Harvard University: Matthew Potts named Pusey Minister at Memorial Church

Matthew Ichihashi Potts, a professor of religious studies and literature, an Episcopal priest, and an active member of the Harvard community, has been named Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church and Plummer Professor of Christian Morals, effective July 1.

Since his initial appointment at Harvard Divinity School (HDS) in 2013, Potts has established himself as a leading voice in his field, a respected academic and teacher — who was recently awarded tenure — and a committed pastor. In addition to his work at HDS, Potts is an affiliated minister at Memorial Church, former director of the Divinity School’s Executive Education program Making Change, and a former pastor on the staff of St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Falmouth, Massachusetts.

“Matt is a gifted preacher who brings to the pulpit a deep appreciation and understanding of texts rooted in his own acclaimed academic work at the intersection of religion and literature,” wrote President Larry Bacow in an email to the Harvard community announcing the appointment. “His incisive research and scholarly achievements are complemented by an extraordinary devotion to teaching, a commitment that has earned him the admiration and respect of students and colleagues across the University.”

“I’m grateful for what Memorial Church has meant to Harvard and to so many individuals outside of our campus, and I’m deeply humbled that I’ve been invited to join its work,” said Potts. “The church is right at the heart of the University, and I see it as a crossroads on campus, where people can meet and have important and difficult conversations about what it means to be good, what it means to live a moral life, and what it means to be in community with others who have different traditions, and who come from different backgrounds, and who hold different beliefs.”

Matthew Potts.
“I’m grateful for what Memorial Church has meant to Harvard and to so many individuals outside of our campus, and I’m deeply humbled that I’ve been invited to join its work,” said Matthew Potts, M.Div. ’08, Ph.D. ’13.
Potts has spoken often to the University community from the historic pulpit at Memorial Church. A former naval officer who later opted for conscientious objector status, Potts delivered a memorable Veteran’s Day sermon in 2019 on the “God of the Living and the Memory of the Dead.” The address was set against the contemporary immigration crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border and recounted his own experience as the son of a Japanese woman who was raised during the American occupation. He movingly discussed what it meant for him to go to Japan as an American naval officer in charge of 40 sailors, many of whom, like her, were not American-born.

Clearly, family is important to Potts. His wife, Colette, and their three children often find their way into his Sunday morning messages, and they are a ubiquitous presence alongside him at church. Colette, who is an educator and family therapist, developed a children’s ministry curriculum and wrote a book called “Love First,” which emphasizes cultivating love, care, and community among children at church. Together, they work on an initiative called Not Sorry Productions, which does educational content, live shows, and immersive experiences designed to address the spiritual needs of its participants. Perhaps most famously, Not Sorry also produces podcasts, including “Harry Potter and the Sacred Text,” which Matt Potts co-hosts with Vanessa Zoltan.

One of Potts’ most popular courses at HDS is “Love and Loss,” which explores the relationships among love, death, desire, and grief, as expressed in theology, philosophy, and in contemporary fiction and film. Over the course of the semester, students read the works of authors such as Simone Weil, Julia Kristeva, Judith Butler, James Baldwin, Marilynne Robinson, and Toni Morrison. Potts will continue to teach at HDS in his new roles.

“One of the things about literary writing is that, most of the time, it’s trying to express the inexpressible; it’s trying to put into words something that resists simple explanation,” said Potts. “And that can be really useful when you’re trying to think through all sorts of mysteries. Take forgiveness, for example. If you’re going to write a theology of forgiveness, literary explorations can be incredible resources for your thinking because they really reckon with all the messy complexity of what forgiveness looks like. They don’t shy away from the difficulties and contradictions and complications of our moral lives. On the contrary, they often express them quite beautifully, and in a way I think benefits theology.”

Potts earned his B.A. in English from the University of Notre Dame and his M.Div. ’08 and Ph.D. ’13 at Harvard. He is currently at work on a book on forgiveness with Yale University Press, which is due out next year. “One of the things I really care about from my own personal life and that the Christian message has centrally to do with,” he said, “is how to respond to wrongdoing, and what it means to respond to it with justice, and with mercy.” Potts is also the author of “Cormac McCarthy and the Signs of Sacrament: Literature, Theology, and the Moral of Stories.”

The Plummer Professorship of Christian Morals was established in 1854 to acknowledge the centrality of moral and spiritual development of Harvard students. In 1997, the position of Pusey Minister of the Memorial Church was created as a permanent endowment. Most recently, Stephanie Paulsell was interim Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church. Jonathan Walton had held both roles prior to Paulsell’s tenure, leaving to become dean of the Wake Forest University School of Divinity in 2019.

“We are all so fortunate to have had Stephanie leading Memorial Church — first through the transition and then through the pandemic,” said Bacow. “She has been a balm to so many in our community during this time, and I am deeply grateful to her for having stayed the course to see us through this extraordinary year.”

The Search Advisory Committee for the new Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church and the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals was chaired by Bacow and comprised of students, faculty, and staff from across Harvard’s Schools and units and representing various faith traditions. The committee’s decision to appoint Potts was a unanimous one.

“We at HDS are delighted by the news that our own Professor Matthew Potts has been named the Pusey Minister for Memorial Church,” said David N. Hempton, the dean of Harvard Divinity School. “The Pusey minister has long been an important part of HDS and the University-wide community, serving as both an educator and a spiritual guide. Matt is supremely qualified in both respects.”

Paulsell, for her part, will continue in her roles as the Susan Shallcross Swartz Professor of the Practice of Christian Studies and a faculty dean at Eliot House.

“Matt Potts is a minister and a scholar concerned with urgent questions of community, justice, and forgiveness,” she said. “Under his leadership, the Memorial Church will be a place where students can ask their most searching questions about faith and life in the midst of a unique intergenerational community and explore the wisdom our religious traditions offer to help us honor and protect the dignity of everyone’s humanity in our changed world. I could not be more thrilled to see him step into the position of Pusey Minister and look forward to benefiting from his leadership and his vision in the years ahead.”

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