Ordinary Theologies

Religio-spirituality and the Leadership of Black Female Principals

by Arnold Noelle Witherspoon (Author)
©2014 Textbook XII, 265 Pages


Through narrative analysis, Ordinary Theologies highlights the intersectionality of gender, race, and religio-spirituality. It examines the relationship of past and current religio-spiritual leadership understandings that contest the status quo in U.S. schools. The historicity and analysis of gender and race contributes to reconceptualizing educational and leadership by emphasizing the voices of Black female leaders, voices that provide alternative understandings of schooling, stressing the importance of gendered and raced voices in administration, and questioning formulaic models of leadership and the research that reifies them.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Black, Female, Spiritual: Leadership in the Margins
  • Narrating Leadership and Spirituality
  • Womanism/Womanist Theology
  • Religio-spirituality
  • Social Justice
  • Methodology
  • Overview of Chapters
  • Chapter 1 Contextual Constructs
  • Ain’t I a Womanist?
  • Womanist Theology
  • Radical Subjectivity
  • Traditional Communalism
  • Redemptive Self-Love
  • Critical Engagement
  • Appropriation and Reciprocity
  • Love of Spirit
  • Black Women’s Spiritual Narratives
  • The Case for Black Women’s Contemporary Spiritual Narratives
  • The Black Church
  • The National Baptist Convention, USA
  • What’s Educational Leadership Got to Do with It?
  • Educational Leadership and Spirituality
  • Educational Leadership: Moral Imperative or Technocratic Ideal?
  • Spirituality: Why Does It Matter? Ontology and Epistemology
  • Challenging Traditional Educational Leadership: Religio-Spiritual Leadership
  • Black Female Principals and Religio-Spirituality
  • Summary
  • Chapter 2 Womanist Theology as Methodology and Method
  • A “New” Narrative: From Life History to Spiritual Narrative
  • Spiritual Narratives
  • Radical Subjectivity: The Need for Narrative
  • Traditional Communalism: Data Collection Methods and Researcher Self in Story
  • Redemptive Self-Love: The Aesthetic and the Authentic
  • Critical Engagement: A “Nitty-Gritty Hermeneutic” of Categorizing, Collecting, and Presenting Stories
  • Appropriation and Reciprocity: Lives and Literature in Action
  • Spirit-Love: Spiritual Historians and Religio-Spirituality
  • Womanist Theology in Analysis: A Hermeneutic of Suspicion
  • The Nitty-Gritty of a Womanist Theology: The Womanist Way of Interpretation
  • Meditations
  • Chapter 3 Testimony: Presentation of Narratives
  • Getting Churched
  • Family
  • Passing It On
  • Protest
  • The Church
  • The Supernatural
  • Warfare
  • Being Schooled
  • Community
  • The State of Church and School
  • Paths and Callings
  • Obstacles and Obstructions
  • The Principle/al of the Thing: What Would Jesus Do?
  • Legacy
  • Warfare
  • Getting Churched and Being Schooled: Bobbie and Womanist Theology
  • Meditations
  • Strong Black Woman
  • Mothering as Ministry
  • The New Normal: Avery in Womanist Theology
  • Meditations
  • Violence, Tragedy
  • Shields
  • Reaping
  • Daily Bread
  • Suffering Servant
  • Meditations
  • “Don’t Mess with God’s Children”
  • Whom Shall I Fear?
  • Children of God: Pattie in Womanist Theology
  • Meditations
  • Chapter 4 Exegesis
  • Cross-Talk: Religio-Spirituality and Cross-Narrative Analysis
  • Religio-Spirituality
  • Religio-Spirituality as Church/Denominational Identity
  • Religio-Spirituality as Conversion
  • Religio-Spirituality as Wilderness and Warfare
  • Religio-Spirituality as Culture
  • Principal/les
  • Worldview: Educational Philosophy
  • Mission
  • Pastoral Care
  • Ransom
  • Stumbling Blocks: Organizational Issues
  • Hierarchy and District Concerns
  • No Child Left Behind Act
  • The Spiritual vs. the Secular
  • Works: Educational Practice as Social Justice
  • W.E.A.P.O.N.S
  • Meditations
  • Chapter 5 Spirit-led: The Dialogic of Womanist Theology and Educational Leadership
  • Synthesis and Implications of Findings
  • Gender-Racing
  • Religio-Spirituality and Social Justice
  • Beyond Standards: Principal Preparation, Practice, and Research
  • Ordinary Theologies: Spiritual Narratives of Black Female Principals
  • Confessions and Prophesies: Limitations and Future Research
  • Conclusion Meditations and Musings
  • References
  • Index
  • The Author
  • Series Index

| ix →


At issue for many educators is the intersection of the public and the professional self. This is not a useful distinction to make in many ways. Actually, it is a distinction that I myself find difficult. So much of what individuals value and believe impacts life and work and sometimes it is difficult to separate the two. We carry these beliefs and experiences with us, and our actions in varying situations and contexts are impacted by our private and public selves. These spaces often overlap, transcend, frame, and are used to negotiate the other, different selves.

Theories of “the everyday” can be described in “terms of the categories and social relations of the operative in everyday life” (Essed, 1991, p. 186). We are located physically and socially in the structure of life. For some, these structures are demarcated in all sorts of categories that serve as binaries. For others, these structures of being and doing traverse each other as complex practices. Structures such as personal and professional beliefs and practices are articulated as multiple meanings. In this same way, the idea of the “ordinary” (Mitchem, 2002) encompasses the expression of daily practice and issues of daily life. ← ix | x →

Ordinary Theologies explores the religious and spiritual in the leadership practices of Black female principals. Due to the paucity of research concerning Black female principals, this book aspires to add to the small body of that literature by adding the voices of African American women leaders who live, work, and lead through religion or spirituality. Religion and spirituality provide a space for agency and highlight the multiple ways Black women leaders navigate their intersecting public and private lives as they engage in social justice. Both the “product and the process” (Romo & Roseman, 2005) of justice are articulated in “ordinary,” day-to-day realities of life and work that are influenced by religion and spirituality.

The writing of this book has much to do with my own journey as a Black female educator who identifies as a person of faith and what this faith means for my own work and life. I sometimes feel under/mis/re/presented in theories and theologies concerning women and their work. As a university professor, I deal often with conceptual and theoretical perspectives.

This book would not have come about were it not for Toni, Pattie, Bobbie, and Avery, who allowed me tell their stories and gave me permission to be creative with them. I was a captive to making this good because they and the stories meant so much to me. I owe them tremendous thanks for making the process of writing a book something I could love.

Thank you to the editor of the series, Judy Alston. Your life shows that God has a place in the academy and scholarship is made that much richer because of it. Thank you for helping to bring this book to life.

My dissertation committee at the University of Alabama gave me the perfect mix of expertise, guidance, and contribution while working on the study that informed this book. Utz McKnight, Joyce Stall-worth, Angela Benson, and Heather Pleasants made me work hard and dig deep. Thanks to the chair of that committee, Natalie Adams, who has always had my admiration. I thank her for the constant encouragement, compassion, and “swift kicks.” She makes life and the academy seem easy. I am especially thankful for the late Dr. Harold Bishop, who passed away before my study was completed. He always told me I was a star and he made me believe it. I truly miss him. ← x | xi →

My professional colleagues offer me a rich circle in which to be creative and scholarly, particularly those whom I have written with: Bruce Arnold, Jeff and Melanie Brooks, Sarah Diem, Emily Crawford, Ty-Ron Douglas, Cosette Grant, Muhummad Khalifa, Dianne Taylor, Roland Mitchell, Azadeh Osanloo, Dymaneke Mitchell, Ursula Thomas, Samantha Briggs, Mark Gooden, Autumn Tooms, Mark Giles, Michelle Young, Cindy Reed, and the University Council of Educational Administration. I also extend many, many thanks to my best Graduate Assistant ever, Iman Poostdoozan, for his assistance on this project. I could not have completed the final manuscript changes without you.

Finally, I am indebted to the many womanist researchers, authors, theologians, and ethicists in whose works I seem to have found myself. I want to be you when I grow up.

| 1 →


“Despite the constitutional separation of church and state, a concept understood differently by different Supreme Courts, there has been keen...interest in the matters associated with religion” (Pinar, Reynolds, Slattery, & Taubman, 1996, p. 9). That battle extends beyond the places of worship and a certain economy finds itself in public schools. Educational issues and religion and spirituality have engaged parents, students, educators, the media, and politicians on a grand scale. One characteristic in these issues is the notion that students, teachers, and administrators leave their personal beliefs at the schoolhouse door. This is an improbability at best. Moreover, dialogue concerning religion, spirituality, and education has largely been linked to “hot-button” issues such as the separation of church and state, evolution versus creationism, and instruction of religion in schools. By focusing on these few issues of faith and education, discussions are one-dimensional, corrosive, and unconstructive. Although there is a legal but ill-perceived notion of church and state, educational practice still presents itself through religious or spiritual activity and the personal faith of individuals posits itself in the everyday actions of school.

Engagement concerning religion, spirituality, and education only allows for partial exploration and ignores certain epistemological and ontological histories such as faith. When and if faith is discussed in ← 1 | 2 → schools, the dialogue is neutered and diminished to more acceptable concepts such as spirituality, ethics, or character development. Moreover, a binary between the spiritual and the secular is false at best (Lorde, 1984). In reality, the religious and the spiritual often co-exist and complement in the totality of experience for those to whom they matter (Moody, 1997).

Nash argues that religion and spirituality give meaning to lives and can be found in narrative (Nash, 1998). Postman (1996) asserts that religion and spirituality provide a sense of identity, community, a basis for conduct, and explanations for life (p. 7). Because of this, telling spiritual stories provides vital ways to view professional work. For many, there is an overlap of public and private spaces. Too often, the conflicts among these public and private personas and contexts leave one with more questions than answers. In my interactions with other Black female principals, I found questions similar to my own, “What happens to one’s religious or spiritual belief in the different contexts in which we find ourselves, particularly in the principalship?"

Principals’ values and beliefs influence their vision of the school as well as their behaviors (Glasman, 1984; Greenfield, 1991; Hallinger, Bickman, & Davis, 1990; Krug, Scott, & Ahadi, 1990). Greenfield (1991) states that the principal’s belief system is important to understand because it colors practically everything the principal does on a daily basis (p. 6). Krug et al. (1990) concluded that the principal’s interpretation of that belief or leadership activity is of primary importance. In spite of these facts, traditional educational leadership research has completed only a partial exploration and has ignored certain epistemological and ontological frames such as culture, gender, and faith. Owing to a “steady stream of educational litigation and jurisprudence” (Long, 2005, p. 28), school practice has become mired in what educators can or cannot do by the law. Religion is seen as an entity separate from spirituality, with the latter as a satisfactory replacement for the former (Long, 2005). When and if faith is discussed in schools, the dialogue is neutered and diminished to more acceptable concepts such as spirituality, ethics, or character development (Dantley, 2003; Noddings, 1984; Shields, 2005; Starratt, 2005a, 2005c). ← 2 | 3 →

Black, Female, Spiritual: Leadership in the Margins

The masculine enterprise of leadership (Blackmore, 1993) has often embodied women in prescribed roles of femininity, leadership, and professionalism. Blackmore (1999) underscores the fact that “leadership is treated...as a set of generic competencies rather than holistically; the social, ethical...dimensions of leadership are leached out” (p. 5). It is my hope this research foregrounded these concerns and deconstructed normed epistemologies, descriptors, articulations, and enactments of the principalship. The research on females leading in education is slim, yet our knowledge of women of color is even thinner. There is a silence of the voices of administrators of color, and it is in this silence that my research and the narratives of the participants are situated. Emerging literature on leaders of color teaches us that “their ways of leading may be as diverse as their cultural heritages but all rise from their own complex social and cultural histories” (Ah Nee-Benham & Cooper, 1998, p. 40).

Religion and spirituality manifest themselves in very real ways and are present whether we discuss them or not. Research has shown that educators do not just bring these beliefs with them to school. These beliefs actually inform and frame pedagogy, decision making, activism, and social justice (Capper & Keyes, 1999). There has been much research on the significance of teachers’ experiences and the import of religio-spirituality, but few individual accounts of principals. In addition, Black leadership narratives and those of women persist as underrepresented viewpoints in educational leadership (Murtadha & Watts, 2005) or are explored as a peculiar phenomenon associated with urban communities and schooling (Lomotey, 1989). The little research that has been conducted has been limited to those Black female principals leading urban schools, and even then that research is limited (Bloom & Erlandson, 2003; Loder, 2005).

Narrating Leadership and Spirituality

Starratt (2005a) noted that in the field of educational leadership, one should not examine merely theories or what others say about a phenomenon, but close attention should be paid to actual practice in schools. Where simply examining practice ends, meaning-making can ← 3 | 4 → be explored in the words, lives, and stories of those who make the meaning. Historical narratives are one example of ways in which meaning-making is fostered. In the case of this book, historical spiritual narratives of Black women, from early nineteenth- and twentieth-century writing, provide context for current inquiry into contemporary spiritual narratives. Hine (1994) writes:


XII, 265
ISBN (Hardcover)
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2012 (March)
intersectionality gender race historicity leadership
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 265 pp.

Biographical notes

Arnold Noelle Witherspoon (Author)

Noelle Witherspoon Arnold is Associate Professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis at the University of Missouri-Columbia. Dr. Arnold has over 20 publications and four books. She has served in international positions for the American Educational Research Association and the University Council for Educational Administration (UCEA). She is currently president-elect of UCEA. Dr. Arnold’s research agenda includes issues of race and gender, Black spirituality, history, and leadership.


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282 pages