Claire Berry never thought that she would be called to parish ministry. “I became increasingly aware in high school of the different (and often problematic) roles that the church has played in history,” she explains. “I had a lot of questions that I was nervous to bring up, and I ended up distancing myself from the church as a result.”
As an undergraduate student at Yale College, Berry majored in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. “I became very interested in studying the way that gender and sexuality affect people’s lives, oftentimes in power imbalances that don’t always lead to human flourishing,” she says. “This led me to think about other axes along which discrimination and oppression occur.”
Berry’s growing passion for social justice led her to spend a year working as a special education teacher in New Mexico with Teach for America. Reflecting on the experience, she says that there was also a distinctly spiritual element to this work: “Even though I wasn’t completely aware of it at the time, there was a lesson there that God was trying to teach me about inclusion of people. It was an important lesson in human dignity. That dignity, that worthiness, is not something that I or anyone else achieves—it’s what makes us human.”
I could have surrendered to the belief that the world is chaotic and meaningless, but my gut told me that this wasn’t true. That feeling set me off on a search for meaning that led me back to the church.
After this, she moved across the country to New York City and began working with the New Teacher Project, a nonprofit consulting firm that partners with school districts on reforms. Shortly thereafter, her college roommate was killed in a drunk driving accident. “That was when I started reentering the life of faith,” she reflects. “New York City is a very fast-paced, materialistic place, and it was a hard place to be truly happy. I could see that that wasn’t really good for my spirit. It just came to a head where, as I was going through a process of deep grief, I felt like I had a choice. I could have surrendered to the belief that the world is chaotic and meaningless, but my gut told me that this wasn’t true. That feeling set me off on a search for meaning that led me back to the church.”
Increasingly devoted to her church life and discontent with her work and with New York, Berry began to sense a call to ministry. “When it occurred to me that one vocational possibility might be the ministry, it just really appealed to me in a way I couldn’t rationalize away,” Berry says. “I realized that, when I was working in communications for the New Teaching Project, I was really focusing on my gifts as a writer and communicator. And I was missing some of the direct service to others that I’d been able to do when I was a teacher. So, when I looked at the role of a parish minister, I saw opportunities to use all of my gifts—for writing, for administration, for teaching, and for counseling, a piece that had never been part of my job title but to which I’d always felt called.”
As she began to research possibilities, Princeton Theological Seminary drew her in immediately: “I liked that Princeton focuses on preparing you for work in a parish, even as they have this academic focus.” This combination, along with the Seminary’s student housing and generous financial aid, made her decision to attend PTS an easy one.
Berry was quickly affirmed in her gifts and sense of call as a PTS student, especially within the areas of preaching and pastoral care. Her experiences during her CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) rotation in a local hospital were also formative. “I got to take what I was studying in my classes and see how it applied in the field. What I learned in the classroom could be (and was!) part of God’s healing work in other places. I got the opportunity to make mistakes and I always felt supported when transforming academic ideas into practical actions.”
When it comes to ecumenical and multicultural issues alike, I think the church really has a responsibility to witness to unity and love. Princeton Seminary has equipped me with tools to join in this work of justice.
PTS also encouraged Berry to cultivate and apply skills that she had learned before her seminary studies. “I developed great organizational skills at the New Teaching Project, and I learned that the church really needs them. There’s lots of anxiety in the church about declining membership, and I think that the worst thing the church can do is to throw its hands up and change everything. I really want to encourage the church to step back, figure out our identity and direction, and then act accordingly. That’s the kind of organizational thinking that I picked up along the way when I was doing my consulting work that I hope to share with the church.”
Most importantly, however, Berry has grown in her conviction that, in using her gifts to serve her congregation and the church at large, she can join in God’s redemptive work in the world. Her relationships with people from other traditions and denominations and her work with the PTS Courageous Conversations initiative, which creates safe, confidential, and sacred spaces for hearing one another’s stories, helped Berry grow her abilities to listen and communicate across lines of difference. “When it comes to ecumenical and multicultural issues alike, I think the church really has a responsibility to witness to unity and love,” she says. “Princeton has equipped me with tools to join in this work of justice.”
Upon graduation from seminary, Berry said that her confidence in her gifts and call had grown substantially. “It can be nerve-racking to think about yourself occupying a position of pastoral authority, but the Seminary gave me lots of different ways to try that on. All of those experiences gave me confidence that I can do this. I can lead a worship service. I can preach across different kinds of contexts on different kinds of texts. I can walk into a room where someone is dying or someone has died and have, if nothing else, a presence to offer.”
Berry now works as Associate Pastor at Westlake Hills Presbyterian Church in Austin, Texas, where she focuses on the congregation’s local and international mission efforts. This is a position for which Berry could not feel more grateful and called: “I brought a concern for the broader community into seminary with me. It’s been honed since then, and I’m really excited that I get to go out into a ministry position where the outreach of the church is a priority.”
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