Three Princeton Seminary Alums Serve as Chaplains at Top
Three Princeton Seminary alums are making their mark on three
of America’s most prominent universities.
Luke Powery (M.Div., 1999, pictured below right) is the new dean of Duke University’s chapel
and associate professor of the practice of homiletics at Duke Divinity School, Jonathan Walton (M.Div., 2002,
Ph.D., 2006, pictured below left) serves as Harvard Divinity School’s Plummer Professor of Christian
Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church, and Deborah Blanks (Th.M.,
1990) is the associate dean of religious life and the chapel at Princeton University.
1926 as the first of the university’s graduate professional schools, Duke Divinity
School attracts students from across the nation and from around the world. Powery,
ordained by the Progressive
National Baptist Convention,
is the first African
American to serve in the position of dean of the chapel, one of the most distinguished posts for a
preacher. Duke’s chapel has one of the largest campus congregations and is home
to one of the most active religious life programs on a U.S. campus.
churches are very vibrant and robust communities. They are, in fact, real anomalies—in that
they integrate a community of faith with academic studies,” explains Walton, an ordained Baptist minister, who says he
was “raised as a southern, evangelical kid” and is now “delighted to be leading
one of the most prominent pulpits in the country that was intended for New
England Puritan ministers.” For Walton, religion is an intellectual as well as
spiritual exercise. He believes the interdenominational Memorial Church, which
has been regarded as the
symbolic center of Harvard's spiritual life, is a place to educate minds and expand hearts.
her role at Princeton University, the fourth-oldest college in the U.S., Blanks
seeks to be a spiritual
resource to people of faith, those seeking, as well as those desiring to engage
about the “big questions of life.” She enjoys interfacing with people who
have varying viewpoints from hers. “At the university-level I work
to create a sacred space for students to flourish on campus—to be supported,
nurtured, and spiritually fed,” she says.
Blanks graduated from seminary, the typical call was to pastor a church, but
she wanted to pursue a “nontraditional” route.
An ordained minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, she
says, “I always had a feeling my ministry would be ‘nontraditional.’ I just wasn’t sure what that would look
like.” She was drawn toward military chaplaincy and pursued an opportunity with
the U.S. Navy. After serving as a
military chaplain for ten years, she transitioned to a university setting. “The
skills of a navy chaplain are very transferable to a university setting. Military and college populations are very
similar in age, transient communities, and both settings are pluralistic,” says
She has had the unique distinction of working at
two Ivy League universities—first, as an assistant university chaplain at Brown
University, and now at Princeton University. “Being the first African American woman to hold this post is
humbling. I stand upon the shoulders of courageous named and nameless forebears
whose legacy of courage illumines the path that stretches before me. The
liberating bequest of courage passed on to me and the mantle that rests upon me
is what inspires and empowers me to continue the journey,” she says. Blanks describes
her ministry as “outside the walls of the church.” “I’m exercising my ordained rites of
ministry that I was ordained to do, but in a setting that is outside of the
church,” she says.
In her role at Princeton, Blanks facilitates the religious life for faculty,
staff, and students, which is fueled through the Christian services in the
chapel. However, she works to meet the needs of diverse groups by offering a
variety of intra-faith and interfaith programs, lectures, and music offerings. She also facilitates the student-led worship
service, Hallelujah!, which is an
expression of the African American church tradition. “It is a lively service of worship where
students can come to celebrate the rhythm of God alive and bless their origins,”
At Duke, Powery’s
role as dean includes an ongoing ministerial piece centering on Sunday
worship—the public face of Duke’s chapel.
He plays an integral role in connecting the academic and spiritual lives
of the university’s students, faculty, and staff and describes his ministry as a “hybrid.” His position encompasses several roles,
including community engagement, research, teaching, and pastoral care. “My post is about people—preaching, teaching,
and building relationships,” he says.
a faculty member of Harvard Divinity School, one of the
premier centers of theological education, is an honor and a privilege,” says
His work and insights have been
featured in several national and international news outlets, including The New York Times, CNN, and theBBC. He
focuses his research and teaching on the intersections of religion, politics,
and media, and views both Memorial Church and Harvard Divinity School as
classrooms and places of spiritual inspiration.
“This position does not force me to bifurcate my sense of vocation
between Sunday and Monday,” he says.
Powery and Blanks agree that being invited into the lives of students,
colleagues, and parishioners—as a mentor, to join together with them in prayer,
or to walk along the journey of life—during times of joy or sorrow is extremely
rewarding. “The ongoing
relationships with students—being invited to baptize a baby, officiate at a
wedding, or attend a graduation ceremony—being present for these life events
reaffirms that this is what I am supposed to be doing,” says Blanks. Meanwhile, in the academic setting, Walton
says the most rewarding part of his work is seeing the “light” come on for
students and witnessing their passion ignite.
“That says it all for me,” he says.
on his seminary education Powery says, “I consider Princeton Seminary to be my ‘theological home.’ I
received an excellent education from wonderful professors. My time at PTS
confirmed my sense of ministry. I felt truly privileged to later return as a
professor.” Prior to Duke, Powery served as the Perry and Georgia Engle Assistant Professor of Homiletics at Princeton
also feels that PTS was pivotal in preparing him to serve the academy. “I
received the training and tools that allow me to drill deep into theological,
moral, and ethical questions.” Walton
and Blanks describe their seminary education as providing them with an
“intellectual toolkit.” “I continue to pull books from my bookshelf for sermon
preparation or to lend to a student,” Walton says. “In a setting like a university, I
am using the tools I gained in seminary to help me wrestle more deeply with the
questions of life, so that I can translate that to others through study groups
and through preaching,” says Blanks.
recalls the days after September 11 when she relied heavily on her seminary
“toolkit” and reservoir of faith to provide a sense of comfort to the Princeton
University community. “That was a time when I experienced firsthand the
transferable nature of my skills as a military chaplain. During the 9-11 tragedy, I was able to draw
from the wellspring of my professional life and deliver through public prayers,
preaching, and counseling a sense of comfort about God’s presence.”
today Walton continues to value his years at PTS and to be thankful for the
time he had for vocational discernment, which in part led him to his current
post. What is his advice to current
seminarians? “Enjoy your years at seminary and appreciate the gift of ‘time.’
Be in the moment—enjoy fellowship in Mackay, visit with professors, and don’t
become overwhelmed by your future goals,” he says. Blanks also believes that the time spent at
seminary and the value of a theological education cannot be underestimated. “A
seminary education is critical to appreciating your faith—it gives you a prism
to look through in terms of understanding the world and it will inform all that