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Guest Post by Pastor Robin Lutjohann, MDiv 2013

Harvard Divinity School is a place that will change you if you let it. I started by pursuing


Robin Lutjohann, photo from author.

the two-year MTS degree with the intention of researching and teaching the history of Christianity. By the time I left, I was well on my way to becoming a Lutheran pastor. During the three years I spent at HDS, I lived in a protest camp in downtown Boston (Occupy!); switched my program; learned how to do ministry from people who lived on the streets of Cambridge and directed a soup kitchen. Also, I learned a couple of languages; wrote many papers; got baptized in the Charles River; fell in and out of love a couple of times; got engaged; met some of my best friends. Through all these and countless other encounters, I experienced at HDS what the Christian tradition calls “conversion” — a “being turned around” from one direction to another. So many of my friends and colleagues from HDS experienced something similar, entering the school with one vision and leaving with a very different one.

I have experienced the Divinity School as a kind of incubator for discernment. The sheer diversity of perspectives, traditions, and practices surrounding us here required us to examine our paths and question our motives at every turn. We took nothing for granted. Which is why, when folks ask me why I went to HDS and not to a Lutheran seminary, my answer is:


Photo Credit: Rose Lincoln, Harvard Staff Photographer

“I am not sure I would be a Lutheran pastor today if I had gone to a Lutheran seminary. But in this multi-faith, multi-vocational context, I was forced to give an account for myself, for my story, and for my chosen tradition.” Others’ questions spurred on my learning. It is not too much to say that I learned from my Buddhist, Hindu, atheist, Baptist, Jewish, and other friends about what it means to be a Lutheran.

Despite our diversity of paths, one thing united us: HDS taught us that this institution educates “learned ministers.” All of us — academics, social workers, monks, nonprofit or government leaders, teachers, and students, and, yes, even pastors — were encouraged to think of ourselves as “learned ministers.”

One year into my pastorate at Faith Lutheran Church, back in my old neighborhood close to HDS, I am rediscovering the strength of this core idea. It contains a compelling ethos, holding together academic excellence and responsibility in the world.

Often, I wonder: what do most people think when they hear the phrase “learned minister?” Maybe they picture something like the statue of William Ellery Channing


Photo Credit: Rose Lincoln, Harvard Staff Photographer

facing Arlington Street Church in downtown Boston. His eyes and chest raised heroically, 19th-century-windswept-Jane-Austen-novel hair casually blowing in the breeze, one hand clutching an academic robe (as if to shield the man against the onslaught of the world’s moral depravity), the other solidly in possession of that which grounds all of his work: the text. It is the image of the Preacher, the Pulpit Prince, who exercises leadership through his golden-tongued eloquence and moral example.

It is an image conjured for the sake of public gardens and portrait galleries. But it has little to do with what I have known a “learned minister” to be. Even Will Channing’s actual ministry and character was so much more interesting than it was heroic, much more embattled and conflicted, weak and strong at once, swept along by events, attempting to be witness to the Light he had glimpsed, but ever failing to do so completely, ever the sinner, even while a saint to us.

In 200 years of its history, HDS has expanded the definition of “minister” to include all forms of service to neighbor and world. While both some traditionalists and some secularists may bristle at this identification, it is actually quite faithful to its original intent. “Minister” is a Latin word that simply means “servant.” Its Greek equivalent “diakonos” is used by St. Paul in his letters not to describe an ordained clergyperson, but rather the role of the whole community seeking after the way of life that Jesus showed us — to serve others with compassion and to serve the world in seeking a just society, even in the face of the greatest adversity, even to the point of losing all for the sake of the world’s life. 

I see it as a fortuitous turn of events that HDS, in its increasing inclusivity over 200 years (towards other traditions, towards broader vocational directions), was forced to expand its definition of “ministry” and thereby virtually backed itself into a rendering of the term that is ironically more faithful to the biblical tradition at its roots, even while many students today would not claim this tradition as their own.

In fact, as a Lutheran, who is particularly mindful of Martin Luther’s reform movement as the 500th anniversary of its inception approaches in 2017, I am reminded of Luther’s own theology of vocation. Rather than ministry being the exclusive enclave of a few holy experts with lofty titles, who would have the power to dispense enlightenment and forgiveness, Luther wanted the entire people of God to own their ministry in daily life — cobblers, stonemasons, mothers and fathers, students, governors, and, yes, even pastors. “Each has the work and office of [their] trade, and yet they are all alike consecrated priests and bishops. Further, everyone must benefit and serve every other by means of [their] own work or office so that in this way many kinds of work may be done for the bodily and spiritual welfare of the community, just as all the members of the body serve one another [1 Cor 12:14-26].” (Luther’s Works 44:130) All were to be ministers of the Gospel! Luther once remarked that a Christian cobbler was not one who stitched little crosses on their shoes, but rather one who worked ethically, made an honest living, and exuded holiness in their ordinary tasks. 

So, there is no divide between the mundane and the theological. There is no barrier separating ministry and “secular” work. There is only the one service offered for the life of the world. The more we embrace this, the more faithful we will be to both the 200-year legacy of HDS and the(almost) 500-year history of the Lutheran reforming movement. I am delighted to think these two strands of tradition together, and I would invite anyone, regardless of affiliation, to join me