The Hispanic Theological Initiative (HTI), headquartered at Princeton Theological Seminary, is a program that provides financial resources, support, and mentoring to Latinx students in religion. From 2002 to the present, Rev. Joanne Rodríguez, executive director, has helped maintain the unprecedented completion rate of 93% with an average time to degree of 5.5 years.
Rodríguez earned her ThM in 2002 and her MDiv in 1999 from Princeton Seminary. She took the position of assistant director at HTI before finishing her ordination exams. The job was originally slated to last three years, after which she had planned to interview for a pastoral position, but when the time came, she was asked to replace the departing director.
“I fell in love with the program, its mission and its people,” she says. “The commitment of the community and the relationships keep me energized and motivated. And the work is never stagnant; we continue to grow and I like those kind of challenges.”
Rodríguez says her calling to be a minister began in childhood.
“When I was a kid, I’d say in Spanish that I wanted to be a servant. My understanding of leadership is about serving and caring for others and making a better world,” she says. “My role as a minister of the Word and Sacrament is to live in the realm of the Holy Spirit. To use my God-given skills, education, and any other resources and work ‘en conjunto’ to transform lives and enrich them.”
While at Princeton Seminary she intentionally built relationships with a diverse group of students, worshiping with them on Sunday mornings at their churches and creating lectures and evening worship services at the seminary. These experiences, combined with her New York Rican upbringing and prior work as a banker, helped prepare her for managing many different relationships at HTI — the deans and presidents of 24 different schools, faculty, donors, and students.
“Worshipping with people from different denominations and ethnicities opened my eyes to other ways of understanding God,” she says.
As the church faces challenges in a polarized nation, she notes that relationship building and collaboration are crucial.
“We don’t do the work of ministry alone, so we must build, respect, and honor relationships even when there’s difference of opinion. All of our gifts and shortcomings can be used to do God’s life-giving and transformative work. We have to be flexible, pause, look at the current times, and ask how best to enter this space.”
HTI is expanding in exciting ways, creating new programs with the support of a $7.3 million grant from Lilly Endowment, Inc. Beginning in 2023, one of the programs will help Latinx master’s students navigate their path toward PhD studies. With increasing costs and lack of information about how to apply, Rodríguez says the Latinx pipeline for grad students remains low.
“We want to help demystify how to prepare for graduate studies, manage the financial aspects, and produce a strong application, which is essential as grad programs become increasingly competitive,” she says.
Her advice for Latinx new seminary graduates as they prepare to lead a changing church?
“Ground yourself first in God’s deep love, hope, and joy to develop a deep understanding of God’s providence, peace, hopefulness, and courage.”