A Ministry of Presence

Whittney Barth
Whittney Barth. Photograph/Steve Gilbert

Whittney Barth graduated from Harvard Divinity School on May 26 with a master of divinity degree. Below, she describes how her life has been impacted by her experience at HDS, offers some advice for incoming students, and discusses her future plans.

I was originally attracted to HDS because of the opportunity to study and to learn in a religiously-pluralistic setting. My interest in promoting interfaith cooperation began during a three-week immersion experience at a Lutheran seminary not far from my home in Ohio.

Since this passion continued to grow throughout my undergraduate years, HDS seemed like an excellent fit for me to pursue this interest into a vocation. At HDS, my academic focus was the lived experience of religious pluralism in the United States.

I arrived on campus planning for a career as a Coordinator of Religious and Spiritual Life in a university setting. Although I expected HDS to be a vibrant community, I was surprised by the depth and breadth of this vibrancy and how seamlessly students, faculty, and staff contributed to the School's atmosphere. Conversations inside and outside of the classroom pushed me to acknowledge and engage with the joys and challenges of daily living into religious pluralism.

It is hard to believe that one person could change so much in just three short years. As a scholar, my classroom experience led me to ask questions of the world and of myself in a new way. As a person of faith, my encounters in a religiously diverse community have helped me imagine the possibilities of being Lutheran in a pluralistic world. As a leader, my experience as an elected representative of the student body showed me the joy of serving others through collaboration. I credit my HDS experience with providing nourishment for these different pieces of myself to grow organically into who I am today.

The past three years have been marked by great transition for me personally and professionally. Harvard can be an enchanting yet intimidating place. One of the biggest challenges I faced as an HDS student was recognizing my own legitimacy as a scholar and minister in an environment marked by such esteemed professors, accomplished colleagues, and rich history.

It was these same professors and colleagues, however, who challenged me to be my authentic self, to ask questions that resonated with my experience, and to embrace ambiguity. Perhaps an even bigger challenge was to take full advantage of the plethora of resources available at HDS (and at Harvard more broadly) while finding time to sleep!

My advice to incoming students would be to enter into this community with your eyes wide open and hold lightly your assumptions about yourself, your colleagues, and the world. Be enchanted by this place while never losing sight of the fact that HDS is not a place apart from the world but rather is a place where past, present, and future change-makers come to teach and to learn from one another.

My HDS experience opened up for me diverse vocational possibilities to consider. In delving deeply into texts and questions of theory and practice, my passion for learning and encouraging inquiry was affirmed, leading me to consider teaching at the university level. My two years of service as an elected representative of the HDS student group Life Together challenged me to see myself working in politics and administration.

My field education experience working with undergraduates who run the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter affirmed for me the importance of a "ministry of presence," leading me to consider ordained ministry. My future plans will likely include one or a combination of these threads.

There is a prayer in my tradition that seems appropriate for this time in my life. The prayer, found in the Evangelical Lutheran Worship hymnal, acknowledges that God leads us "toward ventures of which we cannot see the ending, down paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown" while continuing to be our guide.