Post Author: Rebecca Littlejohn
The Rev. Dr. Tamara Nichols Rodenberg was recently named as the 20th president of Bethany College, a private liberal arts college of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Bethany, West Virginia. Tamara and her husband John, Vice President of Philanthropy and Mission Implementation at Christian Church Homes, have two children, Heather and Matthew.
Can you give us a short summary of your career?
My career in ministry has led me through several manifestations of church including youth ministry, campus ministry, co-ministry (rural congregation/sub-urban congregation), and overseas ministry as a Common Global Mission’s Board missionary in Swaziland. In Swaziland, serving Kukhany’Okusha Zion Church in rural development and theological education, I realized that I needed to go back to school. I attended the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA, in order to complete a Ph.D. in Ethics & Social Theory with an emphasis on economic development. Toward the end of this time, the Disciples Seminary Foundation contacted me to consider applying for Dean of the Southern California program, a decision that made sense for myself, my husband John, and our two children under the age of four. As fate would have it, my predecessor (and truly excellent leader) Mary Anne Parrot soon chose to retire as president, and I was asked to consider becoming the interim president. I served as the DSF interim president until a new permanent president could be named. At this stage, we began the search process. Dr. D. Newell Williams of Brite Divinity School contacted me to see if I would consider serving in the role of Vice President for Advancement. This was a whole new world for me, and one I thought worth pursuing. We moved to Texas where I began learning the art of fundraising. This led me to the invitation to consider becoming a college president.
Would you have applied for the positions you’ve applied for if you hadn’t been specifically invited to do so?
In none of these cases did I see myself as the candidate. I had to be encouraged to apply by trusted advisors. As a result, my ministry has evolved based on having the courage to step out of the traditional track and say yes to challenging opportunities. I hesitated, also, because I do not enjoy the process of moving. I do not move easily, but have been called to move regularly. Thankfully, I am married to someone who loves to move!
Many young clergy women don’t consider themselves qualified for “big steeple” positions or their equivalents, and thus don’t apply for them. What advice do you have for choosing to make those kinds of leaps, or how to position oneself to receive the kind of invitations you have?
Take the challenge. If you are called, then you will know that God has equipped you for whatever situation you are about to enter. Yes, it will be tough going at times, but give it your all and be your authentic self. The rest will follow. Most especially, shine where you are! When women “take the bull by the horns” (a little Texas coming through) with the challenge directly in front of them, people begin to notice. I have always tried to dig in wherever I am, which is likely why I am rarely in an actual self-initiated search. When I hire, I look for similar commitment.
Which decisions along the way were hardest?
Without question, the hardest decisions have been around my dual role as mother and minister. Every opportunity has presented me with the question, “What is best for your children?” I have often wanted to hide behind that question; however, a wise person once told me that you teach your children by example. This is the advice that has directed my path. I am never just a professional and never just a mom; I am always both. This is indeed heart wrenching at times, but so very worth the journey.
How did your time as a missionary shape your sense of vocation? And can you tell your story about the woman’s preaching garment you had to leave behind?
Swaziland taught me that I am enough – just as I am – God will do the rest. I learned from the Swazis that it is okay to slow down and take time to include self-care and family-care into my everyday living, and that being yourself is really all that God is asking in the end. The story about the woman’s preaching garment is this: For the first several years in Swaziland, I was asked to teach theology for the indigenous pastors. Eventually, I taught classes including women leaders alongside men. Mother Bishop Sara Twala Dlamini was foremost among the women who studied and completed their Certificate in Theology from the Theological Education College in Johannesburg, SA. One evening while attending an all-night worship service, the women asked me to leave and accompany them out into the dark, starry night. I wondered what I had done wrong. The women, while singing, began to redress me! They had created a clergy uniform (typically reserved only for male clergy) for me – a woman’s uniform as an Umfundizi (Pastor). On the day we were preparing to return to the U.S., the Mother Bishop came to me and asked, “Would you please leave the Umfundizi uniform behind? We have women trained now. We will fill this uniform with Kukhayn’Okusha’s first ordained woman.” I could not have been happier to leave something behind. Not only the uniform, but also my heart.
Many women in ministry have stories of disrespectful or offensive things people have said to them. What have been some of your strategies for dealing with sexism when it’s right in your face?
Oh yes, one of the occupational hazards of leadership as women. I recall one Sunday while giving the Words of Institution at communion, an entire row got up and walked out of the church because a woman had touched the elements. The experience hurt deeply, but I also learned in that moment that I am more than their limited scope. I try to recall this lesson when I lean toward narrow-minded reactions myself and remember that others are also more than my limited view. It has taught me to look deeper. Sexism, or any “ism” for that matter, is a tool of power. My strategy for dealing with it is to name it. I will often ask, “Do you see how this looks?” I do not lead them to the answer; rather, I let them come to it on their own. It is a way of reclaiming your personal right and your intrinsic worth.
Is there anything else you’d like young clergy women to know?
Yes, one last thing: no decision worth considering is easy. The choice to lead is full of peril and promise. Choose to dwell on the promise and discipline yourself to trust that God will cover the peril. All of those I admire in leadership are, at heart, people of tremendous inner faith and people of contagious hope. Note that I did not say strength; after all who really is that strong? I take on this role at Bethany College fully aware of the peril and promise. I do so rooted in a deep and profound hope.
Rebecca Littlejohn, a recent alumna of The Young Clergy Women Project, is the pastor of Vista La Mesa Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in La Mesa, CA, outside San Diego.
Image by: Bethany College
Used with permission