Modeling Ministry for a Multireligious World

April 25, 2019
HDS chaplain Kerry Maloney
HDS chaplain Kerry Maloney

The HDS community is home to practitioners and scholars of dozens of different religions—and to those who have no formal religious affiliation at all. One is as likely to bump into a Buddhist monk from Sri Lanka on campus as a Unitarian Universalist from New England. The person who navigates this ever-expanding diversity of traditions and people is the School’s chaplain and director of religious and spiritual life, Rev. Kerry Maloney.

For this work, and for embodying the HDS ideal of ministry in a multireligious setting, Maloney will be recognized by the HDS Alumni/Alumnae Council (AAC) this May as a 2019 Peter J. Gomes STB ’68 Memorial Honoree.

“My work at HDS is entirely governed and led by our remarkable students, whose spiritual paths are uniquely diverse and whose inner lives are profoundly deep,” she says. “They teach me every day by their example as they unite the intellectual and spiritual dimensions of their lives. They hunger to deepen that union and to offer it to others. To be recognized for this immense honor by these extraordinary former students—our alumni/ae, who are international leaders in integrating the work for justice with the intellectual and spiritual life—is deeply humbling.”

Intersection of Intellectual and Spiritual
An ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, Maloney served as a chaplain at Bates and Boston College for over two decades before she arrived at HDS in 2004 and assumed her current role in 2005. Even after 15 years, each day presents a new challenge for Maloney, a new way to engage with her vocation, whether by overseeing the School’s weekly noon service led by a different religious tradition or campus group each week, visiting an ailing student or staff member in the hospital, or teaching a ministry studies course.

Through the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life (ORSL), Maloney seeks to offer a variety of opportunities to students, staff, and faculty for the support, nurture, and integration of their spiritual and intellectual lives. ORSL also provides leadership in the institution-wide effort to engage HDS’s multicultural, multireligious population by encouraging a campus climate of genuine religious pluralism, in which spiritual diversity and difference are respectfully and fruitfully engaged.  

Because Harvard Divinity School is an institution whose mission encompasses both religious and academic leadership, the chaplain’s job, according to Maloney, is to help people “inhabit the busy intersection of intellectual and spiritual life.” The main requirement, she says, “is to meet people and communities—and their efforts to make sense of life’s biggest and smallest questions—with wonder, regard, and love; and sometimes, to provide compassionate challenge along the way.” Maloney’s great challenge at HDS is to pursue this calling in a way that lives up to the School’s commitment to pluralism and to engaging difference.

“In classroom settings, people sometimes find themselves reluctant to ask a question or to state an opinion for fear of offending someone,” she explains. “In co-curricular settings, folks might avoid religiously, politically, or ethically sensitive issues for fear of alienating friends and colleagues. Civility and respect should be prized, of course, but no one is helped, and no peace is advanced, by pallid attempts at politeness.”

The Joys of Diversity
Maloney says that programs like the landmark Pluralism Project and the Religious Literacy Project—all founded and overseen by HDS faculty—are helping people everywhere to live authentically in community with those who are different. In line with that effort, HDS does not have the “luxury” of a single religious tradition on which to draw and bring together people from different backgrounds. Instead, Maloney says, the School has a “different luxury.”

“We encounter and navigate multiple traditions—and multiple iterations of those traditions—in the people who embody them in any single day,” she explains. “This is where the great joys of our work are to be found.”

While Maloney is delighted to be recognized this year by the AAC, she is quick to put the focus on her fellow honorees and other HDS alumni like Rabbi Naomi Saks, MDiv ’10, whose vocation is health care and end-of-life chaplaincy; Reverends Jed Mannis, MDiv ’04, and Tom Hathaway MDiv ’11, who have ministered for many years to those who live outside through Cambridge’s Outdoor Church; the work of AAC Vice Chair Rev. Susie Hayward, MDiv ’07, with the U.S. Institute for Peace; and HDS’s own ministry innovation fellows Angie Thurston, MDiv ’16, and Casper ter Kuile, MDiv ’16, who identify new spiritual communities created by millennials hungry for deep connection. And even as communities become more diverse and people look outside of religious organizations for fulfillment, Maloney says the need for those who provide witness, challenge, and support is as great as it has ever been.

“While fewer people in this country than in the past understand themselves as traditionally religious,” she says, “a good number understand themselves to have some kind of spiritual life. They may encounter it through the arts or politics, through love or wonder, in solitude or in community. Spirituality is a continuum along which we shuttle between ultimacy and intimacy throughout life, discovering that which is most incontrovertibly universal often through that which may seem most irrefutably personal. Chaplains accompany us on that lifelong journey.”

-Paul Massari