Jul  2017 17
Toward a More Diverse Phillips Community

I first came to Phillips in 1993, soon after the Tulsa General Assembly of the Christian Church, which was a high conflict assembly where the debate on homosexuality and the Christian faith deeply divided the Assembly.

In the wake of that gathering, the Phillips Graduate Seminary admissions director wanted to “wave high” the flag of being an open and affirming school for persons of all sexual orientations. The president personally supported that stance.

But the development director—who was personally not supportive, who feared severe fallout for the annual fund-driven basis of the seminary’s operations, and who was not misreading the negative reception in Phillips’ core operations area for an open declaration—won the day. The seminary was admitting students regardless of sexual orientation but was not public with that commitment.

There was an incident about that time that resulted in a board member resigning because the seminary refused to take an open stance for inclusion, and we lost another board member who wanted the seminary to take an open stance against inclusion.

Fast forward to today. There is no way not to take a stance!

The Phillips faculties I’ve known for 24 years have been completely on the side of being an inclusive seminary, in regard to sexual orientation and gender identity.

The board and administration added anti-discrimination policies concerning “sexual orientation” and then “gender identity” at about the time I became president (right before that, if memory serve correctly) eight years ago.

We have LBGTQ+ persons represented among students, faculty, staff, and trustees. Matters of diversity and inclusion are also addressed frequently in the curriculum.

The seminary participates in the Oklahoma Equality Center (OKEQ) Gala and Pride week annually. Our senior director of stewardship, the Rev. Geoff Brewster, is the current president of OKEQ’s board. Gender-neutral bathrooms are available in each part of the seminary’s building. Our Bible faculty, past and present, interprets scripture in classes and to larger publics on the subject. Our values statements are concerning diversity and anti-discrimination are on the website.

On Sept. 29, 2015, the board of trustees unanimously approved the seminary’s adoption of the open and affirming statement of the Disciples-affiliated GLAD Alliance (now known as AllianceQ). A few weeks ago, the seminary was accepted into the Alliance. At the just-concluded General Assembly, two Phillips employees, Rev. Brewster and Dr. Lisa Davison, were given awards by the Alliance for their work.

I am pleased that Phillips Theological Seminary has taken an open and affirming stance.

However, there is much work yet in front of us if the seminary community is to demonstrate the kind of diversity and inclusion we admire and for which we must prepare if we are to be a relevant seminary in a no-racial/ethnic majority nation.

While the seminary can demonstrate progress on matters related to human sexuality and women in leadership (women are more than half the faculty and about half of the student body), the seminary’s constituencies and culture remain largely white. Changing that reality will require considerable attention and energy.


There is a difference between climate and weather. Climate is a set of forces, some causal and some potential, that is hospitable to some forms of life and hostile to others. Climate is pervasive and takes a great deal of effort to change. Weather is derived from these fixed and potential forces and is more local and changeable.

At Phillips, for nearly all our 111-year history, we’ve been a liberalizing influence in a conservative cultural climate (although not always as conservative and ideologically driven as today; thank you to Dr. John Imbler for surfacing the insight concerning the seminary’s ethos).

Attracting and retaining faculty who often have come from other climate zones in the country has been a perpetual challenge. Attracting a sufficient graduate student body, who often come from the Heartland climate and will serve in the Heartland climate, has been another perpetual challenge—a challenge for the seminary, and a challenge for the students in how they utilize all of their education within their contexts.

Over the last century, I don’t know how much the collective influence of Phillips personnel and our graduates has changed the climate. But we all can and must discern what we can do to change the weather where we are.

Within the Phillips community, we need to do more focused work on identifying, owning, and seeking metanoia (in English translations of the Bible, this is the word for “turn” or “convert”) in relation to white privilege and white supremacy.

This summer, two employees were trained in the Intercultural Development Inventory. Beginning this fall, the seminary will begin using this powerful discernment and change tool to address the seminary’s culture and practices.

We will begin with the executive team and then move on to the faculty, the staff, and then include the student community. To my knowledge, the IDI will be the first all-school program to build the seminary’s capacity to change the weather in our community.

I love the quip from Harvard education professor Robert Kegan: diversity means everybody gets to be uncomfortable some of the time, rather than limiting discomfort to the same group or groups. I would ask everyone to keep this idea in mind as we add the IDI and the consequent work to the seminary’s and to our individual lives. What is coming will be a good, and necessary, kind of discomfort.

Phillips has made progress on being the kind of seminary community we should be. But progress is not linear, there are periods of reversal and disappointment.

Stronger progress requires investment, vulnerability, and courage—from every individual and from the institution. This is your work, my work, and our work. 

Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips Faculty
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