Tough-minded and empathetic, Beliefnet's new advice columnist discusses her approach to helping women find balance in their lives and the values she's trying to instill in her daughter.

I know that in your life you've overcome a number of major hardships. What gave you the courage to keep on?
I don't think I can say it was one thing, it was depending upon where I was in my life at different points. The most important thing in this stage has been learning how to differentiate what is happening to me from what is happening within me, and to be able to keep those two things separate. I cannot control what happens to me, whether it is personal circumstances-I was raised in a household that was filled with violence and alcohol-or whether it is social circumstances-I am African-American and female, which means I've had my share of knocks and obstacles to confront-or medical problems I've had, like a lot of us have had. There are some things you cannot control, but I can control what happens within me. There is something in me that I would never give up, that real Renita that knows that no matter what happens she's a survivor, she can make it, she's made it in the past, she can make it again. I've held onto that reality.

What drew you to the ministry? How do you minister to people besides in church?
I'm Protestant enough to know that I'm supposed to say that it wasn't so much anything within me, but it was God who drew me to the ministry. I was drawn to it by something much larger than myself. I was sort of compelled in this particular direction. I didn't become a full-time pastor or evangelist, I went the route of becoming a professor of religion. Being a minister for me has meant being able to operate within a number of different venues. I do speak and preach, but I'm a fulltime professor, I'm a writer, I give lectures and workshops, and now Beliefnet gives me another venue. One of the things I love about ministry is that I've not been stuck in one particular path.

I understand that one of your areas of specialization is "womanist" theology. What is that?
The term has gained currency with the academic circles and in the church world. It's the particular angle that women of color bring to their religious life. Similar to what white women have called feminism, women of color call "womanist."

You've spoken to women on issues of balance in their lives. What are the primary areas that women have difficulty with?
The greatest challenge most of the women who contact me have is in balancing their private life with their public life, their work life with their personal life. Single women as well as married women wonder, `How can I live in a way that doesn't allow my job to just swallow up my life?' Living in an era when you can conceivably never leave work-I'm sitting here in front of my computer, I'm tethered to it, I'm always taking my email, I have fax, cell phone-it's conceivable you can never leave work and always find a reason to check in and respond to one more thing. I think for men as well as women, they're struggling with how you strike a balance. You have to be so committed to having a life and not allowing your work to become your life, not confusing what you do with who you are.

How do you manage balance in your own life? I know you're a mom and an extremely busy working woman. Would you say you're a type-A personality?
[Laughs] My family would certainly say I'm a type-A personality, but I don't think I am! But I am incredibly passionate. And my husband benefits from that kind of passion. I do have this ability to zero in on something, and I don't let it go until I'm finished with it. And to me that's what passion is, to throw your energy into something because you love it. How I maintain balance is, I'm pretty much at a place now where I only do the things that I really love. I love being a mom, I love being the wife of this man-I can't say I love being a wife but I do love being the wife of this man-I love writing, I enjoy teaching. So I'm finally able to do things I really enjoy and I'm able to say no to the things I really don't want to do. So the balance is not as painful as it was 10 or 15 years ago when I found myself stretched in different directions, many of which weren't the best use of my time and abilities.

How has becoming a mother changed you?
[My daughter Savannah] represents the one area of my life that's non-negotiable, that I cannot say no to, that will not be put off, that I must attend to immediately. Nothing else I do makes me feel as vulnerable and naked as mothering. I'm not talking about the physical things-feeding her, clothing her, doing her hair, fussing with her about cleaning her room, making sure she's ready for school. I'm talking about the profound spiritual, emotional, and psychological earthquake that takes place in your life when you have a child-that leaves you prostrate, frightened, and perpetually feeling guilty. To be a mother means to feel guilty all the time about something. I've not had anything else in my life .I could rationalize everything else away, I could dismiss everybody else. I could reach deep down inside and hunker down and say no to everything else, but to this young lady I'm raising and who is raising me, it's a different place.

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