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Phillis Isabella Sheppard

E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Chair of Religion, Psychology, and Culture
Director of the James Lawson Institute for the Research and Study of Nonviolent Movements

Phillis Isabella Sheppard is E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Associate Professor of Religion, Psychology, and Culture. Her research engages the intersection where the social and the intrapsychic meet. In her book Self, Culture and Others in Womanist Practical Theology (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011) she argued for a psychoanalytic dimension to womanist approaches to practical theology.  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, Tilling Sacred Ground: Interiority, Black Women, and Religious Experience, (Rowman and Littlefield/Lexington, 2021), 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, and the contemporary sites where it is produced (i.e. cyberspace, sermons and spiritual guidance, conversion narratives and “outsider” art), 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. Sheppard’s third book, Poking and Prying with a Purpose: Womanist Ethnography in Practice and Method, will engage Black women’s vocational narratives, ethnographic methodology, and the vision of womanist thought. She was awarded a Louisville Institute Faculty Research Grant for this research. She is in the early research phase of her current ethnography, “When 'African-' Means Religion Too: An Ethnography of Black Women’s Experience of Multireligious Belonging,” which is being funding by a Randall Mason Research Award.

As a practical theologian, Dr. Sheppard is recognized for her contributions to practical theology, psychology and religion, womanist methodology, cultural studies, pastoral theology, and spiritual practices. She serves 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 served as co-editor for the Journal of Pastoral Society book review and is editor of the Reflections section for the Journal of Pastoral Care and Counseling

Dr. Sheppard interests in institutional service and administration are a longstanding feature of her career. In addition to having served as the Interim Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at the Divinity School, she is the Chair for Religion, Psychology, and Culture area. In 2016, she was elected as Chair of the faculty and as Chair of the Personnel and Policy Committee. She was Co-Chair of the Curriculum Transformation Committee, and is the faculty convener for the Spirituality and Social Activism Concentration. Prior to joining Vanderbilt Divinity School, she served as Co-Director of the Center for Practical Theology and Chair of the Spiritual Life Committee at Boston University School of Theology. 

She earned advanced certificates in adult psychoanalysis (Institute for Psychoanalysis, 2005) and pastoral psychotherapy (Center for Religion and Psychotherapy of Chicago, 1993).