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Students flounder at Divinity School

Divinity students gather for the second in a series of dinners organized to foster community.
Divinity students gather for the second in a series of dinners organized to foster community.

At the Divinity School, some students are having trouble balancing “eruditio et religio.”

The pillars of the University’s motto—knowledge and faith—are currently at odds within the Divinity School, as academic stress and a lack of school community have made it difficult to maintain spiritual health, students said. Master of divinity candidates, many of whom become pastors, said their spiritual development is being neglected, though the Divinity School administration has said it is working to accommodate the needs of all of its students. Although the academic stress felt by other pre-professional students at Duke is similar, the master of divinity candidates said that those studying to be ministers have an added burden of grappling with their faith on a daily basis.

“We are here because we want academic rigor, and that’s something Duke provides,” said Lisa Talbott, a second-year master of divinity candidate. “But I didn’t expect my strong academic background to come at the expense of my spiritual life.”

Master of divinity candidates account for more than half of the Divinity School’s student body. Duke Divinity School graduates go on to be great ministers, but their personal lives are unhealthy because of damaging habits learned while in school, said Tyler Mahoney, a third-year master of divinity candidate.

“They’re creating a culture of workaholics, which will result in pastoral burnout,” Mahoney said.

Mahoney and several other students conducted an informal survey regarding student life at the Divinity School, which garnered around 80 respondents. Although several responses to the question—“What changes would most improve the Divinity School?”—indicated that students were pleased with the school overall, about 40 students said there were several ways the community could improve. Students mentioned a need for more interaction between different age groups and degree programs, administrator and faculty visibility, clubs, social space and a stronger support system.

Some respondents in the anonymous survey noted that preparation for leading a parish is being compromised by academic excellence.

“It’s not enough to just quietly mention [Counseling and Psychological Services] at the beginning of the year and hope people will go,” wrote one respondent in the survey. “We need legitimate resources for coping with this new environment.... In fact, make a pastoral care counseling course a mandatory part of our paradigm. It’s an area that’s sorely lacking at Duke.”

Adrian Mack, a master of Christian theory candidate, said he feels a close connection with his classmates and his professors due to his smaller seminar courses—a courseload that contrasts most master of divinity courses that are in a large, lecture-style setting. Mack, who is studying not to be a pastor but to be a professor, said, however, that his workload has similarly challenged his faith.

“That’s one of the things I find myself talking to my peers about outside the classroom,” Mack said.

Scott Himel, a third-year master in divinity candidate and co-president of the Divinity Student Council, said he has learned to manage academic stress, but noted that it required coming to terms with his personal spiritual formation.

“What you’re studying is always intermixed with your own life and your own soul,” Himel said. “Those by their very nature are very concerning tasks that can tear you apart, frankly…. It’s hard when you come home from the Div[inity] School to set those aside, and when you wake up in the morning, they’re still forming you.”

A need for connection

Divinity School Dean Richard Hays said there are many opportunities for students to reach out to faculty members and administrators, through the school’s programming, chaplains and spiritual advisers.

“I’ve been involved in theological education for 35 years,” Hays said. “This is a pretty common refrain that students hope for divinity school to be their church and almost their family.”

The Divinity School has weekly spiritual formation groups led by certified spiritual guides—required for first years and recommended for others—but Talbott believes this is not enough. She said her professors and Divinity School administrators are not enough of a presence on campus. Her professors, many of whom are ordained, act as pastors once a student reaches a time of crisis in their academic, spiritual or personal lives, but many faculty members are not part of students’ lives until they reach that breaking point.

In the survey, some students indicated that they felt supported by fellow students but not by the staff or the administration. Many also said they have to make a significant effort in order to develop a relationship with their professors.

“If I had a better relationship with my professors, I wouldn’t break down,” Talbott said. “Unlike other subjects that challenge you academically, [theology] challenges you spiritually, as well.... You start to get on shaky ground, and there’s no guidance on how to navigate through those waters.”

Talbott noted that professors need to also act as pastors in order for students to be successful in their careers. Talbott said that by hiding in their offices, being absent from worship services and not actively seeking to be part of students’ lives, her professors are not setting a good example.

Ellen Davis, Amos Ragan Kearns distinguished professor of biblical and practical theology, said it is normal for theology professors not to be involved with students in small group settings, especially at an institution like Duke where faculty members are often research-oriented. Davis previously taught at a small residential seminary where small groups of students and professors often gathered for meals and prayers. Even though this does not take place as often at Duke, she believes students have plenty of outlets to explore their faith with others.

“Ninety percent of the outreach I offer to students is in the classroom—I don’t apologize for that,” Davis said, adding that her office hours are almost always full, though it is rare that students come to her with personal problems.

She noted that field education opportunities give students a chance to practice ministry firsthand. It is impossible for any school to fully prepare someone for this profession because the spiritual tension students are feeling now will continue throughout their careers, she added.

Moving forward

This problem of community spirit has been prevalent for several years, Mahoney said. Some of his peers have expressed their concerns to administrators in the past but have not seen significant action in response.

“You can have all good people and still have a toxic work environment... when students aren’t able to communicate and interact in effective ways,” Mahoney said.

Even among students, it is difficult to build significant relationships when there is not a residential community, Mahoney noted. The Divinity School’s student seating area—a lounge of pews and couches in the Gray Building established two years ago—is a step in the right direction, though students still partly led that effort.

Recently, many students on their own initiative have come together to build up their community, now with administrative support. The Divinity Student Council has drafted a series of initiatives to improve the school’s environment and reduce students’ stress, including a mentoring program, a notes-sharing system, ministry workshops and community dinners—the second of which took place Tuesday.

“The administration is aware of this problem—it is not going over their heads,” Himel said. “These dinners have no other purpose other than to allow students to come together and break bread and create new friendships.”

Director of Student Life Donna Banks, Divinity ’06, said her office is actively working with students to combat the multifaceted stress that comes along with a theological education. She added that the office encourages students to attend worship services on a regular basis and observe the Sabbath in order to maintain their well-being.

“We are compassionate to students that are dealing with these concerns,” Banks said. “It’s not just about school, it’s about God.”


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