If someone were to show me when I was young the path my career would take, I would have been skeptical. The title of one of my favorite songs, “The Long and Winding Road,” wouldn’t have begun to describe it.
Fresh out of college with a bachelor’s degree from one of the more prominent university programs in international affairs, and then a master’s degree from an equally prominent graduate program in international business, my path should have taken me straight into the world of diplomacy or the boardroom of a multinational corporation. Instead, after a stint in banking and a bout of soul-searching, I found myself in seminary studying for a master’s in theology. Knowing that I was not that interested in the ordained ministry, and also knowing that, without a collar, to have any credibility in my new field I would need a doctorate, I then embarked upon a PhD program.
Somewhere along the line, I decided that I wouldn’t use my PhD to gain entry into a tenure track academic position. Given that this was my second career, and that my family was starting to take shape, I didn’t think it was a viable option at that point in my life. So while still in my doctoral studies, I obtained a position within my own faith community, one that placed me smack in the middle of the intersection of religion and politics. Even though I also had responsibilities as varied as fundraising and speechwriting, much of my time was spent in domestic and international advocacy circles working on issues like religious freedom and other human rights, poverty, and the environment. My next position, directing an interfaith organization, expanded this issue set to include conflict resolution globally and communal relations domestically.
Then 9/11 happened. While religion was always a partner at the margins of public discourse, suddenly it was front-and-center, whether it had to do with providing comfort to a traumatized society, fostering reconciliation after the committal of hate crimes in local communities, or responding to matters of terrorism and war. In the midst of all this, I was asked to take a position at my current organization, to direct advocacy efforts in the area of international affairs and peace. I was now responding to all the major issues of the day: the Iraq War, torture and Guantanamo; the genocide in Darfur and the tsunami in Southeast Asia; the Millennium Development Goals. My job then, on behalf of US Christian churches together, and in partnership with Jews, Muslims and others, was to bring the moral weight of the religious community to bear on the debate over policy alternatives. Even now, with my current, more theologically defined, portfolio directing inter-Christian dialogue and interfaith relations, I still explore critical matters facing US society, whether having to do with religious bigotry and extremism, how to approach divisive issues, or conflict in the Middle East.
It seems that that winding road has come full circle. In fact, I’m not sure it was winding at all; looking backward I can see a direct line between where I am now and where I started. Religion and politics intersect continually, and to be at that intersection has contributed to what has truly been an interesting career. While a PhD isn’t an absolute requirement for that part of my work, it has certainly made it more accessible. For the other part of my work, in strictly theological circles, a PhD is required, given the level of expertise expected around the table. These expectations also exist in senior leadership positions.
Tomorrow, we get into what it’s like to be on the leadership team of a historic national organization, and to restructure it so that it can be effective in a new context.