Committed to womanist theology, Trinity Lutheran Seminary and the ELCA’s Quality of Call Initiative for Women in Ministry have appointed Denise Rector as the seminary’s first joint doctoral scholar-in-residence (DSIR).

Womanist theology is an understanding of God and the world that centers on the experiences and insights of Black women. Trinity, part of Capital University in Columbus, Ohio, has made increasing efforts to give voice to historical and contemporary exploration of Christian faith based on the unique experiences and contributions of women of African descent.

The DSIR is awarded to ELCA women of color who are completing their dissertations in theology, biblical studies or religion. The position supports the practical and professional requirements of doctoral candidates as they complete their dissertations in fields that serve the ongoing reformation of the church.

Rector is completing her doctorate through the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. Her dissertation explores the feedback loop between historiography (how we imagine and write history) and epistemology (how we know) in the construction of African American racial identities throughout U.S. history and in the church.

“I became interested in the study of womanist theology when I realized that I wasn’t seeing myself—a Black woman—or the history of Black women represented in the teachings of some of the theology classes I was taking,” Rector said. She finds that womanist theology “recognizes the importance of including people … whose rich, cultural understandings of the divinity of God may not always show up in church on Sunday morning.”

Rector said it was essential to explore these issues faithfully and theologically and to understand their effect on how church history and American history are incorporated into the teachings of God’s creation. “For a long time, there has been an Americanist religion that doesn’t always reflect the racial and ethical variety of creation.”

Womanist theology “recognizes the importance of including people … whose rich, cultural understandings of the divinity of God may not always show up in church on Sunday morning.”

Kathryn Kleinhans, dean of Trinity, said the seminary is committed to looking at American history “through marginalized groups and telling their stories of history, theology and ethics that we haven’t told yet.”

In 2021, both ELCA Gender Justice and Women’s Empowerment and the anonymous-donor-funded ELCA Quality of Call Initiative supported Trinity’s activities related to the ELCA Womanist Theology Initiative. The project allows students at all ELCA seminaries to take classes focused on womanist theology, regardless of which seminary offers the course.

The appointment of Rector also builds on the success of “Hush No More: Perspectives From Womanist Theologians,” a series of seminars hosted by Trinity in fall 2021 on the development of womanist interpretation of Scripture and womanist perspectives on pastoral care.

Mary J. Streufert, ELCA director for the Quality of Call Initiative and for Gender Justice and Women’s Empowerment, said the doctoral scholar-in-residence is an investment in women.

“Supporting women of color working in fields such as womanist theology is also an investment in ministerial imagination and formation in the ELCA,” Streufert said. “I cannot wait to see the Holy Spirit continue to work.”

Rector, who expects to finish her dissertation in 2024, said Black women seminary professors are rare.

“Being here at Trinity Lutheran Seminary has been like landing in the best-feathered nest for someone starting a teaching career,” she said. “Dean Kleinhans wants to bring in professors of color to be part of the diversity of academia so students have exposure to theology taught with a culturally rich, expansive and inclusive view.”

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