Cheryl Dudley is the regional executive minister of American Baptist Churches of Metropolitan New York. She is an ordained American Baptist minister and member of Madison Avenue Baptist Church and holds degrees from Pomona College, Princeton Theological Seminary, and McCormick Theological Seminary of Chicago, Illinois where she earned a Doctor of Ministry in Executive Leadership. Cheryl has served as global religions director of the Arcus Foundation; senior partner of the ARC Group; senior advisor to the president of Church World Service; associate executive director of Church in Community Transformation, American Baptist Home Mission Societies; acting director of African American Studies at Bradley University; and executive director of Peoria Friendship House.

Cheryl, tell us about your early years.

I was a PK (preacher’s kid) or MK (missionary’s kid). My father was assigned in those years as a home missionary in Phoenix, Arizona, where he served as the executive Director of Valley Christian Centers. He was the first African American missionary sent to that context, although serving primarily among impoverished Spanish speaking (Mexican American) and Black persons in the urban center of Phoenix.  We were given a parsonage in which to live, but the neighbors resisted a Black family moving in, so we were hosted by a family until safe housing could be secured for us.  We became the first Black family to live in another neighborhood and the home where we ended living is where I was raised through high school graduation. My sister and I were the first Black children to attend the elementary school nearby.  I recall seeing a vintage newspaper article recently that my mother had saved from the Phoenix newspaper when my sister (one year older) became the first Black child to attend our school.

My father became quite well known in the Phoenix community, as minister, organizer, civil rights advocate. My mother, keeper of hearth and home, and a nurse, has a gentle magnetic personality, and so our home became a refuge, in many ways, for persons needing comfort, friend and extended family. Ironically, persons of all hues, races, socio-economic realities, even religion and generations were in our African American home. As a result, my understanding of who friend and extended family members were was formulated early in life. I am grateful for that.

I grew up loving to memorize scriptures and as a young child with the abiding sense that Jesus was my companion.

How has your family background influenced the way that you lead?

I think both my parents influenced me deeply. My father was so active in the external world, or the public square, and the definition of his work, and the ministry was not confined to a few walls and a few folks.  He was always casting the net to other side of the boat or in different waters. A stranger to none–intellectually and socially. My mom, opened the door to our home and was present to us and to those who needed her.  Because she was an RN, I am sure that the spirit of nursing and care giving filtered out to people in need. I hope that both parents’ expressions of leadership have influenced me. As a gospel-motivated activist in various areas of ministry and injustice, I have been cognizant that we have to be present and available in heart, not just principle. I hope those qualities are manifest in my leadership and ministry, at least much of the time.  I can be in my head quite a bit, but I do the best I can to be present, and to lead with heart.

How would you describe your leadership style?

I believe in the work of teams and that teams can do great work together, but it takes a lot of effort. I try to find the distinct ways in which individuals are motivated to do their best and to be accountable–that place of connection and passion. Ministers can too often be lone rangers, to their own detriment, and often, to the detriment of their own congregations and the church at large. I like to get in there with folks, and do my share. I can’t insist on others doing what I will not do myself. I try to lead with courage–I apologize when apologies are needed. I ask tough questions, often tenderly. I use humor whenever I can. I try to see people as they are; seek to listen better, and acknowledge and integrate as often as possible the ideas of all who bring voice to their ideas.

If working on a concept, I find that not all people have great imaginations, because we are people of habit. But often people are very able to respond to ideas, concepts, projects that are emerging. Others respond to an idea or an inspiration, and so often their response makes the ideas that are brewing better.

Who shaped your leadership style or mentored you as a leader?

Hmmm. Finding mentors has not easy: rejection and pride can be inhibitors to seeking mentors who may help.I morphed from being a more introverted personality to a more extroverted one, and that shift has given me the confidence to ask for mentoring. There have been a few folks along the way that have helped me and influenced me. Some mentors want to shape you in their image. Avoid them. I find helpful those  leaders that have earthy qualities; they are not  perfect but are wonderfully human in seeking to be faithful. Those are the persons who have influenced me. I have been more conscious the last decade or so to ask a person or two to mentor me in different aspects of ministry. I have chosen persons who are very different from me to give me feedback and counsel and to be present to talk through difficult situations. Sometimes from leaders I have learned what I don’t want to do and don’t want to be as well as who I want to be aspirationally.

What qualities have you observed in other leaders that you have incorporated into your own leadership style?

I watch for leaders who are great spirits–who live with heart–who push themselves to go to the next rung, not necessarily in respect to organizational structures or so called bigger better ministries, but expand their range where-ever they are.

Another quality that is important is thoughtfulness–meaning they actively think of others’ well-being but are also complex thinkers. I have been inspired and taken on the practice of thinking through various scenarios when planning events–having a Plan A, B, and C, just in case. It is prudent to be very prepared but also open and receptive to shift from the plan if the Spirit is moving. Try not be defensive. In situations of conflict or potential conflict, act to de-escalate conflict rather than inflame conflict. This is not to say to avoid conflict, but instead to face it, in order to de-escalate. Avoid blaming others. Do not personalize either praise or critique but receive it as a grace or a help. Be yourself and not be an imitation of someone else.

It was helpful for me to carve out my own list of values–those aspects or characteristics I want to guide my life and ministry. One has to pay attention to the values we claim–critique them–and be honest about what they mean. Pay attention to not go too far afield.

The quality I like the most among leaders is the willingness to organically seek the presence and work of God and to invite God into the work of leadership, in a non-perfunctory ways, through reading, devotion, conversation with others, in the faith, prayer, listening, silence, inspiration, and  then activity.

What are some key leadership lessons you have learned in recent years?

My ego and God’s leading aren’t the same thing. Sometimes we fail, and sometimes we are deeply disappointed, get hurt, and are angered, but lessons can be learned these experiences if we attune ourselves to  them. The lessons aren’t always apparent right away, but they come. None of us are equipped in all things. Chemistry, culture, personal baggage–one’s own and others–assumptions about outcomes: these things get in the way. Learning is a lifelong endeavor. If we pay attention, some lessons won’t have to be learned over and over again. Lessons are learned in adversity–sometimes we experience the shadows of life–and then learn to walk through shadows, step by step, sometimes stumbling, but then getting up, knocking off the debris, discerning what’s next, and then stepping out again. I think of Elijah, in 1 Kings 19, who after a grueling stint ran away and found himself in the cave, hiding. Elijah needed a new way of recognizing God’s voice, in order to continue. In the next less familiar passage, Elisha is queued up to take it to the next level. God is always preparing someone else if /when we feel we don’t have it to give.

What have been some areas of growth for you as a leader? 

A friend a few years ago said that I am a reluctant leader, meaning that I wasn’t usually the first one to jump up and say like Isaiah, “here I am, send me.” Maybe some of the reluctance had to do with gender-based perceptions around leadership. In the dearth of leadership though–too often there is a dearth–I have been willing to do it. Leadership and the expectations around it can be draining, and I have taken breaks from being the one perceived as being directly responsible in different seasons. Now that I am in the role I have been given by God in American Baptist Churches of Metropolitan New York, I recognize that we need good leadership, and I owe it to God and to the people to try to provide it and to continue to grow as a leader. Leadership is a sacred and sometimes daunting task, yet it is a call and a responsibility that I want to live into more fully. In responding to God’s voice to lead in respect to this role, believing that God has place me here for this season, I have to go ahead and speak and act in the areas where God has inspired me! Even when it feels risky or bold. We’ve all have different parts in the body as leaders contributing to the whole of ministry.

 What words of wisdom would you share with recent seminary graduates as they move into new leadership roles?

Be open to new experiences. Ministry may not be what you expected. The first roles in ministry are formative. Don’t be anxious to move on too quickly to the next experience in ministry, even when things may not be unfolding in the ways you expected. Linger and listen; it is here where you will discover who you are as a minister and as a person. Remember what you learned in the seminary classroom, and then refer to it as needed with a soft lens–in order to meet the people where they are. Try to release anxiety. Be gentle with yourself, but seek God. Be in the present moment. The small things in ministry and leadership aren’t demeaning–or at least they don’t need to be– because there’s a lot of small stuff. It’s all small stuff really, and each spec helps paint a bigger picture of God’s grace.