Step by Step

MDiv candidate Denise Carrell shares her journey to seminary
News Denise Carrell

One step at a time. MDiv candidate Denise Carrell describes her journey to ministry as being given direction one step at a time. She jovially recounts, “I’ve always said, that when God has spoken to me it’s always been in baby steps. It’s like ‘take this step and I’ll get back to you later.’”

From a young age, Carrell was drawn to the happenings of the church. Her earliest gleamings of a call to ministry were playing church and baptizing her friends during recess at the Episcopalian primary school she attended. She first learned about God during the school chapel services and in accepting friends’ invitations to attend church and youth group. The brightest and clearest sense of a call came just after her first child turned two. It was at this point that she made a commitment to work in ministry.

Over the years, Denise has worked in marketing and communications; taught theater; and worked for para-church ministries, junior high and high school camp ministries, and youth groups. These experiences, she notes, are where her sense of calling was further clarified.

“I always ended up with youth ministries that would have such a diversity of young people,” who she notes came “with a diversity of thought. We would have everything from super conservative theologies to LGBTQ kids who were still seeking and trying to figure out if they could belong to a church to kids who were fully atheists who would come to try and figure out if there was anything to it.” With all of these differences, the youth groups Carrell served in were, she describes, a community “who could all be together, consistently.”

It was during Carrell’s most recent ministry work when her pastor encouraged her to apply for Princeton Theological Seminary’s Institute for Youth Ministry Certificate in Youth and Theology program. The program features peer cohorts, leadership summits, final projects, and more. Carrell completed the program in October 2018. Carrell began to seriously think about attending Princeton Seminary as she worked with and learned from Seminary faculty and staff throughout the program.

Around the time of her completion of the program, the United Methodist Church was in the mire of inter-denominational disagreement over the ordination of LGBTQIA+ persons. Walking through this season in her church reaffirmed a call to care for persons who have been deemed “other.” She also came to the point in her ministry where the next step was seminary, followed by ordination. All of these circumstances led Carrell toward applying to Princeton Seminary’s Master of Divinity (MDiv) program.

In the middle of 2020, Carrell, her partner, and two teenage children packed up everything and moved to Princeton, New Jersey so she could begin her program in the fall. She enjoyed her first year of studies, saying “My time at Princeton Seminary has actually been incredible. I laugh that I had the unicorn first year because all of my professors were the best!”

Carrell worked at the Institute for Youth Ministry during her first year, serving as the program assistant for the program that first introduced her to Princeton Seminary. She also completed her first field education credit in the summer and is taking part in her second placement this fall at The Brick Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, alongside working in the Seminary’s Office of Admissions.

When asked about hopes for after graduation, she laughingly replied, “Well that would be the million-dollar question!” Although the next step is unknown, she knows there will be a flair of non-traditional in her ministry. “I think after seeing God’s faithfulness to give me direction when it was the right time and how hard it was when I tried to force things — there was always something that didn’t quite line up when I took control. So, after seeing God’s faithfulness, I am really at the point where I can just trust that when it’s time I’ll know.”

Educating faithful Christian leaders.

Associate Rector at Trinity Church, Princeton, New Jersey

Nancy Hagner, Class of 2013

“Preaching is one of the most important things we do as pastors. You get to challenge people’s minds and hearts, as the gospel challenges all of us.”