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Jan Holton: Pastoral theology, trauma and recovery

By Mindy Roll '07 M.Div.

Jan HoltonM. Jan Holton, newly arrived at Yale Divinity School at the beginning of the 2006-07 academic year, uses pastoral theology as a lens through which to explore intercultural aspects of trauma and recovery

This is amply demonstrated by her work with refugee populations in the Sudan. Holton's dissertation, entitled "Nowhere Left to Run: Pastoral Theology Interprets Community and the Lost Boys of Sudan" explored the ways in which the Lost Boys of Sudan acted as a community of brothers during their flight from war, while living in the refugee camp, and after being resettled in the United States. Forced from their villages and orphaned in the late 1980s by war, the Lost Boys of Sudan tr ekked hundreds of miles through the African wilderness. Thousands died along the way while many others survived to tell their stories.

"The long-held tradition of care and obligation toward each other, passed down through generations, has served them in particularly positive ways to mitigate the effects of traumatic stress," Holton says of the Lost Boys. "This offers us a powerful glimpse into the healing power of community, not only for the Lost Boys but for all of us."

Holton, assistant professor of pastoral care and counseling, comes to YDS from Vanderbilt University in Nashville. She teaches introductory courses in pastoral care, in addition to others such as courses on addictions and on death, dying, and bereavement.

Holton's background in trauma and recovery includes seven years of clinical work as a chaplain in level-one trauma facilities, such as Vanderbilt University Hospital. Of the relationship between chaplaincy and her research, Holton observed, "Though it is a somewhat different kind of trauma (than that found in a war-torn countries like the Sudan), the physical and emotional trauma found in the hospital setting in the United States is nonetheless intense and pervasive." Because of this pervasiveness, Holton believes it is important for pastors and other professionals to be equipped to handle trauma.

Working in these two diverse settings has given Holton a unique understanding of pastoral care and the place of community in it. "We look at pastoral care as a pastor taking care of a congregation, and that is certainly a part of it, but it is also about who we are as people, as communities, taking care of each other. I think that is becoming more important, and we see this more and more" -- especially when examining pastoral care in other cultures, which, as Holton points out, tend to care for each other in different, and sometimes even more committed, ways.

Central to Holton's teaching philosophy is a love of learning. "At the heart of my teaching philosophy is the belief that learning can be life-changing. Three principles are among the most important in my teaching: creating a safe/respectful learning environment, academic rigor, and integrating students' personal experience with critical theory at every opportunity."

"With pastoral care, almost all of the issues that we deal with will somehow connect to us personally," noted Holton, an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. "In the classroom I am aware that whatever we are talking about has the potential to change somebody in a very powerful way." Witnessing this as a professor, she said, is "an incredible place to be."

When Holton received a call to ministry at age 30, she had first to return to school to complete her undergraduate degree. She called receiving her Ph.D. in 2006 "the end step of a long 13 year [educational] journey." Prior to returning to complete her education, Holton worked in telecommunications and theater.

When not teaching or researching, Holton can be found cycling, at the theater, or on a plane traveling to exotic locations. Traveling and visiting other cultures is often a spiritual experience for Holton. She explained, "You can't take anything for granted. Your nerves and your senses suddenly come alive and you are seeing things that you don't normally see. [Traveling] helps me see grace, in ways that are so profound, in the simplest things, that I would not have recognized as hope-filled if I saw them here in this context."

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