Reverend Matthew Wesley Williams is the 11th President of the Interdenominational Theological Center, a historically Black ecumenical graduate theological school in Atlanta, GA. Rev. Williams, an expert in the field of theological education, has built national programs and partnerships to advance opportunities for institutional change, faculty development, doctoral education, leadership formation, young adult vocational discernment, and diversity, equity, and inclusion in higher education.
Reverend Williams was the Vice President of Strategic Initiatives for the Forum for TheologicalExploration (known as FTE), a national leadership incubator. During the 15 years Rev. Williams was with FTE, he designed and led initiatives that built the capacity of academic institutions and faith-rooted organizations to inspire, form, and equip emerging leaders.
This is the second of a two part Sound of the Genuine with Rev. Williams.
Music by: @siryalibeats
Portrait Illustration by: Olivia Lim
Matthew Wesley Williams
Patrick: Hey, what's going on, it's Dr. Patrick Reyes here with the second episode with president Matthew Wesley Williams of ITC. And if you have been listening to this story, you know the genesis from Chicago to Atlanta and really changing the game in theological education. I'm really excited for you to hear where he takes this story next.
Sounds like things are coming together. You cultivate this inner life and come on the other side of graduating from ITC. You've had both now - you've had that strong leadership, you know what that model looks like for the church. You know what bringing up leaders looks like. I mean, you're given Thurman with the inner life and Baker giving us a different way of doing this. You're now coming into a leadership context where you are going to professionalize it, you know, you got to do this, you gotta live your another way at this point. What is that first start looking like you get out of ITC?
Matthew: Yeah, what I can't overlook is that by the time I leave ITC, I'm married. You know, it kind of weirded me out at the time but folks used to tell me how much Alexis reminded them of my mother. So while she's very animated, she's also a very much a contemplative as well. We accompany one another in our own kind of spiritual lives and development. When I was dating and I hated dating in Atlanta, but I knew I didn't want to date anybody who had ever seen me preach. I didn't want to date anybody who knew me from any public performance. Alexis and I, both from Chicago - she was in the friend circle of my older brother so we kind of knew of one another from back then. And we got connected through a mutual friend. You know, it was sparks from day one. But like I had met a soul friend and there was no aspect of myself or of the world that we couldn't discuss or talk about in full disclosure and acceptance. And you know, Howard Thurman talks about love as that condition of being completely known and totally accepted - that's what I found in her. She was a key, key piece of me finding my way and a key piece of me finding myself again. Because she could see me in ways I couldn't see me. Coming out of seminary, my first job was actually in public health. My final year of seminary, I was in this experimental…what we called ministry in context or field education course, it's a year-long, on environmental sustainability and justice. We spent some time in the classroom, but most of our work was done in the field literally walking and scanning neighborhoods and observing how these systems were designed to generate the kinds of community health and environmental outcomes that we were seeing that was feeding these statistics. The second semester of that course, we were building projects based off of our learning that addressed either sustainability or justice in one way or another. That's where I wrote my first grant proposal and worked on a conservation project that would have retrofitted one of the buildings on ITC’s campus to the tune of about $700,000. I worked with an architect to sketch costs and look at, even just some low level fixes, what they would require, and put a full proposal in front of the board that they approved, but never funded. But it was an important exercise, that in retrospect sparked my imagination around what theological education could be. But it also in the final year of seminary provided me what I could then really categorize on my resume as an internship. As I began looking for jobs, found this listing for the national black leadership initiative on cancer at Morehouse School of Medicine and read the description, I said, oh, whoa, this feels like right up my alley. It's in public health, but it, it speaks to some of my core concerns and through an interview process ended up beating out a person with a masters in public health, for a public health position. And I leveraged that experience, the skills that I've built there, to get that job. First professional job was coordinator for the Southern region of the national black leadership initiative on cancer, which was a social behavioral study built in a community-based participatory research model, so that it involved policy education, the development of cancer coalitions that are community-based. In 10 states we had 16 community-based cancer coalitions from North Carolina to Texas - they were doing community health education, policy education, health fairs just all kinds of things related to five sites of cancer that were disproportionately impacting African-Americans. The thing about this is that in doing that work in the south and developing leadership on the local level that then impacted policy, community health outcomes…we could not move that work without the church. I needed every bit of everything I had done and experienced to do this work effectively. At ITC, from a black theological perspective, we had done work in theories of education, we had done work in, again, public health, environmental justice, and sustainability. So I had kind of an eye into a variety of disciplines that integrated with theology. But what I encountered in public health was this disciplinary myopia. So we were doing public health in the banking model, in a we're gonna educate the community with these slides and static pieces of content that we just dump on communities and then expect them to behave differently. You can't change health or behavioral outcomes and then health outcomes by giving people information. That's not how it works. And I knew that because of my theological education. And so I then was participating in the society of public health educators and really trying to push this question of why are we not engaging educational theory in public health education? And was extremely frustrated even in public health and was then also experimenting with ways of organizing clergy around human protections and research. And so we had this kind of regional conference around that where we were building these intersections. I served as the representative for Morehouse School of Medicine on what was called the Georgia Ethnic Health Network. At the time we were, really organizing African-American Latino and pan Asian communities in Georgia around smoke-free legislation in Georgia, which is why you can't smoke in most establishments anymore, and worked across racial and ethnic lines to begin to organize. And saw some themes that I would later see at FTE around how this work takes shape very, very differently in different communities of color. And again, the ways in which even in that work - the institutional, railroad tracks that African-Americans had and have with the church, with schools, with media and otherwise, provided channels for organization and mobilization that helped me to appreciate and understand the wealth of institutional resources - although we often see ourselves in a place of poverty related to the conquistadors, the wealth of institutional resources that we actually have that can be utilized in service to what we hope to do.
So I got to see those things operating outside of the field of theology, outside of the church, recognizing how critical theology and how critical these institutional spaces are not just for us doing church, but for us actually impact the quality of life, the wellbeing, the sustainability and sovereignty - opportunities for self-determination of our people. That was my next step after seminary. Actually, while I'm working at Morehouse School of Medicine, I got a call or an email from Melissa Wigington at FTE. And I remember at the time kind of praying, like I want to be closer to the church. I don't want to be no pastor, but I do feel like I can be a resource to the church in a way. And so she called me and said, I want you to consider a ministry opportunity here at FTE, which at the time was part-time work in recruitment for the seven fellowship programs that FTE had at the time, which span from undergraduates who were exploring ministry through seminarians, who were considered at the time the best and the brightest was the language that was used. And then on to people of color in the academy, particularly students who are considering doing the PhD. And those seven fellowships were stewarded by two incredible women - one again, Melissa Wigington who oversaw the undergraduate and ministry fellowships and then Sharon Watson Fluker who oversaw the doctoral programs.
I came in as a recruiter in a way to kind of help them come off the road. I was doing that in a part-time capacity while I was still working at Morehouse School of Medicine. And within the next couple of years, came on full time at FTE.
Patrick: And you did a number of things. I mean I'm thinking of all that you just named between organizing, bringing along faith communities. I mean, you weren't just a recruiter for these programs. It was quick that…going back to sharing an office with our current president, Stephen Lewis, you went through bringing all this experience, all that you've named from the freedom to leadership development, family, but now you're living life in Atlanta and establishing yourself and working with an institution that goes back to ‘54 and ‘68 in the doctoral programs and thinking through how to really transform a modern institution for a 21st century world. What was that like? You did everything at FTE. I don't think we've had work that you haven't done. And now that you're on the podcast, you've done it all. It's the only thing new! So tell us about that experience.
Matthew: Well FTE then is not FTE now. Let me start there. It's a very, very different organization. And just for context, this is 2004 ...came on full-time, 2006, so you're talking about seven years after what was a defunct organization. This organization had moved to Atlanta under James Waits. And Sharon Watson Fluker and Melissa Wigington together really were the two who rebuilt the organization. Jim waits had secured the funding and moved to Atlanta, actually just, just prior to his retirement. And the story goes that he handed Melissa and Sharon the grant and said, all right go do it! He went on vacation and they did it. Over the course of seven years built something that had now, a footing in the field really based around these fellowship programs. At the time man, it was very much I would say, very much a white organization with a board that was comprised of representatives from predominantly white male mainline denominations. And in its organizational imagination it saw itself being accountable to the white Protestant mainline church. Some might say, no, that's not what we were doing, but I don't think it was explicit. It was just a tacit kind of assumption baked into the design of the organization. And in its moderate way of being, allowed for a smattering of people of color who could approximate the models of ministry and leadership and even could fall into the profile of potential that looked like what they recognized. People of color represented in its ministry programs consistently about 20% of its application pool and that was a consistent 20% across communities of color over the course of about 10 years. And of course it was a diversity engine for the theological academy in the sense that the doctoral programs, the whole purpose was to supply the pipeline...future faculty with the kind of well-prepared faculty of color who could become a cadre over time in the academy. The assumption was if you feed the system with enough people that those people could be kind of the avant garde of change in the academy. That's how it was built. To be frank, those doctoral programs, while I would say they were at the time and have been FTE' s longest standing contribution, even going back to the late sixties, to the academy those doctoral programs were not at the center of FTE’s focus. Those doctoral programs had always had to fight for their place at the table, not just because of the internal dynamics within the organization, but also because of the priorities that the organization was bound to – how bout we put it that way. Like I said, I came into a very, very different organization than I left. I came into the organization as a recruiter and my work on the ministry side of things with undergraduate and ministry fellowships was essentially, you know, DEI. I was the diversity guy and I was tasked with breaking that 20% ceiling, not just in the application pool, but in the participants who were selected for the programs. This is my first time, Pat, actually working in a, not just a predominantly white environment, but a culturally white environment. You know, I had been in those spaces before but hadn't worked professionally in those spaces before. And so it took me a while to begin to understand beyond, you know, microaggressions and those kinds of obvious things, how the assumptions of white supremacy can be baked into the design of an institutional organization. I think it's [what] Bonilla-Silva calls racism without racists. I kind of banged my head against the wall for three years trying different tactics and strategies to decrease the diversity deficit in those programs. After three years, those numbers not budging and then doing the deeper dive to look at that pattern over a 10-year period, begin to realize in conversation with a constellation of leaders, I did kind of a listening tour - a mini listening tour where I was sitting down with folks like Frank Yamada and Juan Martinez and others asking questions about FTEs programs. And coming to recognize that the problem wasn't tactics and strategies, the problem was the design of our programs that was based on the baked in institutional assumptions about what potential looks like: what quality leadership requires, what stands proxy for potential for leadership, right? It's not just your ability to write a good essay. And what are the kind of precursors to quality pastoral leadership that one might look for, to begin to notice, what sound or even not just sound but transformative leadership requires.
How are leaders prepared and noticed and named and nurtured in a variety of settings? Then how are leaders deployed? Right? What's the life of leadership in these different communities and what implications does that have for the way in which we have to begin to design a developmental processes and programs? What it helped me to begin to see, or helped me to begin to do was ask a different set of questions. Not questions about the constituents we were trying to serve, but questions of the institutional assumptions that were baked into our design. When you begin to turn those questions in on the institution, that's disruptive. Meanwhile, I'm still asking those questions, Pat, about there's gotta be another way because by this time mind you I'm in my late twenties and I've begun to identify, name, reflect on those shards of that shattered worldview, that shattered theology, shattered cosmology, and I'm coming to that place where I think I got a handle on what was broken, but now, what do I do with this? How do I begin to craft a way of being and doing in the world that not only helps me, but helps others avoid the kinds of pitfalls and scrapes and scars that I have both endured and created in my own ups and downs? Meanwhile, you know, I'm sharing an office with Stephen Lewis. And there's a longer story about how Stephen Lewis and I, kind of like a double helix, we just kept finding one another through mutual mentors and places of study and service when we both got to Atlanta.
But we wound up at FTE at the same time, sharing an office, really both asking a similar set of questions about man, there's got to be another way. The way we were both kind of socialized into ministry and leadership, this can't be life! This cannot be the way this thing goes. And I, in this diversity role, alongside a few colleagues was also asking those questions about the design of the organization that was generating these disproportionate inequitable results over time. This is in the context of a field beginning to ask itself some questions, because this is a time in which there was a conversation about the aging clergy in denominations, conversations about the flat and diminishing enrollment in theological schools, conversations where there were these early signs of decline in the field. Of a glut of folks coming through seminary, but there not being any jobs for these folks to move into. Couldn’t get young people interested in ministry, all of these kinds of questions. There were these kind of early signs of things are changing. What's also happening is we're beginning to have these 2040 conversations. These conversations about this moment in which there won't be a racial majority in the country. And what are those implications for theological education? You know, the black and brown folk are coming, what are we gonna do about this? All of these questions are begining to surface and some of the fundamental assumptions that had shaped the field for the prior few decades were beginning to be called to question, if not beginning to kind of disintegrate. So it was in that context that FTE was beginning to ask itself a number of questions, going through a few leadership transitions, and also having a few crisis moments that begin to unearth, again, these kind of baked in assumptions that have generated its design, and it gave us an opportunity through some very, very painful moments, to explore how we might do things differently.
Patrick: As you think about these transitions, you're leading them. You're responsible for leading them. Transitioning programs, people, an institution, trying to change that design. As you start to imagine what your own leadership's going to look like, you're starting to get early wins and early challenges. I mean, I also have this image of your mom sitting in front of the storm, like these storms are happening around you. You have always been great at finding the stillness to take time to reflect and contemplate and slow down and say, hey, we need to pay attention to what's happening in our bodies, in our people. When do you start imagining where you're at now, like you're about to go back to ITC and lead, taking all of this experience and wisdom, back to your alma mater.
Matthew: The funny thing is that after leaving ITC, in that whole period of 15 years, [I] was kind of watching my alma mater from afar in many ways deal with a lot of the questions that the larger field was trying to make sense of as the field itself, within the larger context of the changing landscape of American religion or religion in America is changing, not to mention Christianity in America. And theological education is undergoing just this disruptive destabilization. This historically black theological school that's my Alma mater and nourished me into integrative health, is undergoing like a spin cycle of a crisis, and I'm watching it from afar. Across town I'm participating in, after this period of organizational discernment working alongside Stephen Lewis and the rest of the team, to transform this 60+ year-old organization, formed in 1954, ironically with the same family money that funded ITC at its inception. But I'm working over here at FTE responding proactively to the changing landscape of theological education, the church. Again, meanwhile, my alma mater is going through a lot of changes. I think what's important to say is FTE became a laboratory that, in fact, our office was a laboratory in which we - in service to what we were trying to get done in terms of building new platforms for leadership formation and development - like for example, we started a pastoral leadership development program called Project Rising Sun, specifically for black and brown pastors in the south and brought together disciplines and elders and expertise from a variety of fields, for theological and religious leaders but from a broader conversation about transformative, liberative organizational leadership, that...it became our graduate school where we began to learn from elders in education, economics, political and community organizing, to really expand our imagination around and also to give us a broader tool set to bring to bear on this field that we are operating in. A field that is often too myopic, too insular, and only talks to itself. Having those tools, conversation partners, a broader ecology from which to draw, helped us to bring some experiments, which over time became solutions to FTE. Now, when it comes to ITC, how did I come back home? Stephen and I had gone to a conference in California called SOCAP, Social Capital Markets, which for me was one of the most fascinating constellations of human beings I've ever been around. When we were on our way back, Stephen asked me, man what's your biggest takeaway from this experience and I'm talking about an experience where we're sitting there in conversation with economists, venture capitalists, community organizers, indigenous healers, you know, tech innovators, just you name it. He said, Matt, what's your biggest takeaway? I say, I'm thinking too small.
Couple of weeks later, I'm in my office and I get a call from a friend of mine, classmate of mine who caught wind that our board at ITC had been thinking about selling the land. We were kind of right at the beginning of a season in theological education where a lot of schools, particularly freestanding schools were considering merger, closure, or some kind of radical restructuring. And in fact, Dan Aleshire, at the time, had predicted that over the next 10 years about a third of the field would undergo a similar kind of process. I think the field has actually exceeded that by this point but, ITC was considering selling the land and beginning to put some feelers out for that. And I went up in flames and I said to my friend the only reason you would consider selling 10 and a half acres in the heart of downtown Atlanta in the shadow of Mercedes-Benz stadium is that you don't have an imagination.
And he said, that's why I told him to call you. I said, who? He said the board. I said they ain't called me. By that night I was on the phone with the president and told him that I want to help find a solution to this issue and the solution is not selling the land. That actually might be a temporary cash infusion but ultimately what it would do is ensure the death of this beloved institution. That led to a series of conversations, on and off over the next, the next year or so. And late summer 2018 the board had authorized Dr. Wheeler, who was the president at the time, to establish a task force around some institutional concerns.
And so he actually invited me - he basically turned over the process to me. We compose a task force together and he said, Matt, I need you to run it. I'm not going to be over your shoulder. You do it. I was moving into my 15th year at FTE and I knew it was time. In fact, I had another one of those moments, those contemplative moments where the light bulb came on - spirit ancestor said very clearly, this is going to be your last grant cycle. And so I began preparing to make a lateral move into consulting full-time. I was doing some consulting on the side actually outside of the field of religion. And you know, we had built some work in the institution where we were kind of operating in a coaching and consultative capacity with academic institutional leaders as well. And meanwhile I'm doing this taskforce for my alma mater and it was a cross-section of trustees and staff and faculty, alumni, community stakeholders, and we engaged students in the process, but that process caught a hold of me. When that task force first convened in the Gardner C. Taylor archives at ITC, the feeling of ancestral presence in that room was palpable. I could literally touch it. Felt like we were wading through water in the room. From the outset, I knew I was, I was called to this work, not to ITC, but to the work that we were in as a task force. We called ourselves the ITC 2.0 task force and said at the outset that our work was not to try to save ITC as we knew it -because there had been not only this spin cycle of crisis, but this public narrative of crisis, which further debilitated the institution over time - our work is to begin the process of co-creating the ITC that our communities and churches need. What does that look like? That's not repairative work, that's design work, which required us to think at the level of the system, which required us then also to think at the level of the assumptions that are baked into the system, right, drawing back to that FTE question.
What we clearly began to identify is that the assumptions that were baked into the business model, the educational model of ITC we're built for a former time. And we were in a moment where institutions broadly were crumbling because they kept trying to apply programmatic answers to institutional and systemic problems, like changing the chairs on the deck of the Titanic. Because of our inability or unwillingness to think at the level of the system, those basic assumptions that, as Juan Martinez would say, the consensus which gave rise to the structures of which we are a part is fractured. And our inability to come to grips with the way in which that consensus, that set of agreements around how we see our work, how we see ourselves and our own identities within that work, our inability to reckon with those pieces, set us up to tie ourselves to crumbling structures. Those were the kinds of questions we were taking on in that task force. And let me just say in the carnage of those crumbling structures are the most vulnerable among us. And there's a lot of people drowning right now in debt, in systems that are choking them out, in religious structures, institutions, churches, schools, it's largely because we can't see ourselves and understand ourselves outside of and apart from these forms that we've participated in.
So going on to the story, after seven months of work and really answering three questions: do an analysis of the kind of field of theological education and the shifting landscape specifically in relationship to black theological education, do an assessment of the condition of the institution - the innards of the institution, to the extent that we could from an outside point of view, and then third, in light of those first two, beginning to project a future for the institution, if any. And what we came to were three primary findings or conclusions, a lot of other recommendations but three primary conclusions. One was that ITC's mission around educating women and men to practice justice and peace through a liberating and transforming spirituality from an African centered lens, to produce leaders who participate in ministry and leadership in global and local, that mission has never been more necessary and urgent. The second finding was that ITC as a nexus of black religiosity where you not only have five denominations officially affiliated with ITC, but [the] student body represents another 15 denominations, you’re talking about a broader swath of Black Christian religion and I would say Black religion broadly in one institution in one place then you'll find anywhere else on these shores. And so that positioning, especially given the fact that we know that the future of theological education is black and brown, that these predominantly white institutions that you and I have consulted with and worked with - these predominantly white institutions are seeing an influx, and I was even saying insurgency of black and brown students, and in some cases of black and brown faculty, and they have no idea what to do with them. In most cases, these predominantly white institutions, because they won't do, refuse to do because they can't understand themselves outside these traditional forms, these predominantly white institutions are paying black and brown folk to come and be traumatized, right? Precisely because they've commodified black and brown bodies and recognize that the market of theological education, going into the future, relies on their ability to attract and retain black and brown students and black and brown scholars and so everybody now has diversity/equity/inclusion as a part of their work. But what we know is that most of them are not willing to do the hard work of addressing, not the issue of representation, but the issue of culture and climate and practice and policy that actually shapes the experiences of students and scholars. And so you and I, Pat, were on the receiving end of all this trauma triage, we were trauma nurses, right? And ITC, other historically black institutions have been where the field now is and it's trying to figure out how to operate. We've been doing education suited for, designed for, black and brown communities in a way that others are trying to figure out - we've been doing this since our inception and we've been doing it resourcefully in under resource dconditions in a way that if others tried to do it under these conditions, they would drown. We've been doing it for over 60 years. And so you're talking about a unique nexus, particularly positioned in this field at a moment where the field has caught up with where ITC has always been, and this genius deserves visibility. So that's the second finding. But then the third finding was that if ITC is going to fulfill its mission and vision, it will require a top to bottom overhaul of the institution. No stone left unturned. Those findings were what we presented and we made some recommendations at the time. Honestly, the board didn't know what to do with it. Actually on the day that we made that presentation - I was on my feet for 90 minutes - later that day, the then president announces his intent to go back into retirement. In subsequent conversations I was invited to consider being the interim president.
And I'll never forget that conversation. I was moving into full-time consultancy. At FTE.I had already announced, I'm out July one. I was moving into this work I was excited about and I got this invitation and first I said I would consider it. And then after some prayer and contemplation and conversation felt called to it and said yes to it. That overhaul began then. There were three things that had to happen.I knew coming in order to begin to pivot from the spin cycle of a crisis, to what we began to call ITC 2.0., and one was in that honest conversation with the board, was at the governing board had to change. I remember, we talked about the need to change the board, the board chair at the time said, "well Reverend sounds like you are telling us we need to vote ourselves out of a job." My answer was yes. And the executive committee agreed and began to write up new bylaws. By October 9th of ‘19, we got a new set of bylaws established that just brought things up to code in terms of standards of good governance, which then called for a recomposition of the board, which was then seated in May of 2020. And then turnover of the executive team and the establishment of a financial runway stabilizing, in the short term, that would then enable us to make some strategic long-term choices that would put us on the footing to pursue this future we call ITC 2.0. I was appointed permanent in June of 2020 but the last two years been a process of establishing the footing from which we build and grow. In many ways it's what we call the Sankofa moment, the Sankofa bird being that Akan symbol from West Africa of that bird who reaches over its back to go back and fetch an egg. It's walking forward while its neck is turned backwards over his body. The translation of that symbol is to go back and fetch that what you need to forge your future. So much of what ITC is becoming is based on making more visible and vocal what ITC has always been. Not in the forms that we've always done it but with, again the genius, the perspectives, the diversity's that have always been baked into who ITC is and has become over the years.
Patrick: I'm excited about what you're dreaming up, what it represents for the field and I'm going to ask a final question I've asked all the guests, but I just want to parrot back a little bit here because what I hear you doing - I'm going all the way back to the southside of Chicago, to Dr. Lewis doing the Tai Chi, with elders present, taking community serious, with your granddad, with your dad in his study, your mom, all of these kinds of moments that you had in the church that were in the public and the private spaces where the ancestors came to get you at ITC, falling in love with Alexis, making a life, at FTE dreaming up with Stephen Lewis and now the task force - the veil between the material and spiritual world in the task force, in the call of institutional leadership, can be very thin if even present at all, if you're doing the work right. So I'm curious about your leadership now, as you see yourself as a president leading this, accompanying this institution, how much of your sense of call to this work, to this life is that inner work, that inner voice, that living into that leadership that you said needed and how much is driven by that narrative of the community that has always been around you, has taken little Matt serious and taken the Matt now serious? I mean, how much of that vocation is that inner and outer life?
Matthew: Absolutely. Man, it’s all inner/outer. I mean, good gracious. As I think about the origin story of how I got here, I actually have to it back further to my journey through cancer, which you were present for. I say my journey through cancer and not my battle with cancer because I never characterized it as a war. I didn't characterize it in pugilistic terms. I wasn't fighting it. I recognized it early on through the help of some wise folk around me, who also ...who knew the veil well. It was a healing process. It's an integrative process that helped me gain, again, access not just to my inner life, but to the ancestral and the spirit world as resources and guides for my activity, and helped me to understand, you know, all this theory I had been in around living systems, helped me to understand that in a real way about what dis-eased systems looked like and what it requires to bring dis-eased systems into wholeness. In that case that dis-eased system was my very body. If I was to describe the mode of leadership that I evolved into over my time at FTE, through my cancer journey, I would talk about it as a healing facilitator. When I came to ITC, what I was aware of coming in was that I was coming into an institutional body that had undergone significant trauma. And at the time was coming to understand trauma better through the work of Resmaa Minakem who said that, you know, trauma is a wordless story that is not primarily cognitive or language based, it's a wordless story that is lodged in our bodies and is transmitted bodily and requires an alternative kind of energetic field to help us to begin to regulate, and rewrite those wordless stories. Recognize first, regulate and rewrite. Those were the stories toward our wholeness. I was coming to an institutional body, an organism, a living system that was dealing with generational trauma. You know, there's all kinds of tricks, tools, techniques that folks attempt to apply to the life of organizations, but what I knew coming in was that I would have to draw from a different set of resources - much of which I had been reconnected to through my cancer journey - in order to lead effectively. Some of which I had to be reminded of along the way. As my second semester - my first year - COVID hits, you know, turns everything upside down. But being connected and listening to my people, my people visibly and who were not visible and seeking guidance at my altar for how to lead, the kind of guidance that you can't find in organizational theory books. And having to spend time in meditation to gain insight into the unseen dynamics of what's taken place in relationships among people in the institution. And then also if there's anything somebody needs, especially at this moment in institutional leadership, it's the ability to regulate their own nervous system, And to be able with some level of equanimity and focus and centeredness, deal with the incessant avalanche of incoming energy, urgent items, emergencies, especially in an under-resourced environment where trauma, as a result of that, has been inflicted in multiple ways. How do you deal with all of that incoming energy, much of which being in the chief seat is projected at you, without taking it personally? How do you do that in a way that distinguishes what's your stuff from what's somebody else's stuff, and giving it back to them? And also creating, you know, what therapists call a non-anxious presence, not performatively, but energetically, that others can inhabit and inhabit in a way that it can help to change their frequency and they engage their space a little differently because they've been able to experience a different way of being, even in the midst of a difficult situation. But those, not just tools, those practices, if I didn't have access to those, I would have drowned a long time ago. I say all the time and you've heard me say all the time that we have a pipeline flaw in theological education when it comes to organizational leadership. There's an assumption that being either a pastor or professor is a necessary precursor to being a president or an academic executive. When in fact, if you look at the formation and the preparation of faculty, the formation and the preparation of pastors, there's very little, in most cases in the preparation of folks for those two roles that translates well to the work of president of a theological school. Some would say that faculty preparation doesn't prepare you to teach and pastoral preparation doesn't prepare you to pastor either. But even in the professional socialization of faculty and pastors, when you move from that role to the role of a president of a theological school or even the head of an organization, you're not just in a different position, it is a different profession and it requires a different set of mindsets and I think some fundamental knowledge about the stuff of organizations. Those things taken together, as well as, attention to the affective dimension of leadership that if that's not tended to not only wrecks the person in the role of leader, but also causes that person to wreck the environment in which they lead. That inner work, that inner life and the connection to the unseen, especially in a moment like this where every institution, whether they are well-heeled or not is walking in the dark, is walking in an unknown space where our future cannot mimic our past. The ground has shifted and we're walking on different terrain.
So now where do you go if you don't have access to the invisible to deal with the unknown? It's a job requirement. What I’m grateful for is in an institution like ITC, where we call on our ancestors collectively, we recognize the multiple ways in which we come to know the epistemological heritages of our people, we have access to all of that as an institution. And rather than trying to mimic the narrow, singular ways in which the academy tries to make us fit into, we actually have access to a wealth that we can draw from to guide us, not just to get through this moment, but to make a way out of no way and to design something that actually is fit and suited for our mission, which is the liberation of our people.
Patrick: Matthew, I mean I just want to say thank you for taking us on your journey, as the path found you for leadership. And I just want to offer this back to you that one of the things that I've always deeply appreciated and I think that you call on others is, as you go to work now at ITC and you're driving up to the office or you're going over to your home office or whatever it is, I hear your mom saying to you, you are my prince, and that has nothing to do with your title or that that's your job, but as a reminder of that inner voice and love of your people, of liberation, of freedom. And I just want to say I also feel personally that you've extended that same love or grace that your mom offered you in your story, and for us and for anyone who's had the privilege of working with you, that we are also loved and find that love that's not tied to this job, this work, but it also fuels that job and that work and we can't do it without it. So thank you for sharing so much. I love you, man. This has been a privilege.
Matthew: Love you too, man. Thank you for the opportunity to walk back through this story and to see stuff I may not have seen before. That happens every time you either showed up in my doorway or I showed up in yours. You just you have a way of drawing people out of themselves and back into themselves and for that man, I'm grateful. Thank you, brother. Love you, man.
Patrick: Same, appreciate it.
Hey, I just want to thank you for listening to Matthew Wesley Williams’ story on the Sound of the Genuine. If you're inspired by his work and want to check out what ITC is up to, head on over to itc.edu, check out their degree programs, their thought leadership, and sign up to receive some of their information. And as always, you can always hear this episode and many more of the Sound of Genuine at fteleaders.org. I want to say thank you to our engineering team Heather BP Wallace, Elsie Barnhart and Diva Morgan Hicks for putting this episode out and as always @siryalibeats for his wonderful music. We'll see you next time on the Sound of the Genuine.