Three Princeton Seminary Alums Serve as Chaplains at Top Universities

Three Princeton Seminary alums are making their mark on three of America’s most prominent universities.  Luke Powery (M.Div., 1999, pictured below right) is the new dean of Duke University’s chapel and associate professor of the practice of homiletics at Duke Divinity School, Jonathan Walton (M.Div., 2002, Ph.D., 2006, pictured below left) serves as Harvard Divinity School’s Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church, and Deborah Blanks (Th.M., 1990) is the associate dean of religious life and the chapel at Princeton University.

poweryblankswaltonFounded in 1926 as the first of the university’s graduate professional schools, Duke Divinity School attracts students from across the nation and from around the world.  Powery, ordained by the Progressive National Baptist Convention, is the first African American to serve in the position of dean of the chapel, one of the most distinguished posts for a preacher. Duke’s chapel has one of the largest campus congregations and is home to one of the most active religious life programs on a U.S. campus.

“University churches are very vibrant and robust communities.  They are, in fact, real anomalies—in that they integrate a community of faith with academic studies,” explains Walton, an ordained Baptist minister, who says he was “raised as a southern, evangelical kid” and is now “delighted to be leading one of the most prominent pulpits in the country that was intended for New England Puritan ministers.” For Walton, religion is an intellectual as well as spiritual exercise. He believes the interdenominational Memorial Church, which has been regarded as the symbolic center of Harvard's spiritual life, is a place to educate minds and expand hearts.

Through her role at Princeton University, the fourth-oldest college in the U.S., Blanks seeks to be a spiritual resource to people of faith, those seeking, as well as those desiring to engage about the “big questions of life.”  She enjoys interfacing with people who have varying viewpoints from hers. “At the university-level I work to create a sacred space for students to flourish on campus—to be supported, nurtured, and spiritually fed,” she says.

When Blanks graduated from seminary, the typical call was to pastor a church, but she wanted to pursue a “nontraditional” route.  An ordained minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, she says, “I always had a feeling my ministry would be ‘nontraditional.’  I just wasn’t sure what that would look like.” She was drawn toward military chaplaincy and pursued an opportunity with the U.S. Navy.  After serving as a military chaplain for ten years, she transitioned to a university setting. “The skills of a navy chaplain are very transferable to a university setting.  Military and college populations are very similar in age, transient communities, and both settings are pluralistic,” says Blanks.

She has had the unique distinction of working at two Ivy League universities—first, as an assistant university chaplain at Brown University, and now at Princeton University. “Being the first African American woman to hold this post is humbling. I stand upon the shoulders of courageous named and nameless forebears whose legacy of courage illumines the path that stretches before me.  The liberating bequest of courage passed on to me and the mantle that rests upon me is what inspires and empowers me to continue the journey,” she says. Blanks describes her ministry as “outside the walls of the church.” “I’m exercising my ordained rites of ministry that I was ordained to do, but in a setting that is outside of the church,” she says.

In her role at Princeton, Blanks facilitates the religious life for faculty, staff, and students, which is fueled through the Christian services in the chapel. However, she works to meet the needs of diverse groups by offering a variety of intra-faith and interfaith programs, lectures, and music offerings.  She also facilitates the student-led worship service, Hallelujah!, which is an expression of the African American church tradition.  “It is a lively service of worship where students can come to celebrate the rhythm of God alive and bless their origins,” she says.

At Duke, Powery’s role as dean includes an ongoing ministerial piece centering on Sunday worship—the public face of Duke’s chapel.  He plays an integral role in connecting the academic and spiritual lives of the university’s students, faculty, and staff and describes his ministry as a “hybrid.”  His position encompasses several roles, including community engagement, research, teaching, and pastoral care.  “My post is about people—preaching, teaching, and building relationships,” he says.

“To be a faculty member of Harvard Divinity School, one of the premier centers of theological education, is an honor and a privilege,” says Walton. His work and insights have been featured in several national and international news outlets, including The New York Times, CNN, and theBBC. He focuses his research and teaching on the intersections of religion, politics, and media, and views both Memorial Church and Harvard Divinity School as classrooms and places of spiritual inspiration.  “This position does not force me to bifurcate my sense of vocation between Sunday and Monday,” he says.

Powery and Blanks agree that being invited into the lives of students, colleagues, and parishioners—as a mentor, to join together with them in prayer, or to walk along the journey of life—during times of joy or sorrow is extremely rewarding. “The ongoing relationships with students—being invited to baptize a baby, officiate at a wedding, or attend a graduation ceremony—being present for these life events reaffirms that this is what I am supposed to be doing,” says Blanks.  Meanwhile, in the academic setting, Walton says the most rewarding part of his work is seeing the “light” come on for students and witnessing their passion ignite.  “That says it all for me,” he says.

Reflecting on his seminary education Powery says, “I consider Princeton Seminary to be my ‘theological home.’ I received an excellent education from wonderful professors. My time at PTS confirmed my sense of ministry. I felt truly privileged to later return as a professor.” Prior to Duke, Powery served as the Perry and Georgia Engle Assistant Professor of Homiletics at Princeton Seminary.

Walton also feels that PTS was pivotal in preparing him to serve the academy. “I received the training and tools that allow me to drill deep into theological, moral, and ethical questions.” Walton and Blanks describe their seminary education as providing them with an “intellectual toolkit.” “I continue to pull books from my bookshelf for sermon preparation or to lend to a student,” Walton says. “In a setting like a university, I am using the tools I gained in seminary to help me wrestle more deeply with the questions of life, so that I can translate that to others through study groups and through preaching,” says Blanks.

Blanks recalls the days after September 11 when she relied heavily on her seminary “toolkit” and reservoir of faith to provide a sense of comfort to the Princeton University community. “That was a time when I experienced firsthand the transferable nature of my skills as a military chaplain.  During the 9-11 tragedy, I was able to draw from the wellspring of my professional life and deliver through public prayers, preaching, and counseling a sense of comfort about God’s presence.”

Even today Walton continues to value his years at PTS and to be thankful for the time he had for vocational discernment, which in part led him to his current post.  What is his advice to current seminarians? “Enjoy your years at seminary and appreciate the gift of ‘time.’ Be in the moment—enjoy fellowship in Mackay, visit with professors, and don’t become overwhelmed by your future goals,” he says.  Blanks also believes that the time spent at seminary and the value of a theological education cannot be underestimated. “A seminary education is critical to appreciating your faith—it gives you a prism to look through in terms of understanding the world and it will inform all that you do.”