Phillis Isabella Sheppard, Associate Professor of Religion, Psychology, and Culture at the Divinity School and the Graduate Department of Religion of Vanderbilt University, was born into a large military family where her father served in the U.S. Marines and her mother had a career in nursing. Phillis lived in Philadelphia until she was 7 when the family moved to Atlanta between 1966-1968 where the family was actively involved in Civil Rights efforts. When her father retired two years later, the family settled in rural upstate New York where her father worked for Kodak in Marketing and Education and her mother continued her work as a nurse.
Phillis’ religious background is diverse. Her father came from a Baptist tradition and her mother was a Free Methodist. After their marriage, they became Roman Catholic. Independence and learning were key values passed on to the children in the family. Phillis developed interests in religion and in psychology during her early years. Her concern for social justice can be traced back to going to civil rights marches with her mother and siblings in Atlanta. Phillis recalls that her feminist consciousness began at home but took a more explicit expression when she was given a gift subscription to Ms. magazine in the 7th or 8th grade.
Sheppard earned her Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from Edinboro University of Pennsylvania. As a undergraduate she was actively involved in campus ministry activities and engaged with other students in raising consciousness around racial and gender justice issues. This was the late 1970s and LGBT issues were mostly invisible on campus.
After earning her B.A. degree from Edinboro in 1981, Phillis moved to Rochester, New York, where she got involved in the lesbian community. She was particularly interested in the intersection of religion and sexuality and initiated a gathering of Black lesbians interested in religion and spirituality. She served as a pastoral associate at Saint Bridget’s Catholic Church, a black Roman Catholic parish, for 3 years. Her interest in feminism and early womanist theology, spirituality, black women’s experiences led her to Colgate-Rochester Divinity School from which she graduated with an M.A. degree in Theology in 1988. While at Colgate Rochester she was the Co-Director of the Women’s Center. As Co-Director she developed and implemented programs of advocacy and dialogue among students, faculty, and administration concerning issues impacting women in church and society as well as women seminarians’ experience theological education.
During her seminary time, Phillis was visible as a radical, out Black lesbian. She integrated her interests in religion and psychology by being part of a poetry/spoken word group, working on women’s reproductive rights, and training clinicians around HIV/AIDS issues. Her Masters thesis addressed secrecy in the lives of Black lesbians who had experienced abuse.
Sheppard then began work on an interdisciplinary Ph. D. at Chicago Theological Seminary in Theology, Ethics and Human Sciences. She received advanced training and certificates in pastoral psychotherapy from the center for Religion and Psychotherapy of Chicago in 1993 and later in adult psychoanalysis at the Institute for Psychoanalysis in 2005. She completed the Ph.D. in 1997. Dr. Sheppard joined the faculty at North Park Theological Seminary in 2000, eventually becoming Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology. Additionally, she has maintained a clinical practice for over twenty-five years. She moved on to Boston University School of Theology as Associate Professor of Pastoral Psychology and Theology 2011 and was recruited to Vanderbilt University as Associate Professor of Religion, Psychology and Culture in 2014.
As a practical theologian, Sheppard is recognized for her contributions to womanist perspectives in psychoanalysis and religion, methodology, cultural studies, and pastoral theology. She has served on the steering or executive committees of several national guilds: Psychology, Culture and Religion and the Womanist Approaches to the Study of Religion and Society, both groups of the American Academy of Religion; the Association of Practical Theology; and the Theological Education Committee of the American Academy of Religion. Additionally, she is book review co-editor for Journal of Pastoral Society; section editor of the Reflections section for the Journal of Pastoral Care and Counseling and on the Executive Committee of the Association for Practical Theology.
Her research in Religion, Psychology and Culture engages the intersection where the social and the intrapsychic meet. In Self, Culture and Others in Womanist Practical Theology (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011) she argued for the necessity of fostering a psychoanalytic dimension to womanist approaches to practical theology and the understanding of black women’s lives, black lesbian experience, and trauma. The book was the focus of a panel discussion at the American Academy of Religion’s Womanist Approaches to Religion and Society session. Her current book in progress, Tilling Sacred Ground: Explorations in a Womanist Cultural Psychology of Religion turns to the lived religious experiences, expressed in, but well beyond, the “official” religious sites, of Black women. Tilling Sacred Ground asserts that religious experience creates spaces for the embodiment of the gendered, racial, and psycho-cultural aspects of the self and groups. Sheppard posits that Black religion operates as it does because powerful psycho-cultural forces are at play. By employing an applied womanist psychoanalytic perspective, this work will contribute to existing approaches to the study of Black religious experience.
(This biographical statement provided by Phillis Isabella Sheppard.)
Biography Date: January 2016
African American | Author/editor | Feminism | Theology
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