A Legacy of Leadership | Forum for Theological Exploration

A Legacy of Leadership

By: Diva Morgan Hicks
November 25, 2019


I’m really proud of the fact that I was able to play a key role in transforming FTE’s programming for young people exploring ministry and doctoral students of color.

During the 2019 annual meetings of the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature FTE celebrated another year of scholarship and honored the leadership of Matthew Wesley Williams. After 15 years of service at FTE, Matthew pursued a call to serve as the interim president at the Interdenominational Theological Center (ITC) in Atlanta. FTE’s Online Communications Manager Diva Morgan Hicks sat down with Matthew to capture some of his proudest memories and hopes for the future.

What are some of your most memorable moments over the past 15 years?

There are so many stories that make me smile as I think about these last 15 years.

One of my favorite FTE memories is the celebration that we hosted for Sharon Watson Fluker in 2011 at the Carter Center. She had such a strong impact on my formation as a professional. To be able to support the work that she was doing, and in that process, to accompany and help to make a way for doctoral students who are now the new generation of leading scholars of theological education and religion—that in and of itself was the honor of a lifetime. Having the opportunity to organize the community’s gratitude and conspire with individuals whose lives Sharon had touched and transformed and in some cases, out and out saved—that was my way of saying ‘thank you’ to her for trusting me to succeed her in the role of director of doctoral programs.

Another signature memory for me is a series of conversations that I’ve had over the years with Stephen. When I first started at FTE, Stephen and I (the two tallest brothers in the organization) shared one little office. That office became an idea engine. It was an incubator for our imagination. Stephen and I both came into the organization with a great deal of disaffection with the dominant leadership models in the church but also a deep sense of possibility for what church leadership could look like —especially in the Black community. That office was a seedbed, I think, for much of what happened later in the life of FTE. Many of those conversations stoked the imagination that generated programs like Project Rising Sun and VocationCARE and what eventually became an aspect of Calling Congregations.

How has FTE prepared you for this next step that you’re taking in your own personal vocational journey?

My next immediate step in my vocational journey is serving as interim president of my alma mater, the Interdenominational Theological Center, a historically Black theological school, which is an incubator for leadership for the Black church and for the Black community. Having been an integral member of the team and leadership of FTE for this period of time, operating in the field of religion broadly, but more specifically the church and theological education, this experience has been priceless in preparation for my new role. My work at FTE has given me an opportunity to walk alongside so many promising young leaders. And to design experiences that open them up to imagine themselves differently and to imagine the possibilities of how God and the community may be calling them to lead for the sake of God’s healing work in the world—that’s been priceless.

For the last 15 years FTE has also been a lab where I along with my colleagues within and outside the organization, have been able to play with processes and program designs to explore how we cultivate a new generation of leaders who have the imagination but also the capability to lead the kind of change needed now with the ethical and spiritual health and commitment to build healthy organizations that cultivate well-being in communities. That’s been a real gift!

Overall, my experience and time at FTE has provided me with tools and a broader imagination and has helped me build my skills and capacity to be able to come to ITC and facilitate transformation in a way that is aligned with the school’s mission, vision, legacy, and call to the church and to the community.

What do you wish you could tell yourself 15 years ago?

Fifteen years ago I was somewhat newly married with no children. By the time I came to FTE, I had served as a pastor in four congregations. When I came to FTE, in many ways, I was burned out on pastoral ministry. So I would tell myself, ‘Matt, put on your seatbelt. Your time at FTE will be a pivot point for you. Your ministry is moving from the work of the parish to the work of the field. The sources of your pain, your disaffection, your woundedness, and your disappointment in much of what you’ve experienced, that’s not the whole story of ministry. That’s not the whole story of the church, that’s not the whole story of what’s possible in leadership.In fact your wounds will be a source of wisdom from which you will conjure medicine. Be patient with yourself.’

I would also remind my younger self that another way is possible. In fact, another way is present. It’ll just require you to take a little time to rest and recover, and then to go back and fetch the questions, the passions, curiosities that you entered into ministry within the first place. Lastly, I would say ‘you’re going to find a renewed way of looking at leadership. You’re going to find a renewed way of thinking about ministry. You’re going to find a community that helps you heal your sense of vocation and calling.’

How do you see your relationship with FTE as you move into this new role of being interim president of an institution?

So while FTE has made a huge impact on the field and on specific institutions, I think and I know, more has yet to be told in terms of what FTE has to offer to the field. I’m aware of some of the conversations that are in the back office of FTE with regard to capacity building for change leadership—for leading change in institutions—and for the kind of field-wide shifts that are happening in theological education. As a leader of a theological institution, I could see myself engaging FTE as a resource that does for me what FTE has been doing for people for a long time, which is giving them a set-aside space to look back into the fishbowl that they’ve been swimming in and notice what’s in the water. And then not only a set-aside space to do that, but also resources and tools to be able to make some decisions about what kind of water we want to be swimming in and what are the necessary strategies, tools, skills, and capacities that we need to pull that off.

What are some of your proudest accomplishments at FTE?

I’m really proud of the fact that I was able to play a key role in transforming FTE’s programming for young people exploring ministry and doctoral students of color. If FTE’s programming had not transformed from a fellowship granting, higher education-focused approach, to a leadership incubator that meets people where they are, a lot of individuals from widely diverse backgrounds would not have access to the resources they are benefiting from today. We made FTE’s resources more relevant and accessible to a wider set of communities. I’m proud of that.

The second thing I’m really proud of is creating the Institutional Doctoral Network (IDN). I launched that in 2015 after FTE’s resurgence and transformation from Fund to Forum. The IDN was our effort to work with institutions that had expressed and demonstrated a commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. We worked with academic executives and leaders to build their capacity for change leadership in service to authentic equity and diversity. Now under Patrick Reyes’ leadership, the network now has nine institutions, most of whom have undergone some pretty significant change—really by changing the way they engage the question of diversity. It’s no longer how many black and brown faces can we get and in how many places; the question is, what is our responsibility as an institution to create the conditions for students and scholars of color to thrive? That calls up issues of climate, of practices, of policies, of institutional culture that have just not been addressed historically in theological education when it comes to black and brown people. I’m especially proud of that work and the work that’s ongoing there under Patrick’s leadership.

Lastly, when I was packing my office, I came across a huge amount of thank-you cards, postcards, family photos and announcements of newborn children, ordination and dissertations that have been sent in when folks completed their degree programs. All of these are landmarks in people’s lives where people came back to me and to the organization to say thank you. I think my proudest accomplishment is that I had the privilege of supporting and walking with so many amazing people through some of the most critical junctures of their lives.

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