Note: The following is based on a presentation that Boyung Lee, senior vice president for academic affairs at Iliff School of Theology, made to the 20th anniversary conference on Women in Leadership, sponsored by the Association of Theological Schools (ATS). It has been edited for length by Matt Forster.

In 2017, I became the first Korean American woman academic dean at an ATS school when I stepped into the deanship of the Iliff School of Theology in Denver. Being the first Korean American woman dean of a theological school had never been a part of my career plan, although I have been the first woman or woman of color in most of my pastoral and academic careers. Due to this unplanned and yet seemingly consistent pattern of my career journey, colleagues often call me a trailblazer. I recognize the honorable nature of the title, but I am troubled by intrinsic assumptions undergirding it.

Since I have been cultivating new paths for Asian feminist theologians and ministers throughout my career, some assume that I do not have role models or colleagues who can appreciate my unique struggles. Although their assessment is not completely incorrect, they miss an important part of my leadership formation, which is based on communal and intersectional Asian American feminist theologies and praxis, especially ones practiced by many members of the group called Pacific, Asian, and North American Asian Women in Theology and Ministry (PANAAWTM).

PANAAWTM began 34 years ago as a small group of women students and ministers of various Asian heritages who decided to thrive together by building a support system based on friendship and accountability for themselves and others. 

I believe that the PANAAWTM model of mutual support and accountability has important insights for the rapidly changing field of theological education. I work hard to embody PANAAWTM leadership principles in my own work, and I have organized them as my Leadership Creed:

Part 1. For our work together

  1. I pledge to honor healthy relationships based on respect, honesty, transparency, and open communications. Therefore, I will spend time to get to know the people I work with, establish my trust in their work, and create environments in which they can do their best.  

  2. I pledge to take time to express my genuine gratitude for contributions my colleagues make to the community. I will remember that every human being has God-given wisdom, and we work better when we share it with gratitude and humility.

  3. I pledge to create opportunities for people to build relationships. I will encourage them to help one another recognize different working styles so that everyone works according to their best abilities. I will regularly examine how I exercise my power and privilege and remind myself that I do not have to be at the center of all the work we do.

  4. I believe that a community is more sustainable when its vision is created through a bottom-up process. I will listen to people’s changing needs and suggestions for the community.

  5. I will not avoid conflicts in the community. As we work together with different ideas and working styles, sometimes conflicts are inevitable. Rather than walking away from conflicts, I will walk into them with an open mind, as I believe that conflicts are expressions of different needs. I will acknowledge the wounds some community members have experienced without trying to provide instant remedies.

  6. I pledge not to hesitate to ask for help. I will not allow my ego to interfere with the well-being of the community.

  7. In addition to cultivating my own leadership, I pledge to help my colleagues to cultivate their leadership in loving but accountable environments. This means that I will share my power and privilege with others so that they have opportunities to exercise their leadership. 

  8. I will pay attention to voices ignored or not heard due to their marginalized status at an institution. Without listening to their stories, creating an organization working toward peace and justice is a mirage.

  9. I pledge to create a space for God in our communal work. I will remind myself or have others humbly remind me that I am not in charge of transformation, but that it can only happen with God’s intervention.

  10. I will seek out collaborative opportunities with other institutions to learn new ideas and be challenged by them. We are not here to compete with one another, but to practice God’s will together.

Part 2. For my own continuing formation as a leader

  1. I pledge to stay spiritually, psychologically, and physically healthy. Without having a spiritual, emotional, and physical balance in my own life, I cannot be a sound leader who can respectfully work with others. I will embody the principle of frequency, intentionality, and accountability of spiritual and physical exercises in my daily life.

  2. I will continuously be grateful for a circle of friends with whom I check in every day, and I pledge to surround myself with those who tell me hard truths. These friends have sustained me with unconditional but accountable love.

  3. As an ordained United Methodist clergywoman, I started my journey as a theological educator out of a sense of vocational call as well as scholarly passion and commitment to social justice. As many of my mentors have taught me, it is important to remember that the sense of call is not a static but an evolving one. It mandates that I continually discern what my calling is at a particular institution, so that I do the work not as a job but as a vocation in which my gifts, the institution's mission, and God's transformative vision are resonating. I will seek out wisdom from mentors, spiritual guides, family, and friends. I will work hard not to fall into the lifestyle of consumerism that would persuade me to stay at a place where my work has become a job, not a call.