Not long after she began working at Princeton Theological Seminary, Sushama Austin-Connor proposed a new program: A weeklong intensive continuing education event for 50 clergy and laity called the Black Theology and Leadership Institute.
It would mean an expansion of her role, something she was excited about. As she began planning the inaugural institute in July 2013, she realized she wanted some continuing education of her own.
At the urging of a colleague who had attended it, Austin-Connor decided to apply to Foundations of Christian Leadership and was part of the 2013 cohort.
“Immediately I have the language and some of the tools to use in planning next year’s program,” she said. “The larger piece is that I have the language and tools to be creative in an institution that’s 200 years old.”
The idea of traditioned innovation — one of the core concepts of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity — particularly resonated with her.
“It has given me a sense of hope and purpose that if I stay here and maintain my creativity and energy, I can make it a better place,” Austin-Connor said. “Traditioned innovation really helped me see my place in this institution and ways to be effective.”
Austin-Connor has been able to incorporate practical tools such as mind-mapping (a visual note-taking method) and giving feedback into her work; she said that she also sees how it will apply in her career as a Christian institutional leader.
“I’m very hopeful and happy,” she said. Her institution has a new president who is enacting a number of changes and shaking things up; at one point Austin-Connor even wondered if her job might be eliminated. But now things are stable and she feels excited about the future.
She didn’t feel as optimistic when she left for the first Foundations residential stay. As part of the program, participants write a narrative about one situation in the life of their institution. She wrote about a sticky situation with a colleague. When she revised the narrative several months later, she felt very differently than she had before Foundations began.
“I was less irked by the situation and took things less personally. It gave me a different way of looking at the situation and being more positive about it,” she said. “I think that’s directly related to what they taught us about getting and giving feedback.”
She also got a lot of help from her peer group, an important aspect of the Foundations experience.
“It was very helpful to get feedback from people who knew what I was going through. We’ve since all become friends on Facebook,” she said. “I would like to keep in touch with them. We sincerely liked each other — and even beyond the peer group, the whole group.”
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