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Michelle Voss Roberts. (Photo: Arthur Mola)

Emmanuel College's first female leader shares her vision

Michelle Voss Roberts is the first female principal in the school's 90-year history

By Julie McGonegal

Rev. Michelle Voss Roberts is a minister of the United Church of Christ (U.S.A.) and an expert on comparative theology in Christian and Hindu contexts. She's also Emmanuel College's newest principal. She spoke with Julie McGonegal.

On her reasons for taking the job: The mission and values of Emmanuel College fit really well with my vocation, which is to train religious leaders who have a commitment to social justice and spiritual formation. The relationship to the United Church was especially appealing because it shares that commitment. The multi-religious dimensions really caught my eye, because that’s at the heart of my passion as a theologian.

On her vision for the college: In recent years, Emmanuel College developed Muslim and Buddhist tracks in its masters of pastoral studies program, which also has a Christian studies track. That’s been a very exciting development. I want to integrate religious diversity into how people train for religious leadership today. That’s going to create bridges that will facilitate co-operation as we’re working together to meet the needs of a suffering world. In my experience, it’s also the case that when you study with a person of another faith, or you study another faith, you come back with new questions and categories with which to study your own tradition.

On Hinduism and Christianity: Christianity and Hinduism have been in conversation for a long time — at least since the fourth century. Coming from a Reformed tradition, I was intrigued by what opened up in the smells and sights and sounds of Hindu traditions, which can be very multi-sensory. There’s a great diversity in terms of naming God. [Hindu scripture] says, “The truth is one but the wise call it by many names.” I see here the richness of the many names and the many paths — and the wisdom of learning from them.

‘I want to integrate religious diversity into how people train for religious leadership today’

On the value of United Church theology: I’m ordained in the United Church of Christ, which is a sister denomination in the United States. There are some things that I really appreciate about United Church theology: its civic orientation, its responsiveness to diversity, its worldwide ecumenism. The United Church’s legacy and intentionality around diversity, peace and justice are gifts we’ll be needing more and more.

On being the first female principal of the college: I may be the first woman appointed as principal, but there have been other pivotal female leaders, including interim principal Phyllis Airhart, who has guided the school through several key transitions. Probably more significant than my gender identity is that I have taught and written a lot about how gender and sexuality, among other aspects of our identities, impact how power operates in institutions. I hope to lead the school in practices of justice and reconciliation and train future religious leaders to do the same.

This interview has been condensed and edited. It first appeared in The United Church Observer's February 2019 issue with the title ‘I want to integrate religious diversity into how people train for religious leadership today’.

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