When Janice Smith Ammon, MDiv ’90, reflects on all that’s happened over her 15 years as the Bryant M. Kirkland Minister of the Chapel, she sees a swirl of disorienting complexity. “The world feels so much more complicated now,” she says. “The changes in the world have had such an impact on the church and on theological education. I’ve just tried to be a pastor: How can I be a support? What is needed?”
Next month, Ammon retires after a tenure that included not just oversight of communal worship but also stints as Princeton Theological Seminary’s interim dean of students and its co-coordinator of health and wellness during the pandemic. Her service has been marked by steadfast, tender care for the seminary community — and especially for its students.
Ammon has never forgotten how fraught the call to ministry and to seminary can be. Though she sensed that call in high school, she felt unprepared for seminary after college. She worked as a nurse for nearly a decade, first in hospice and home care, then in public health, and finally in a children’s rehabilitation facility. “I felt like something was missing,” she says. “I could physically care for people, but I felt such a pull to learn more about how to care for people’s hearts and souls.”
Yet by the time Ammon arrived at Princeton Seminary as a student in 1987, her sense of call was shrouded in ambivalence, even fear: “I had no theological background. I thought ‘hermeneutic’ was a person — Herman Ootic.”
When she returned to Princeton Seminary as minister of the chapel in 2007, Ammon channeled the memory of that alienation into a message of welcome, a version of which she has offered at the start of every academic year. In that welcome, she recalls transitioning from her first pastoral call, at Central Presbyterian Church in Summit, New Jersey, to her second, at New York City’s Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church. As she walked toward her new church on her first day, her dread and doubt grew. But as Ammon entered the church, a woman threw her arms wide open in embrace: “Jan!” she said. “We’ve been waiting for you!”
Austin Shelley, ThM ’14, MDiv ‘12, still remembers how that welcome landed when she heard it as a first-year MDiv student. “Jan told us that story. And she acknowledged all that we had left behind to be at seminary — families, jobs, security. It was the first time anyone had acknowledged that there might be a cost,” says Shelley, now the senior minister of Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh and a PhD candidate in Princeton Seminary’s Practical Theology Department in the field of Homiletics. “Jan threw her arms wide open and said, ‘We’ve been waiting for you.’ I immediately felt like someone understood — understood our stories, understood the possibilities.”
With her candor, wit, and steady presence, Ammon has consistently sought to nurture students’ sense of holy possibility. Taylor Telford, MDiv ’15, was still wrestling with her sexuality when she began her seminary studies. Reared in a theological context that she describes as “evangelical and conservative, but not fundamentalist,” Telford wondered whether her faith might demand celibacy. “Jan never told me that I didn’t need to feel the way I did or say that I was wrong. She never tried to speak for God in the way that can be so toxic,” says Telford, an adjunct theology professor at Whitworth University and worship pastor at Knox Presbyterian Church in Spokane, Washington. “She was just so gentle, so patient. I needed to get there on my own time — and she always lets people get there on their own time.”
In that posture of coming alongside her students, one can see the skills of a nurse — someone who recognizes that you can’t rush healing, someone who understands the power of being seen. “People just need to feel heard and cared for, be loved and affirmed and included, whether that’s in worship or as they’re going through a personal crisis,” Ammon says. In her view, the job of the minister of the chapel is largely about watching: “Who do you see? Who’s by themselves? You watch a lot. You watch — and then you show up.”
For Ammon, showing up has taken forms as diverse as the student body, from being at worship on a daily basis to popping into events hosted by student groups, from delivering flowers to a student grieving a loss to assembling a care package — hot soup, 7-Up, a handwritten card — for someone battling the flu. She acknowledges “a certain tenderness for people in this community who are diverse in whatever way, whether it’s students of color or queer students or women or people with different theological views or international students whose families are so far away. But I’m not the only one who creates safe spaces at the Seminary — a lot of people do,” she says with characteristic modesty. “I’m just glad to have been one of them.”
But Ammon steadfastly downplays what she has done for others, instead emphasizing what others have done for her. “I’ve tried always to be present and to be open to learning — and I’ve just learned so much,” she says. “It’s such an honor when people invite you to stand on the sacred ground of their life.”
And, students might add, it’s such an honor and a gift to have had Jan Ammon stand alongside you.