Modern Devotion

For a place founded by a bunch of ministers in order to train a bunch more, Harvard seems to have

For a place founded by a bunch of ministers in order to train a bunch more, Harvard seems to have plenty of reason, but not a lot of faith. Undergraduates don’t have to touch religion with a ten-foot-pole if they don’t want to­—the closest they have to come is the Moral Reasoning core requirement. And even there, courses like “If There Is No God, All Is Permitted” encourage students to accept the possibility of a world without spirituality.

But in a small cluster of buildings just north of the Law School, Harvard quietly continues to prep men and women for the ministry. It’s no seminary, but the Master of Divinity (MDiv) program at the Harvard Divinity School (HDS) offers a three-year professional degree that, in theory, prepares students to enter any and all religious ordination processes.

But unlike at Harvard Law School—where, according to the school’s Assistant Dean for Career Services, 94% of last year’s graduates began practicing law after graduation—only 60% of last year’s MDiv graduates began the path to ordination, according to HDS Associate Dean for Ministry Studies Dudley C. Rose.

For a supposedly pre-professional program, this seems like an anomaly.

Then again, HDS’s mission—“to educate women and men for service as leaders in religious life and thought”—is no less of one.

Instead of submitting online résumés or signing up for research lab internships, MDiv students “discern” their Divine calling through a program that seeks to bridge the ministry and the academy.

The 180 or so MDiv students at HDS are preparing for lives as many kinds of ministers, but, whether by choice or by circumstance, most of them might not find themselves behind the pulpit after graduation.


The Reverend Peter J. Gomes is a Harvard celebrity, and for those who see Harvard as a haven for secularists, he is the first of many exceptions to the rule.

Growing up, “[church] was like basketball was for some kids,” Gomes says, looking the part of Pusey Minister in his book-lined, wood-paneled office in Memorial Church. As a young man, he was a kind of know-it-all, he says, with a memory for Biblical passages, sermons, and wisecracks.

As a student at Bates, though, he did not envision himself as a minister. In fact, the Massachusetts native son fancied himself the future director of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. He dutifully practiced the organ, but at that point, he definitely wasn’t gunning for the pulpit.

“My friends would’ve called me a smart-ass,” he says. “I was not particularly pious.”

It was his attitude that encouraged one of his professors at Bates to push him to do more. “He said to me, ‘You should go where people are smarter than you are,’” Gomes recalls.

“It was almost as careless as that.” And in 1965, Gomes entered the Harvard Divinity School.

Gomes earned his bachelor of sacred theology degree, the precursor to the MDiv, in 1968. During his time at HDS, he began to see an unexpected intersection.

“I found people who were bright and pious,” Gomes says. “I’d thought those were water-tight compartments.”

But as his own career would later show, the worlds of spirituality and academia are not mutually exclusive, a revelation that many continue to discover at HDS.


Almost 40 years have passed since Gomes received his degree, and the Master of Divinity program continues to bridge the religious/secular divide, crossing a boundary that is often seen as impenetrable at other schools.

The 24 half-course MDiv program requires demanding coursework, including a senior thesis, distribution requirements, and intensive language study. In addition, its students must complete 350-400 hours of field education, as well as courses like “Preaching and Worship,” “Pastoral Care and Counseling,” “Religious Education and Spiritual Development,” and “Community Organizing.”

“What we meant was something more than the idea that Harvard turns out educated ministers,” says Rose, who is ordained in the United Church of Christ. “These worlds [of academia and ministry] interact with one another in much more integral ways than once thought.”

Katherine A. Shaner, who earned her MDiv at Harvard in 2002, has learned this from experience.

After completing her MDiv at Harvard, Shaner headed to Detroit to gain pastoral experience in the Lutheran Church. While the Iowa native enjoyed feeling a part of an urban community, she found that she didn’t feel as—excuse the pun—spirited as she’d expected.

One year later, Shaner moved to Chicago to attend seminary and has learned that she missed preaching.

That’s when she learned that she had to do both. “My pastoral ministry gave me motivation and questions,” Shaner says, “and my academic work gave me the energy.” Now, Shaner is an active congregation member at Cambridge’s University Lutheran Church (better known as UNILU). Although she’s not an ordained minister, she frequently preaches in the area, even presiding over sacraments at the discretion of the bishop.

Shaner is also a candidate for a doctor of theology (ThD) at HDS. She aspires to work at an academic seminary and also preach in an urban setting. For now, finishing her degree comes first.


Shaner is doing her best to strike a balance between academia and ministry—two realms which are often at odds with one another.

“MDiv students have to makes sense out of studying Greek at 10 in the morning and going to the Boston Medical Center and seeing what that has to do with a gang shooting victim in the ER,” Dean Rose says, explaining that the MDiv curriculum can sometimes seem contradictory.

Rose’s colleague, Houghton Professor of the Practice of Ministry Studies Stephanie A. Paulsell, has spent her career on both sides of the fence. “I’ve always had one foot in the religious community and one foot in school,” she says. But she knows that people who come to the MDiv program are often searching for a path that leads either to the ministry or to another field, and they often use the MDiv’s combination of field and coursework to find their way.

“They test the PhD waters, and they test the ministry waters,” she says. And to help, HDS also has a staff of 11 denominational counselors who are trained to specifically guide students in different denominations and faiths. “They help students negotiate the process,” says Paulsell.

These denominational counselors help students “discern” their paths, a protracted process that requires experience and, most importantly, time.


Denominational counselors would probably be out of place in, say, the Graduate School of Education, but HDS isn’t completely on a different plane than its friends on the pre-professional circuit.

Gail W. Liebhaber is the director of HDS’s office of career services. She speaks the language of career counselors—talking about skills and passions and interests and gifts—but she also speaks the language of HDS.

“Helping people see the different options is what I’m called to do,” she says. “What I like about the Div School is that it’s the one Harvard grad school that gives you the resources and stimulation to figure things out.”

Liebhaber came to the school in 2002, and she is HDS’ first full-time professional career counselor. But even after just four years in her office in Divinity Hall, she has discovered that the process of discernment not only takes time, but can also lead to many paths.

“You go into law school, you come out a lawyer,” she says, but things are different at HDS. “Some people are looking for ministry with a small ‘m,’ rather than Ministry with a capital ‘M.’”

What she means is that there is no standard career path for the HDS student, even those in the supposedly pre-professional MDiv program. Some will eventually choose ordination, but others might feel a call to minister outside of the ecclesiastical sector.


Matthew E. Nelson grew up in the Catholic Church but, disenchanted, jumped ship after his confirmation. He became an evangelical Christian and went to college at Cedarville University in Cedarville, Ohio, a school affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention.

In college, he discovered that he was gay, and he kept it a secret for fear of expulsion or ex-gay therapy. But at the end of his sophomore year, he read Richard B. Hays’ “The Moral Vision of the New Testament”—a text on ethics in the Bible—and began to rethink his life and his faith.

“God exists and I exist, and I started from there,” he says. Despite the messages he received from more extreme factions of his faith, Nelson knew that he could reconcile his identity and the church. “There was something about being a Christian that seemed consistent with my experience of being a gay Christian.”

He came to HDS in 2004 as an openly gay Christian, and he became a deacon—a kind of lay minister elected by one’s congregation—in the Presbyterian Church. However, the Presbyterian Church General Assembly in the United States states that an “avowed practicing homosexual” cannot be ordained into the professional ministry.

“The denomination is still inimical to bisexual, gay, lesbian, and transgender people,” he says. “I don’t know how long I can continue to tolerate the injustice.”

Nelson is disappointed with his church’s treatment of gay men and women and says he’s unsure how long he will remain a part of the denomination.

Nelson says he is able, however, to take this discrimination in stride, because he sees his future not as a minister, but rather outside the ecclesiastical sector. “I feel like my calling is for scholarship more than organized religion,” Nelson says. He hopes that education policy may provide a route to thwart discrimination against gay men and women.


Allison L. McNeill, a first-year MDiv student, finds herself in an even more vexing predicament: she grew up surrounded by the traditions of the town Presbyterian Church, but after coming out in high school, she and a friend gave a youth sermon about exclusion based on perceived immorality. They acted out a scene in which a lesbian couple was denied adoption rights, and her minister recognized her gift for preaching.

“The head pastor was impressed with how we’d tackled it,” McNeill says. She then came to HDS for exposure to many different background and faiths, but also to start the official ordination process in the Presbyterian Church.

In 2001, the Presbyterian Church (USA) appointed a blue-ribbon task force to explore the question of ordaining gay men and women. This summer, according to the director of the Church’s news service Jerry L. VanMarter, the task force will recommend to the church’s General Assembly that it should keep its official stance on gay ordination, but allow local governing bodies—known as presbyteries—to make the final decision.

“The task force is recommending that the particular ordination standard be kept in the constitution,” VanMarter says. “They’re also recommending that presbyteries can determine whether that standard is essential or nonessential.”

If the church were to approve the provision, McNeill might be able to enter the ministry, so long as her local presbytery determines that her sexuality is “nonessential” in her candidacy as a preacher. But of course, there are no guarantees.

Nevertheless, McNeill is determined. “I want to go through this process—I think it’s not in conflict with what God has called me to be,” she says. And the sense that she is on the right path is strong. “My call is this deeply felt sense that there’s no other way I could live in this world.”

She says she feels called to her ministry (with a capital “M”), but knows that she might have to have a backup plan.


Reverend Gomes sympathizes with people like McNeill and Nelson. In the fall of 1991, a conservative Harvard student publication called “Peninsula”—now defunct—devoted a 56-page issue to articles critical of homosexuality. Gomes and Professor of English and Comparative Literature Barbara E. Johnson condemned the magazine and made the choice to publicly come out. “I am a Christian,” declared Gomes from the steps of Memorial Church that November, “who happens as well to be gay.”

Gomes, however, was ordained at a time when the issue of homosexuality was unspoken within his church. If he were in the ordination track today, he knows that his path would be quite different.

“Were I 22 or 23,” he says, “I’m not sure what I would do or say.”

But for now, he’s cautiously optimistic. “Eventually, the church will come around,” he says­—adding that one’s “call to ministry has nothing to do with the Presbyterian Church; it has to do with God.”

And it is this very personal calling that the 180 MDiv students at HDS are trying to discern. In an environment where they are given the academic and religious tools to discover their true paths in life, these students are learning that the ministry takes all kinds and fills all manner of vocations.

They might face stringent institutional barriers or personal uncertainty, but all are set on a path to find their calling.