Joyful Responsibility

November 4, 2021
Matthew Potts
Matthew Ichihashi Potts, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church.

Matthew Potts fosters a place of welcome as campus reopens

Matthew Ichihashi Potts, MDiv ’08, PhD ’13, didn’t plan on becoming Pusey Minister at Memorial Church, but service has always been at the heart of his work. After studying English literature at the University of Notre Dame, Potts served as an officer on a guided missile cruiser in the United States Navy. He later opted for conscientious objector status after a tour of active duty and found his way back to higher education at Harvard Divinity School. An Episcopal priest, Potts has served as a pastor at several parishes in Massachusetts, including St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Falmouth, Massachusetts.

What drew Potts to HDS was its multireligious character. His mother is Japanese and converted to Christianity from Buddhism just before he was born. Growing up in a multi-religious family allowed him to develop an early appreciation for spiritual diversity, which he hopes to continue to cultivate in his new role. Potts reflects that the School has been deepening its commitment to pluralism since he first arrived as an MDiv student in 2005.

“Even then, religious and ministerial formation at HDS was not about separating into silos that form single-tradition communities,” Potts says. “It was about the idea that faith leaders who are going to serve in the world need to be formed in a pluralistic space that respects, honors, and reflects the world’s multitude of beliefs and religions.”

After earning his PhD at Harvard, Potts joined the faculty of Harvard Divinity School in 2013 as assistant professor of ministry studies. He studies the thought and practice of contemporary Christian communities through attention to diverse literary, theological, and liturgical texts. In 2017, he was promoted to associate professor; this past spring, he was granted tenure.

Throughout his journey at HDS, the lessons Potts has learned as a student have deeply shaped his work and his ministry, especially those he gleaned from Stephanie Paulsell, who served as interim Pusey Minister during the two-year-long search, and Dudley Rose, former associate dean for ministry studies and lecturer on ministry.

Potts recalls one of Dudley Rose’s stories about the time he was a seasonal pastor of a small island in Maine right after he was ordained. Rose was only there for three or four months one summer, and just within three days of being there, people would share things with him—just because he was the pastor—that they might not have revealed to their spouses or dearest ones.

“I remember thinking that once you step into that role, people are going to trust you in a way that nobody actually deserves to be trusted, not the best of us, whether it’s with their time on Sunday morning or with deep secrets that they don’t know how to share with anybody else,” Potts says. “I think about this every time I do a funeral: how strangers who don’t know me trust me with the care of their loved ones. That privilege comes with a sense of responsibility—but joyful responsibility. It is a grace I have been given, and those who are trusting me deserve that I give it my best.”

Serving a Multifaceted Community
As Potts begins his role as Pusey Minister and Plummer Professor of Christian Morals, he is committed to the joyful responsibility of leading Memorial Church and serving the Harvard community. At what Potts calls the “literal and figurative crossroads of the University,” Memorial Church is a center of religious and spiritual life on campus—serving an array of Christian students on campus, a congregation that has been faithful for generations, and many other members of the Harvard community in Cambridge and beyond.

“As a church in the middle of a multireligious, nonsectarian community, we have an accountability and an obligation not just to the people who show up at our church but to the whole University,” Potts says. “Especially those who don’t feel at home in a Christian church and don’t have a sacred space otherwise.”

Potts believes that serving the multifaceted University community will involve a lot of listening and collaboration, and he is hopeful about working with other religious leaders and chaplains on campus—noting Khalil Abdur-Rashid, Muslim chaplain, and Jonah Steinberg, the leader of Hillel, as two examples—to cultivate a religious space where people can celebrate each other’s differences in a real way. For Potts, it is a particular Christian value to attend to the other.

“I feel that the call of the Christian is about more than just acknowledging or even respecting the outsider,” he says. “It’s about privileging and honoring the outsider, extending love and goodness towards them, learning from them who you are and who God is, and being of service to others and to the whole world.”

He is also focused on continuing the community’s commit-ment to diversity, inclusion, and belonging. Potts is the first person of Asian American descent to hold the title of Pusey Minister and is proud to carry that identity into a place where diversity and inclusion are so central to its mission.

“A deep commitment to diversity and equity means thinking about people’s religious identities as well, because religion intersects with race, gender, sexual orientation, and other identities in really complicated ways,” he says. “The church is in a position to add to that conversation and recognize how religion also plays a role in excluding identities.”

Love Without Condition
“When I was a kid, I remember this children’s book at my church about the parable of the prodigal son. When the prodigal son decides to return home after spending all of his father’s inheritance, he thinks, ‘I’m going to go home and tell my father that I was in the wrong. I’m going to repent, and I’m going to tell him that he doesn’t have to treat me like a son anymore. He can just let me be one of his hired servants, and that will be enough—that will be enough.’

I think what moves me so much about that story is before the son is even at home—before he has a chance to get a word out, before he has a chance to say I’m sorry—his father has already run to him and embraced him. The father weeps tears of joy, and he tells his son with overflowing acceptance, ‘You don’t need to do anything, that I love you because you are... It doesn’t mean that you didn’t do things wrong, or that there aren’t any consequences for your actions. But I love you for no other reason than you exist.’

I remember being really moved by that story—the idea and ideal of a sort of reckless and unconditional love is one that has stuck with me. It’s why I ended up writing a book about forgiveness. It’s the kind of love I hope to show to the people I care about most. I hope that my kids and my spouse believe that I would behave the same way. And to a degree, I think it’s also the way I want to think about ministry—what we give to others is without condition. It’s not because you decided you’re a Christian that we’re going to love you. It’s not because you’re willing to come on Sunday morning that we’re going to love you. It’s not because you put something in the collection plate that we’re going to love you. We’re going to love you because you deserve it, and you deserve it because you are.” Matthew Potts, MDiv ’08, PhD ’13

Cultivating Calm Amidst Uncertainty
As people around the world continue to get vaccinated and the community returns to campus, Potts is committed to making Memorial Church a place of welcome to students, many of whom will be experiencing campus for the first time this fall after more than year of remote teaching and learning: “Welcoming students back, connecting and reconnecting those students to campus, and fostering a sense of community are going to be big priorities for the church.”

“Even the students who have lived on campus before are coming back to something completely different. We don’t know what the community is going to look like. We don’t know what sort of restrictions will be in place or for how long,” Potts says. “This is something that we’ve all become too well trained in, but it’s something we have to keep cultivating—calm amidst uncertainty.”

Last year, Potts was a faculty director for HDS’s Executive Education program, Religious Resources for Living through Crisis, which explored the ways the spiritual, moral, and historical lessons of the world’s religions can help us understand crises like the pandemic. He is particularly focused on fostering a nurturing environment here at Harvard—especially for students who face trying times during their college years.

“What I would hope for Memorial Church is that people would feel like it’s a place where we ask nothing of them, where it’s a place for us to just love them because they are, especially at Harvard where everyone is so driven and feels like they need to produce and get results. I hope that teaching people to love and be loved unconditionally will be at the center of our ministry.”

—by Suzannah Lutz