley University.  She has served with American Baptist Mission Societies as Associate Executive Director of Church in Community Transformation, providing resources to increase effectiveness of communities with growing diversity, and as a member of the Affirmative Action Council of American Baptist Churches USA. As Senior Advisor to the President and CEO of Church World Service (CWS), Rev. Dudley managed relationships with diverse organizational partners, planned and produced an African Interfaith Summit in Washington, DC, and represented CWS in various global contexts and within the US. In her current position as Global Religions Director of Arcus Foundation, she identifies and cultivates religious partnerships to accomplish the strategic social justice work of the foundation. In addition, she serves as board president of Baptist Peace Fellowship of North American; board member of Faith, Hope, and Love Global Ministries; and member of the World Council of Churches Committee on Ecumenism in the 21st Century. An ordained American Baptist pastor, Rev. Dudley preaches, teaches, and leads seminars in churches and in denominational, ecumenical, and interfaith events in the US and around the world.

Because of her outstanding, creative leadership in these diverse settings, the ecumenical, multicultural Equity for Women in the Church Community invited Rev. Dr. Dudley to facilitate the Access and Equity for Women Clergy Conference this fall. The big vision for this historic gathering is to develop strategies to facilitate equal representation of clergywomen as pastors of multicultural churches in order to transform church and society. She says that she accepted this invitation because she “connected with the vision of the conference” that Rev. Sheila Sholes-Ross, co-chair of the Equity Community, passionately shared with her. “I also knew that I had quite a bit of experience working with diverse groups and a knowledge of networks of leaders and hoped-for goals. We will work prayerfully and practically to accomplish the conference’s goals.”

Personal experiences contribute to Cheryl’s desire to increase opportunities for women ministers of all ethnicities. She says that when she was a child, some of her “most profound spiritual teachers were women as well as men,” and that “this continues to be true.” Her parents instilled in Cheryl and in her sisters “that nothing was impossible” to them, even though they might experience sexism and racism. “We were also warned that we would need to work hard and that hard work might not be enough because of inherent resistance and abject discrimination in the world. Despite this, we were encouraged and sometimes shown ways to cross thresholds of resistance in order to be faithful to the vision God has planted within. I came to realize that ‘they wouldn’t let me’ was not an acceptable excuse. I was accountable to God, so that pushed me to look in unusual places: more often than not, those unusual places were where the most profound treasures were found. To be told ‘you can’t do that’ was a counter motivation to go ahead and prove that the barrier declared was a false one.”

Since childhood, Cheryl has had friends from many faith traditions. The older sister of one of her best childhood friends became a rabbi. “I have also met beautiful Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs,” Cheryl says. “In meeting and being impacted by persons of other faith traditions, I have found continuing clarity about why I believe what I believe, and about how I am able to connect to others who have similar values but different faith expressions.”

While appreciating gifts she’s received from diverse faith traditions, Rev. Dudley celebrates her own Baptist heritage. “I am a dyed in the wool Baptist. I continue to claim our sometimes odd and diverse clan even when we have fallen short of the glory of God. Our love of story, both scriptural and personal stories, as a narrative of our faith continues to draw. Prayer, song, and warm koinonia that bring together intellect and emotion fuel our faith and keep us true. I like to actively remember the good things about what it means to be a Baptist and discard the hurtful practices as not being authentically Baptist. I guess I am a selective Baptist in some ways. As a Baptist though, I have always sought out ecumenical alliances and friendships in order to experience a fuller view of the Christian faith. I’ve been fascinated and perplexed by the distinctions within the Christian family, and have been led at times to explore these distinctions and employ them into my own practice of faith if I have found them meaningful.”

In her practice of faith, Cheryl has found that inclusive images of the Divine are needed to affirm the divine image in everyone. “Many of the images of Christ found in churches I have attended over the years have been beautiful and tender artist’s renderings, but I think we recognized that these symbols are markers or shadows of the real truth of God’s fullness,” she says. “It is important for each of us who are created in God’s image to be able to identify herself in the Divine; otherwise, God’s Spirit would fail to speak to us in connective and enduring ways. I appreciate the gift of recognizing God’s image in a variety of cultural and gender forms. It’s exciting to recognize the beauty of God’s holiness within the diversity of the human experience.”

Inclusive worship language and pastoral leadership are thus important, Rev. Dudley asserts. “God is inclusive and revealed in many forms, faces, words, and acts. The God of all creation invites us into relationship with her and celebrates with us during those moments of recognition of grace and glory; this brings healing and reconciliation to us as individuals, as well as to the communities in which we live, work, and worship.”

Rev. Dr. Dudley believes that including women pastors from diverse cultures and multicultural female divine names and images in worship will change the church and the wider culture. “I believe the inclusion of diverse gifts helps us recognize and receive rather than reject and repel sisters and brothers within and outside of our faith community who are different from us and who too are longing for acceptance and community. When one experiences an ethnically and sexually diverse church, it becomes the new normal. Once a church becomes diverse, it won’t seem natural to go back to former monocultural experiences in worship and koinonia. Churches and communities who are used to having gender and ethnic diversities within their leadership or membership become practitioners of social justice and peace, no longer experienced in the theoretical or as an ethic or intellectual idea, but lived out in the day-to-day practice of faith.  It is in learning how to do ‘the diversity thing’ with less self-consciousness, self-congratulation, and unapologetically that we will be ‘called the children of God.’”

Women pastors from diverse cultures will also contribute to changing from hierarchical to egalitarian church structures, Rev. Dudley hopes. “I hate it when I see women pastors who default and adopt so-called male models of leadership,” she says. “Women pastors more often than not have to juggle other active roles and responsibilities in their lives such as being a spouse, partner, mother, caretaker of aging parents. They live out these roles, as well as, I pray, doing some self-care so they will flourish. I believe they can do these other roles better when freed from the stranglehold of hierarchical leadership. Ego and control are killers of the Spirit and of the person. The active expression of gifts from among the laity, rather than just the pastor herself, is a gift to the church. I think the use of effective leadership roles is a challenge for all pastors regardless of gender identity.”

In advocating for gender, racial, and economic justice, Rev. Dr. Dudley takes risks. But she says that the greater risk would be in not advocating for justice. “When one doesn’t risk, she forfeits her spirit and identity, and her salt is trampled under foot. When making a decision in my current call to advocate for sexual orientation and gender identity justice, I said to myself, ‘If I do this, there may be no going back.’ I felt the Spirit utter back, ‘There is no going back, daughter; there is only going forward.’ I breathed the sigh of peace in those moments of reckoning and receiving the opportunity to live my call out in another setting. Hey, we can’t do any ministry without God. We rely on God’s leading and listen for the still small voice to affirm the leading. We are reliant on God for the purpose, wisdom, and tenacity beyond our own ability so we are able to serve with courage, power, and a sound mind.”

Living out her prophetic call, Rev. Dudley has met plenty of resistance. “But you shake the dust off your feet and move on to the next town, so to speak.” She also offers advice on what to do when people affirm the work of social justice instead of engaging in it themselves. “There will always be others who are interested and proud that you are doing the heavy lifting they are unable to do. These others want to live vicariously through you, and they do. Let them! You find strength in others supporting you in active and in tacit ways.”

Rev. Dr. Cheryl Dudley articulates a hopeful, dynamic vision for the future of the church. “I think that vision is unfolding. I think the church will thrive, but not necessarily in the forms that we now know best. Technology and mobility have changed the world significantly over the last few decades. Despite rapid changes, people continue to yearn for meaning and connection. We will find new ways, maybe better ways to do it. My vision for the church is that the mystic and activist gifts of faith will intertwine and feed each other. There is a lot to do, and we need the strength to do it well.”



Leave a Reply

Scroll to top