New Visions of Vocation in a Broken World

By Alison Cunningham ’84 M.Div.

People who knew me as the CEO of Columbus House, a housing and services nonprofit organization in New Haven, still stop me on the street to ask how I am enjoying retirement. When I disabuse them of that idea by telling them of my new-ish role at YDS, they are interested to know what it’s all about. Their curiosity is aroused when I explain that I work with students interested in nonprofit/justice work, identifying internships to help them focus or clarify their vocational passions. A typical response is to ask why students with this particular interest are at YDS. Why not law school or social work? What does nonprofit/justice work have to do with ministry? they ask. 

Everything, I reply. 

For many years now, a growing number of students see their particular role in the world as that of working for justice issues and organizations outside of the vocation of congregational minister. At YDS, the role of Director of Professional Formation was created in 2019 in response. Such students include M.A.Rs who may have entered YDS with the goal of pursuing Ph.D. work but find themselves looking for meaningful alternatives. A growing number of M.Divs are exploring other vocational options as well, in part because of the shrinking availability of positions in congregational ministry, but also because of their commitment to reform-minded work in the larger society outside of church. My work is to accompany all our students in this exploration, supporting them in internships and other programs, as they discover where it might lead. 

People ask, What does nonprofit/justice work have to do with ministry? Everything, I reply. 

An Immensity of Suffering

A student asked me a year ago if I had “ever seen it so bad” in the world, a question prompted by her sense of global disaster, crisis, and sorrow. Today we are all more acutely aware of the immensity of suffering around us because of information access and media bombardment. We are witnesses in real time to political violence, climate devastation, pandemic crisis, wars and protests, hunger and homelessness. Students at YDS are feeling called to address all these struggles, and they are keen to discover existing pathways or create new ones that allow them to live into this call. 

Jenny Davis, the Director of Supervised Ministry overseeing the church internships, is my colleague in the YDS internship program. Together, we enroll anywhere between 35 to 40 student interns per term, whether in congregations or nonprofits. In my first year as a full-time staffer at YDS, 2019-2020, eight students were already planning to do nonprofit internships, most of them M.Divs. The nonprofit option has grown steadily since. In the past three summer terms, 20 students have pursued internships in the nonprofit space, in a mix of on-site and remote placements. During the academic year, the numbers range from eight to 15 student nonprofit interns. 

Ministry in the Public Square

There are hundreds of nonprofits in the greater New Haven area. Emergency shelters, soup kitchens, immigration services, youth programs, prisons, other community service programs—they are eager to accept YDS student interns.

Many students bring new sites to my attention, some nonprofits, or for-profit, or justice-focused. In this age of remote work, the possibilities for internships appear boundless. In the summer of 2020, one student was living in Missouri while working remotely for a ranching collective in the Southwest. This past summer, a student interned at the Women’s Bureau of the U.S. Department of Labor. Two others, both M.A.Rs, have found their niche with Yale University Press, while another two M.A.Rs worked with Religion News Service. 

YDS students in the nonprofit/justice internships are exploring what it means to pursue ministry in the public square of a pluralistic, divided society. Ministry means caring for the disenfranchised by helping organize a tenants’ union in New Haven. Ministry can mean welcoming people into a re-entry center as their first stop out of prison. There’s ministry in accompanying those who are in treatment for substance use disorders. Ministry is found in creating workshops for people to lament and respond to the growing climate emergency. 

Intro to Nonprofit

Our students are bringing a pastoral imagination into that world. To do this work, students need a broader skill set that includes at least a basic introduction to administration and management. The nonprofit internship practicum offers some of that, including introductions to financial management, leadership development, funding strategies and skills, collaborative thinking and policy transformation. Students can take classes in nonprofit management at Yale’s School of Management. Some are connecting with Yale’s Tsai Center for Innovative Thinking, where they hone problem-solving and entrepreneurial skills. Several dual-degree students each year are earning an M.Div. and a University of Connecticut Master of Social Work degree.

Students are particularly interested in the art of community organizing. Each year now, the YDS internship practicum includes a plenary on this very topic, led by New Haven activists who are doing this work. In the Spring semester, Andover Newton Seminary at YDS will offer a colloquium with community organizing as its focus.

Ministry is inevitably evolving in response to the speed of change around us. The mission at YDS is to equip students to serve the church and the world—not the church and world of 200 years ago when YDS opened its doors but contemporary society with all its joys and sufferings. The concrete, practical work and learning through the internship program connects with the theory and theology of students’ academic training so that they are prepared to meet this broken world as ministers of justice and solidarity and healing. 

Alison Cunningham ’84 M.Div. joined the YDS staff in 2019 in the new position of Director of Professional Formation. Her post is part of the Office of Vocation and Leadership at YDS, designed to help students connect their theological study with their sense of vocation and life work. In 2018, the School honored Cunningham with the William Sloane Coffin Alumni Award for Peace and Justice.