In this post, I describe BTFO (Before the Fall Orientation) at Yale Divinity School.
This was a whirlwind of a week. BTFO is the orientation program at Yale Divinity School, and it is packed full of information. Below, I attempt to provide a broad overview of BTFO and the highlights of the week. Given the sheer volume of material BTFO covered, however, this blog post is longer than I anticipate future posts being. I hope that it is nonetheless helpful for those willing to wade through the material.
BTFO at Berkeley
I have decided to participate in the Berkeley program, which is the Episcopal seminary attached to Yale. I consider myself a member of the Anglican Church through the Anglican Church in North America. While it is not Episcopalian, as a recent break away from the Episcopal Church, there is a shared heritage and a similar ecclesiastical structure.
I, therefore, wanted to participate in the program as preparation for potential lay work in the ACNA. As a result, BTFO for me started a day early. Berkeley’s orientation began at 4:00 pm the day before BTFO began for everyone else.
During this time, the Berkeley associate dean and the seminary’s student leaders introduced themselves to the incoming students. They provided a general overview of the program and what to expect as a member of Berkeley.
Berkeley Divinity School is housed in an old mansion located about two blocks from Yale Divinity School. (The seminary previously existed independently elsewhere in Connecticut but moved to New Haven to be close to and later affiliate with Yale.)
Morning prayer occurs every weekday at 7:30 in the mansion’s old ballroom. The enclosed porch serves as a gathering spot for students, and the dining room provides a space for the weekly Wednesday night meals. The rest of this enormous house still serves as a home. The dean and his wife live on the second floor, and the student residents—there are three or four Berkeley students that live in the house—occupy the third.
While the academic life of Berkeley students revolves around Yale Divinity School—all Berkeley students are simultaneously Yale Divinity students—training for ministry revolves around Berkeley. In addition to daily morning prayer, there is a eucharist service every Wednesday night, followed by a community meal, and evening prayer every Monday and Thursday night.
The Anglican Church in North America
As I mentioned above, I came to Anglicanism through the ACNA. I noticed during BTFO, however, that I am the only one with this background. No one else indicated they were affiliated with the ACNA, and many had never even heard of it.
This is a significant contrast with Duke. The head of Anglican Studies at Duke, who had come from Yale, indicated to me that Duke was evenly split between Episcopalians and ACNA. In contrast, Yale comes mostly from the progressive wing of Anglicanism. I can see that this was probably an accurate description.
BTFO Begins at YDS
After beginning BTFO at Berkeley the day prior, I came to the main campus of Yale Divinity School to begin BTFO with the entire incoming YDS student body. I believe there are one hundred forty-seven people in the incoming class, including MDiv, MAR, and STM students.
As orientations typically go, the first day of BTFO was a mixture of overwhelming feelings of excitement and gratitude with lulls of mundane boredom. I ended the first day of BTFO extremely grateful to be here. I first started my application to Yale Divinity School in 2006. Still, I kept allowing life to get in the way of pursuing this dream. To be here finally, after thirteen years, is exciting and a bit unbelievable.
Breakfast with the Dean
The second day of BTFO began with “Breakfast with the Dean.” Dean Sterling discussed the future building and development projects still in the planning stages at YDS. He also discussed the Divinity School’s efforts to be able to meet one-hundred percent of tuition need for all students in the coming years.
I understand that the school is raising money with the hope of minimizing the amount of debt its students incur. The average Yale Divinity School student graduates with approximately $60,000 in student debt. Though this includes all previous student loan debt, about half of that is from YDS. The dean wants to eliminate this, which is good news for future students and the program.
I’ve known of excellent students who chose to attend other prominent schools—notably Duke—because of the financial aid offer. Without the GI Bill, I doubt I would have been able to attend Yale. So, it’s exciting to see Yale Divinity School’s attempt to create an environment where admitted students will not be dissuaded from attending because of money.
Policing at Yale
After breakfast with the dean, the Deputy Chief of Yale’s police department came to speak with us about campus safety and the Yale Police Department. The Yale Police Department is the oldest campus police department in the country, and it operates independently—though in cooperation with—the New Haven Police Department. The Deputy Chief is a graduate of both Yale College and Yale Divinity School.
The question and answer portion of this program was very extensive. Policing has been a topic of immense public interest, and, whenever that is the case, it’s bound to attract the attention of graduate students, particularly at an elite university. So, the class asked a lot of questions about policing methods, racial bias in law enforcement, and other types of questions you’d expect.
I found it odd to see white male students grill the African American deputy police chief about racial bias at the Yale Police Department. Still, overall everything was very courteous and respectful. The deputy chief was very kind and patient with all the students.
Later, we had an informational session with the registrar and the associate dean for academic affairs about fulfilling our degree requirements and choosing courses toward that end. The different degree programs separated for this session, with the registrar and dean switching off. So, I only heard the presentation for the MDiv students. MAR and STM students went elsewhere.
Orientation Small Groups
When I first arrived at BTFO, I received a nametag and a table assignment. Everyone was assigned to a BTFO small group with one small group per table. Each small group was led by a returning student.
During BTFO, we all introduced ourselves to each other at our table, and our student leader gave us a tour of the Divinity School. Getting around YDS is not the most intuitive endeavor, and hallways often do not lead where you would expect them to lead. I anticipate it taking some time to figure out how to get around this building.
Later, we shared with each other our personal stories that brought us to Yale. Then, our small group instructor talked about living in New Haven and provided some practical advice and tips about the area—for example, places to shop for groceries, good places to eat, etc.
We also received a variety of small items when we arrived. They were mostly informational pamphlets but also included a Yale Divinity School water bottle and a reusable straw.
I had never seen a reusable straw before. It is, however, the kind of thing you would expect at a place like Yale. The idea is that you’re supposed to carry this straw with you and continue to reuse it in an environmentally conscious way to avoid plastic straws. I lost mine.
One day, the Andover Newton seminary provided lunch on the Quad. (Yale Divinity School has a traditional-looking quad area.) Since I have been here, few of the stereotypes about the “liberal” northeast have been apparent. The people have been kind and welcoming, viewpoints have not been presented in a militant way, and the environment has been very comfortable. But sometimes there is something that reminds me that I’m not down south anymore, such as when Andover Newton served a vegan lunch.
A similar thing persisted through all the lunches Yale provided. Yale Divinity School makes a concerted effort to offer vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free options at their various meals. In the south, it’s the type of thing that is rumored about northern elites. Seeing people hold up the serving line to have conversations with the server about the exact ingredients in every item of food was interesting to see. I was brought up to believe that such behavior—questioning a server about the free food provided—is rude. Here is just seems normal and perhaps even expected.
A Different Perspective
Later, there was a presentation about power and privilege. I am a conservative—both religiously and politically—and come from the south. So, these are the types of seminars that are outside my usual experience. I just try to listen, to learn from perspectives other than my own, and to hear what others have to say. And that’s what I tried to do here.
And from this, I am inclined to think that conservatives coming to a place like YDS, in a way, get a better education than progressives coming here. The Yale community will challenge me, and I will be forced either to strengthen my positions or to abandon those positions that do not stand up to scrutiny. There is, therefore, a lot of opportunity for growth, as I continuously engage with differing opinions.
History of Yale Divinity School
On the first day of BTFO, there was an hour-long presentation about the history of Yale Divinity School. This was probably my favorite presentation at BTFO. Since Yale was founded to train ministers and magistrates, this really included a history of the entire school, focusing, of course, on the evolution of the theological studies program. Yale was founded in 1701, which provided a lot of history to explore.
During BTFO, we were introduced to community worship at Marquand Chapel. YDS holds chapel services in Marquand every day that class is in session. While not mandatory, it is stressed as an essential part of the curriculum, and one of the reasons I chose to pursue an MDiv—rather than an MAR—was spiritual development.
So, as a participant in the Berkeley School, I can expect to attend services twice most days—morning prayer at Berkeley and noon services at Marquand—and three times on Monday and Wednesdays with Berkeley’s Monday evening prayer and Wednesday night Eucharist. (Because I have to watch my children on Thursday nights, I have been excused from Thursday evening prayer at Berkeley.)
There is a common belief among conservative evangelical circles—of which I have always been a part—that progressive Christians don’t really take their faith that seriously. But I am finding that not to be the case at all. Quite the opposite. While I may disagree with some of what progressive Christianity espouses, I am grateful to be here and to be exposed to these different perspectives.
Every day in chapel, the service is conducted according to a different tradition. They range from high-church liturgical to contemporary evangelical to things with which I have no familiarity at all.
After chapel the first day of BTFO, we had lunch on the Quad. The lunch provided an opportunity for the different certificate programs to get together to discuss their curriculum. This included the denominational certificates for Lutherans and Methodists. (The Roman Catholics have a program, but I think it’s still in the process of being certified as a certificate-awarding program.) There are also certificates in Black Church Studies, Reformed Studies, and Educational Leadership.
There were no presentations or get-togethers for those attached to the seminaries—Berkeley and Andover Newton—so I had some free time.
Portfolio Bootcamp at BTFO
YDS offered three sessions of portfolio boot camp during BTFO. This teaches incoming students about the electronic portfolio we are expected to maintain during our time at Yale Divinity School. We had to attend one of these sessions during BTFO.
We are all required to keep an online portfolio during our time at Yale. This portfolio will contain information about us and samples of our academic work. It’s part of the degree requirement. So, this session explained how to use it. It’s essentially just a WordPress site (like this one).
YDS has its own bookstore. Most professors send their booklist ahead of time, and the bookstore sets aside the books for each class. So, all you have to do is find the shelf with the class label affixed to it, and you’ve got everything you need.
You have the option of purchasing a membership to the bookstore. You don’t need to be a member to buy from the bookstore, but membership comes with a fifteen-percent discount on most things sold there. Membership is $30 per year, so you only have to buy $200 worth of stuff for it to be worth it. I spent significantly more than that the first semester alone. (I have a difficult time imagining a scenario where it wouldn’t be worth it for a full-time student.)
The weekend divided BTFO in half. On the Saturday of this first weekend, Yale offered its one-day “Negotiating Boundaries” course. This course is required to sign up for a supervised ministry internship, a graduation requirement for MDiv students. The class is offered three times per year on a Saturday. I have a lot of time to take it, but I decided to go ahead and get it out of the way. I won’t ever have to do it again, and I thought it would be best to knock it out now. There was also something psychologically satisfying about having one of my degree requirements completed before classes even started.
The class ran from 8:00 am until 5:30 pm. Dr. Kate Ott, a lecturer at Yale Divinity School, who also holds a permanent position at Drew Theological School, taught the course. This first exposure to the teaching staff at Yale Divinity School was encouraging. Yale can attract some of the best instructors in the world, and it’s an exceptional opportunity to learn under people like them. I am very grateful to be here, and I look forward to all that I will learn over the next three years.
The course was clearly designed to prepare students to navigate relationships within the church as ordained clergy. How to maintain proper boundaries with parishioners was particularly stressed. The course reading, Professional Sexual Ethics: A Holistic Ministry Approach, bears this out.
But the class covered more than just methods by which to avoid traditional clergy sex scandals. Confidentiality, fiduciary duty toward parishioners, and sexual ethics in general were discussed. General relationship—not just sexual relationship—guidelines were also addressed.
The class was very interactive and involved a lot of small group discussion and give and take among the students. While the course was long, it was not difficult to sit through, particularly after enduring courses in the military.
I will note that I was a little surprised by the respect both the instructor and the class showed toward various religious traditions. I don’t think it would be controversial to say that YDS comes at things from a more progressive position institutionally than many other similar schools. But I never heard the instructor or anyone else denigrate the views of other faith traditions concerning their sexual ethics. The Catholic Church’s views on sexuality, for example, were discussed fairly and without any attempt to rebut or otherwise refute them. I was pleased with this evenhandedness.
Registering for Classes
Registering for classes at Yale is different than what I experienced in college or law school. Yale allows you to sign up for more courses than you will actually take to give you some time to try them out before you commit.
So, I looked at the available classes being offered and organized them on my calendar. The registrar doesn’t recommend taking more than twelve hours—generally four classes—but I think I’m going to sign up for seven classes initially. (It will be eight if you count the Anglican Colloquium, which is a half-hour credit class that is part of the Berkeley program.)
I plan to take Intermediate Greek this semester, despite not taking the introductory course here. I minored in Greek in college, which required eighteen hours of coursework. I completed my last Greek course in 2006, however, so I have been trying to refresh my memory of the language over the last year. After speaking with the professor, I think I know the language well enough to start off in the second-year class, but I guess I’ll see. I’m not confident about it.
My Preliminary Schedule
In addition to Intermediate Greek and the Anglican Colloquium, I signed up for History of Early Christianity, Introduction to New Testament I, Introduction to Theology, Karl Barth, Cult of Mary, and World Christianity. I’m also auditing Introduction to Biblical Hebrew. (I took three years of Hebrew in college as well, but I thought auditing the class would help me refresh my knowledge to begin advanced Hebrew classes next year.)
I have two weeks to attend these classes before I have to finalize my schedule. Over that time, I’ll whittle my schedule down to four courses, not counting the class I intend to audit and the Anglican Colloquium.
As far as actually registering for classes, the Divinity School held a “registration party” the day before classes were to begin. The registrar made herself available to guide us through the process, which you do yourself online.
Registration here at Yale is something completely new. In college, I met one-on-one with my advisor a couple of months before classes started to register for the next semester’s classes. In law school, I had to make sure I was at my computer at 6:00 am when registration opened so that I could get the classes I wanted before they filled up. There was no “shopping period,” as it is called here.
While some classes are limited to a certain number of students, determinations as to who can attend are not made on a first-come, first-serve basis. Everyone who wants to register can and has the opportunity to participate in the first class. (At least as far as I can tell thus far, though I understand a small number of classes may require an application ahead of time.)
If more people register than the professor wants to allow in the course, the professor determines some method of picking the students. (Priority may be given to MDiv or MAR students, those in their final year, etc. Some professors require a brief explanation in writing as to why the student wants to take the course.) So, after the initial confusion over having to do something new died down, it really is a pretty straightforward, low-stress process, though they don’t explain it to you until the very end of BTFO.
Grades at Yale Divinity School
The grading system at Yale Divinity School is unique. I’ve listed the available grades below.
Honors Minus (H-)
High Pass Plus (HP+)
High Pass (HP)
High Pass Minus (HP-)
Low Pass (LP)
It’s not that difficult to create corresponding traditional letter grades to this grading system, which begs the question, Why doesn’t the school simply have a conventional A-F grading structure? (From the registrar’s presentation at BTFO, I understand that HP- roughly corresponds to a B-.)
But things don’t quite shake out that way, and the school doesn’t calculate GPA or class rank. The best I can guess is that the grades serve to provide graduate admissions committees for PhD work with a way to evaluate an applicant’s record. Otherwise, the grades have little meaning.
There is also the option to take courses for credit/no credit, which is roughly the same as taking it pass/fail. Professors choose the default grading structure for their course. Most classes use the honors to fail structure, but some default to credit/no credit. My understanding is that individual students can request to be graded on the alternative structure. In fact, when I was visiting, one student told me that it is possible to take all classes credit/no credit.
You must, however, do higher work to pass a credit/no credit course than an honors-to-fail course. Those earning a low pass on the typical grading structure will pass and receive credit for the course. Those taking it credit/no credit, however, must perform at least at a high pass minus level to receive credit. So, the registrar recommended against taking a class on the credit/no credit structure for anyone who thinks they may just squeak by.
Yale Divinity School students have the opportunity to take classes anywhere throughout the university. I understand taking courses in the School of Management, School of Forestry, and the Law School are particularly popular options. (You can take classes at Yale College, but additional work is required to receive graduate credit for it.) All you need is permission from the professor teaching the course. You can take up to half your course load each term outside the Divinity School, though even that can be waived.
So, as long as you meet your degree requirements, you have wide latitude in taking classes outside the Divinity School. In addition, there are various joint degree programs available. I have met people in joint degree programs with the School of Management, the Forestry School, and the Law School so far.
I decided to buy a parking pass during BTFO. Yale Divinity School has its own parking lot, but it requires a parking pass. The free parking around the Divinity School is street parking, very limited, and requires a bit of a walk to campus.
So, I broke down and bought a parking permit for the Yale Divinity School lot, which is extremely convenient. I figured this may come in quite valuable if I’m ever running late or when it gets cold. It will also make it easy to store books in my car between classes, if necessary.
It was, however, costly. I paid almost $400 just for the semester. Perhaps by December, I’ll have a better idea as to whether it was worth it.
Veterans at Yale Divinity School
One morning during BTFO, YDS had a veterans breakfast. All the military veterans enrolled in the Divinity School were invited. The dean, the registrar, and Yale’s veterans liaison officer were all there. There were, however, only four students, including myself.
A Small Contingent
I understand that there were two or three other students who couldn’t make it. Still, the Divinity School’s veteran presence is obviously small. I also appear to be the only incoming student with military experience.
I am both surprised and not surprised by that. I’m surprised because I would think that, even if there were few prior service students, there would be several students in the military chaplain candidate programs. At breakfast, there was only one.
On the other hand, I’m not surprised. Fairly or not, Yale has a reputation for being unfriendly toward the military, and I can see this playing out in the minds of applicants to humanity programs here. Besides, veterans may, in general, be more attracted to more practical professional degrees. I understand their presence is significantly higher at the business and law schools.
The veterans liaison officer indicated that there could be more veterans than those of which he is aware. If they do not self-disclose and are not seeking VA education benefits, he has no way of knowing who they are. So, perhaps there are a few more veterans at YDS.
Yale’s Reputation Among Veterans
Like I said earlier, Yale has a reputation for being unfriendly toward the military. The school kicked ROTC off-campus in the 1970s over hostility to the Vietnam War. (Though the Yale Daily News claims it’s more complicated than that.) Yale only allowed ROTC to return a few years ago with the repeal of don’t ask, don’t tell.
My impression is that it’s a common view among the elites that military service is for the lower classes, and that it is therefore beneath them. There was a time—both in this country and elsewhere—that the elites were expected to serve in the military. (Members of the British royal family continue to follow this tradition.) Until quite recently, it was rare to have presidential candidates who did not serve. My best guess is that Vietnam broke that.
The feeling I got from the BTFO veterans breakfast was that Yale Divinity School makes an effort to be welcoming to veterans. It was nice to see other veterans there, even if there weren’t many, and the dean’s willingness to show up sends a powerful message, at least in my mind.
Thoughts on BTFO
BTFO gave me some time to reflect upon my journey here and what I hope to learn. One thing that I began to contemplate during BTFO is the frequent use of the phrases “God’s grace” and “God’s love” by religious individuals. It seems to me that we have a tendency to define what we would like “love” or “grace” to look like, often based upon our own experiences, and then we project that onto God.
A Search for Meaning
Perhaps that is why different religious groups have different understandings of God. They have different understandings of love or grace. To someone who has experienced intense rejection, love may mean acceptance. To someone who has been victimized, love may mean justice. To someone who has sinned terribly, love may mean forgiveness. To someone who has experienced feelings of aimlessness or of being lost, love may mean clear guidelines. A deep desire to be guided by love may yield a tendency toward both licentiousness and legalism, depending on the background of the person possessing that desire.
If this is true, how then do we define love? What is the standard that we are to use? If we say that God is love, our definition of love is critical. How we define love will be how we define God.
What is Love?
People of faith tend to use the word as if the definition is self-evident, but it is not. It is packed with the speaker’s lifetime of experiences, pains, and hopes. I recall reading a blog post where the writer scolded a conservative Methodist leader. The writer essentially argued that if you have to explain how you are showing love, you probably aren’t.
While there were some valid points in the post, I found it overall unhelpful. Words are critical and must be defined, and where we assume that our definition is self-evident, we merely bypass the debate, claiming the high ground without laying the groundwork to persuade, and thereby strengthen division.
A failure to argue for our definition of an important concept is to preach to the choir, and our words become a sermon only for the already converted.
So, what is love? Without knowing this, we cannot know God. Perhaps our refusal to engage in an actual debate over what love is is the source of much division within the church today.
BTFO was an enjoyable experience. My recommendation is to attend as many events as seem appealing, but know that there’s really no reason to attend every one. Few of them are mandatory, so don’t stress out about it so much. If you skip too much, however, you’ll miss a lot.
After BTFO, I can’t wait to begin classes and start my course of study here at Yale.
Support Yale Divinity School
If you’re interested in applying to Yale Divinity School, I encourage you to begin your application here. You can also request additional information from the YDS website.
If you would like to support the work of Yale Divinity School, you can donate here.
Yale Divinity School is a wonderful place, and I am grateful every day to be here and for the opportunities the school provides.