I was surprised during Orientation when I learned that two-thirds of my peers in the incoming class, the overwhelming majority, were in the MTS program. One of the standard get-to-know-you questions flying at me left and right was “What’s your area of focus?”—terminology that comes from the MTS program that doesn’t always translate to the MDiv. What’s my area of focus? The Universe. Life. The complexity of the human experience. The individual and collective search for truth and meaning that sustains us and inspires us. Spirituality. Social justice. God. The Divine. The impulse that so many of us have to be a good person and to make a difference in the world—and how to live that out.
“What’s your tradition?” was the other question I started hearing every once in a while, as an alternative conversation starter for MDivs. That’s the HDS way of saying “What denomination do you belong to?” or, more broadly, “What’s your religion or religious background?” What I soon learned, though, was that a person’s religious tradition may or may not tell you a lot. It might line up with their religious identity or it might not (someone who was raised Catholic might not identify with that label and be deeply spiritual but not religiously affiliated now). If someone identified with their tradition, it may or may not tell you about their theological beliefs (an MDiv preparing to be an Episcopal priest freely admitted being agnostic). It might be related to their academic concentration (a Greek Orthodox student studying the Gospels in the original Greek) or it might not (a Neo-Pagan focusing on Islam). An MDiv’s religious tradition might suggest they’re preparing to be a religious leader in that tradition or you might learn they have an entirely different vocation—and a lot of people are in discernment, which means their plans may continue to evolve. So that actually makes me pretty straightforward, since my religious tradition, identity, academic concentration, and career goals all line up: I’m a Unitarian Universalist on the ordination track to be a parish minister.
While I was surprised there were only 40 MDivs or so in my entering class, and even fewer planning to be ordained parish ministers like me, what surprised me most of all was the diversity among my peers in terms of where they were coming from and where they were hoping to go. In my first semester, I had Introduction to Ministry Studies with all my fellow MDivs and there was as much diversity in the Sperry Room in terms of our religious traditions as there was in terms of our aspirations. HDS students come from over 35 religious traditions and many are unaffiliated with one, so that meant talking about and broadening the definition of “ministry” with Jewish, Muslim, and Humanist classmates as well as Christians from every denomination, all of whom had different career goals. My fellow MDivs, I learned, are preparing to be congregational leaders; chaplains for colleges, hospitals, prisons, and the army; to do interfaith work, social work, to go into law, non-profit management, counseling, teaching, and many other fields.
The MDiv degree has many more requirements than the MTS—3 classes in a language, Introduction to Ministry Studies, two units of Field Education, and a thesis, among them—but I’ve found there’s a great deal of flexibility and each component deepens my learning and preparation for ministry. MDiv students must take classes in three Distribution Categories: 6 classes in Histories, Theologies, and Practices of the religious tradition they’re studying, 3 classes in Scriptural Interpretation, and 3 classes in Other Religions outside the one they’re studying. I found that there was so much diversity in the course catalog that I was able to fulfill my Scriptural Interpretation requirements with classes that felt like electives, like “The Historical Jesus” and “Feminist Biblical Interpretation.” As an MDiv preparing for ordination with the Unitarian Universalist Association, I’ve been intentional about taking classes, like “Unitarian Universalist Polity” and “Liberal and Liberation Theologies,” that simultaneously fulfill degree and ordination requirements.
Now in my second year of the MDiv program with a year to go, I feel good about what I’ve done and what’s before me in my final year. Next fall, I’m doing Field Education at the Arlington Street Church in Boston–which I’m proud to say is where the first legal same-sex marriage was performed in a church. I’ll also start working on my thesis next fall, which I’m looking at as an opportunity to do feminist, queer, and trans* theology. I feel supported by my fellow MDivs in both my academic work and preparation for ministry. A Methodist friend has already recommended I check out Julian of Norwich for my thesis and said he’ll keep an eye out for other material that might be helpful, and my UU colleagues have given me guidance in how to prepare for ordination.
With the flexibility of the curriculum, the unique opportunities here, the supportive faculty, and collaborative spirit among students, I feel like I’m getting a world-class education of my own shaping while pursuing my vocation. I love hearing about what my fellow MDivs are doing and can’t wait to see what they go out into the world to do. It’s been a humbling and inspiring experience to be in this program with other MDivs from various religious backgrounds who are as altruistic as they are ambitious.