When I told colleagues at Oxfam that I needed time off to go to Harvard Divinity School, they responded with raised eyebrows. After all, I'm a senior executive in a large global organization that rarely, if ever, talks about religion and spirituality.
This isn't surprising. Oxfam may have been founded by Quakers, but it takes a decidedly secular approach in responding to humanitarian crises and fighting global poverty and injustice.
But then something funny happened. People started reaching out to me—in droves. They wanted to talk about what had brought them to work for an organization that demands so much and too often feels like it's fighting overwhelming odds.
These weren't the personal reminiscences I'd heard before. They were explicitly religious or spiritual stories, frequently cemented through formative experiences working with poor communities in Latin America, Africa, or the U.S. I heard from Oxfam's data geeks, finance managers, and administrative staff, as well as its activists and program officers.
One morning shortly after my announcement, I found on my chair a moving book of conversations between liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez and global health leader Paul Farmer, with a note from Oxfam's president saying how much his own story is part of theirs—a story that understands poverty as structural and that embraces the need for spiritual as well as physical resources in order to respond.
What drew me to HDS
In truth, after 10 years of non-stop demands, 24/7 email, and round-the-clock conference calls, part of me was simply looking for a break, and I recognized the need to step away, recharge, and reclaim my inner resources.
Beyond this, I was curious about something. Why, I wondered, does an organization of Oxfam's tremendous sophistication not engage the role of religious values, actors, and institutions in our work?
In fairness, our advocacy strategy in the U.S. includes valued alliances with faith groups on issues of shared concern (fair trade, arms control, foreign aid, etc.). But our work in developing countries and communities rarely, if ever, includes analysis of the role of religion.
We analyze the role of gender, culture, political economy, the private sector, and much more, but not religion. I wanted to understand the reasons for this omission and to unpack the strategic potential of explicit attention to the role of religion in advancing Oxfam's global mission.
I was curious about something else as well—something more personal.
Knowing that Oxfam staff represent the full diversity of world religious and spiritual traditions, and that faith is a tremendous source of personal motivation and resilience, I was curious why discussion of personal belief and practice seemed almost taboo in our secular workplace. I knew these resources represented a form of hidden power, and I was curious if there might be ways to draw it out without opening a Pandora's box.
What HDS offered
The HDS resident fellowship was exactly what I needed. Its unstructured nature—which enabled me to audit courses throughout Harvard, but required nothing in particular—allowed for both focused effort and the freedom to follow my curiosity and feed my soul.
Informed by courses with Anne Monius, Bryan Hehir, and Ali Asani, I was able, in my first semester, to create an approach for advancing religious literacy and engagement in the work of secular international development organizations. I am now refining my thinking via Diane Moore's "Religion, Conflict and Peace" course, testing my ideas with others in the field, and speaking with potential funders. Doing all of this from the vantage point of HDS has opened doors and allowed me to position this work for a receptive audience when I return.
But the greatest benefit of this year has been the privilege of being part of the wider HDS community.
Stephanie Paulsell's "Virginia Woolf and Religion" seminar opened my heart to the powerful ways that literature can do the work of religion and spirituality, leaving me with treasured insights and ways of seeing that will endure. This semester I am taking Willa Miller's "Arts of Contemplative Care" and Dudley Rose and Matthew Potts's "Introduction to Ministry Studies," which brings me into contact with writings of spiritual guides I have long wished to encounter.
I cherish as well the daily reality of what it means to be at HDS: experiencing the warmth and wisdom of faculty members I have visited with, attending events at the Center for the Study of World Religions, frequenting favorite rooms in the Harvard Art Museums, joining Wednesday noon services, and indulging my love of reading and learning in long, uninterrupted hours in the library while looking out across the Divinity School's beautiful grounds.
What I'll be taking back
When I return to Oxfam in a few weeks, I expect curiosity about what this year was all about. Time will tell, but I have a few predictions.
Perhaps most important, I am indeed recharged, with new strengths that will, I believe, enable me to engage Oxfam's challenges with wisdom and courage. I expect the next 5-10 years to be the most productive, creative, and balanced of my professional life. I aim to model for others what that means.
While advancing religious literacy will not be my primary role, I plan to present the ideas I developed at HDS to senior leaders and eager colleagues throughout the Oxfam system. Given the response I'm already getting, I fully expect we will be able to build an approach to religious literacy and engagement that is sophisticated, pragmatic, and demand-driven.
I'm hopeful that we'll be able to advance this work in partnership with Prof. Diane Moore and HDS's Religious Literacy Project, particularly if we are able to secure funding. Regardless, I plan to be asking different questions when I return.
The eyebrows of my colleagues will definitely go back up if I suggest I'm approaching my next leadership role as "ministry." But I do know this: This time around, I plan to surface and engage more explicitly with the moral values that drive Oxfam's work and the people who work in it. I might see if we can experiment with voluntary listening circles, replicating the art of spiritual autobiography we've practiced in ministry studies. Given all the Oxfam staff who reached out before I left, I expect a good response.
A call for more
I wish HDS included more people like me—values-driven senior professionals who may not need (or have time for) a full degree program, but who are looking for something beyond the menu of shiny skills-boosting executive education programs offered at Harvard Business School or Harvard Kennedy School. They, like me, are looking to reconnect to religious and spiritual resources in ways that move beyond the dizzying array of spirituality "re-boot" workshops offered through retreat centers.
What we need is space to step back into a richly supportive environment and to ask bigger questions about our shared human existence and our purpose in it now. Divinity schools have something uniquely important to offer in this regard, perhaps especially because they offer us deep, hard questions rather than easy answers.
By engaging concepts like devotion, purpose, sacredness, and faith, they force us to slow down, to encounter text, and to embrace the unknowable. This may be exactly what we need get back out there and re-engage our fractured world with courage, wisdom, and insight.
It's not hard to understand why I'm an anomaly at HDS. Employers, if they are inclined to offer any type of sabbatical (which is rare), give preference to traditional mid-career executive education programs. And divinity schools like HDS have yet to successfully articulate what they offer and why it is so needed.
It's time for this to change. Non-profit boards and their foundation funders increasingly recognize the benefits of sabbaticals for their executives, their organizations, and the communities they serve.
Divinity schools of the future will be those which, like HDS, can embrace an expanded understanding of religion's role in the world and of their own educational mission. It's an opportunity waiting to be realized—one that that will be good for the field of divinity studies, good for mission-driven leaders, and good for the world.
On this matter, I have more than faith.
Judy Beals is a Resident Fellow at Harvard Divinity School. She will return to Oxfam America in December 2015.