HOPING TO FIND GOD AT HARVARD

 

By Julia Ogilvy

I think it’s important to make mistakes and to be vulnerable and admit to them. As a woman in business, you’re very frightened of making mistakes and you constantly want to look incredibly confident. It was only when I had my own turning point that I really shifted that perspective and started mentoring a lot of people and started to be very open about my own mistakes, my own vulnerability.

 

My Work

I’m a businesswoman. The first part of my career, I spent nearly 20 years of my working life in business. Then I had a bit of a turning point in my own life related to a faith experience, and I ended up selling my business and founding a nonprofit volunteering organization called Project Scotland. I’ve been involved in that for quite a long time; it’s now 10 years old.

I also joined the boards of other nonprofits, including an international development organization called Tearfund, which works in about 50 different countries. I wrote a couple of books, one called Turning Points, which includes a little bit about my own experience and also tells other people’s stories—you know, turning points in their lives and what they did as a result.

Then I wrote a book about women in the church, and in the process of writing that book, I interviewed a wonderful woman at Cambridge University, Professor Sarah Coakley, who had been here at Harvard Divinity School for a number of years. At the end of the interview, she asked, had I ever thought of doing a master’s, and what about going to Harvard Divinity School to do it? I laughed and thought it was completely bizarre; I’d never considered anything like that. She gently kept at it. She said, “You should meet my friend, Professor Stephanie Paulsell.”

My Best Decision

I think once you meet Stephanie Paulsell, there’s no turning back. She was delightful. I was quite nervous meeting her. We had breakfast. I was intimidated, but of course, she’s not intimidating at all. At the end of our conversation, she said, “It would be wonderful to have you here.” I looked at her and said, “You think I could get in?” and she said, “Yes, of course. You should try.”

My husband was shifting his career from business to landscape design. Our son was going to be a freshman at Brown. Our daughter was graduating in London. We thought, “Well, if we’re ever going to do it, this is the time.” I applied, thinking, “This is never going to happen.” But I got in. We decided to come to America for a year, for family reasons, and I got in to the special student program here at HDS—a one-year program. Then it was quite daunting, and I had to tell family, and it was a huge amount of organizing to get here because we lived in Scotland.  I’m ordained as an elder in the Church of Scotland, so that made it a little bit tricky, too—feeling like I was stepping away, as I have for the moment. But coming here is the best decision I ever made. I’ve loved HDS so much that I’m coming back to do the master of theological studies program.

From Business to Nonprofits to Divinity School

It began with two children, one of whom lived in Boston and one in New York. They were babies and the children of twin brothers. Both died of Tay-Sachs disease, and we were very close to them. At the time I was working incredibly hard in my business and I had two young children. When they died, I think it just threw everything up into the air for me and made me question every aspect of my life and how I was living it.

I ended up going on a pilgrimage to a place called Medjugorje in Bosnia. It’s seen as a place of great peace, and I think that’s what I took from it. It was a tiny village in the Balkans. When the war broke out, it affected all the area roundabout. When I first visited, although the war had ended, it was still a war zone. The local town, Mostar, still had UN tanks and trucks in the street. I was very affected by that. It was only a two-hour flight from Britain, and I’d known about the war and read about it, but the reality hit when I was there. Before the war, Muslims and Christians there had gotten on incredibly well, but that all changed during the war. It is an extraordinary place, and quite an interesting place for a message of peace.

I wouldn’t have said I had a particularly strong faith at that point, but when I was there, I did discover God in some form, and I found it a very moving and special experience. I came back thinking that I needed to do something different with my life. I really felt called to do something else, maybe in the nonprofit world. Initially, I went back to my business, thinking that maybe as a businesswoman, I could do more. But in the end, I decided to leave, which was a difficult decision and difficult for my colleagues. Once I’d done it, I felt a great sense of relief, and moved on into a new phase of my life.

The first chapter of my life was the business world. The second was what happened after this turning point, when I went on to found the nonprofit and write my books. Now I’m 52 and at HDS. This is the third chapter, I suppose—being here, and thinking about what I’ll do next.

Founding a Church

I grew up Anglican, going to church regularly as a child and at school, but finding it quite dull. I then moved to Scotland and went to St. Andrews University and met my husband there. We ended up living near there, and we decided to join the Church of Scotland. We did it for the community and because we wanted to bring up our children in a faith. I’m not sure how convinced I was about it at the time. I found the Presbyterian Church quite appealing in that it felt like a more democratic community than the Anglican Church.

But I think after going to Medjugorje, everything changed for me. I ended up founding a new church in St. Andrews called Cornerstone with a group of people. You’d probably say I lean towards being Evangelical, but it’s much more about a contemporary style of worship and having something that’s welcoming to people who are unchurched. We have people from all faith backgrounds and from no faith background coming, and we have a wonderful community there. I’m part of that leadership team. There are 12 of us leading.

I never thought I’d be part of a church that kind of broke away from the Church of Scotland, because it’s what everybody does there. But it was really difficult to make something work within the structure that was there. There was kind of a clash between older people in the congregation who had a very rigid idea about how they wanted to practice and worship, and the younger people who wanted to do something new and different.

Advice to My Younger Self

Feel free to fail more often. I think it’s important to make mistakes and to be vulnerable and admit to them. As a woman in business, you’re very frightened of making mistakes and you constantly want to look incredibly confident. It was only when I had my own turning point that I really shifted that perspective and started mentoring a lot of people and started to be very open about my own mistakes, my own vulnerability. I found that was hugely helpful to other people.

Learn to listen. Learn that great word “empathy.” I’m really just learning what empathy means and what it means to listen. I don’t think we allow ourselves time for that. I think that’s the nature of a busy life, corporate life, and all of that.

But generally, I don’t have many regrets. I just think, “Wow, I’m here.” I think of all the different things that got me here. I don’t think I would have wanted a different life. I think that’s important, actually—not to regret things you don’t think went right.

Inspiration

I love Raymond Carver’s lines that I used at the end of my first book, Turning Points: “And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so? I did. And what did you want? To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth.”

I carry Pslam 46:10 with me all the time: “Be still and know that I am God.” To be still and know that God is near—for me, that’s a challenge, but it’s a good one. I’m always thinking about the next thing, always trying to work it out. That’s the privilege of this time at HDS. Whilst we’re incredibly busy, I do think there are at least some chances to be a bit more contemplative.

What I’m Most Proud Of

Oh, it’s my children. I have an incredible 22-year-old and 20-year-old. They’ll always be what I’m most proud of. Them, and having a good marriage. For me, family has to come first. We’re very close, the four of us. We’ve done a lot of interesting travels together. We deliberately moved away from London to bring up our children in a more rural environment, which I think was wonderful for them. My daughter runs an online platform for emerging artists called arteviste.com, and she promotes the work of young artists. She’s very dynamic. She’s only 22 and she’s just flying doing that. My son’s a freshman at Brown and is extremely happy there. He plays rugby, so we spent a lot of time this year watching rugby matches in Providence, in the rain. It’s only an hour from here.

A Day in the Life

Because I come from a background of being at work, I like to get up at the same time and get to work at the same time. At least twice a week, I attend prayers at the Memorial Chapel at 8:45 a.m., so I get to the Divinity School soon after 9 am. On Thursdays, I help oversee the wonderful 9 am Eucharist service here.

I tend to try and make it a nine-to-five sort of day and then go back home and have a bath. That’s a very British thing, my bath and me. And then we’re pretty much always out, my husband and I, either doing social things or going to lectures. We don’t want to waste a minute while we’re here. We’ve done a certain amount of traveling on weekends, certainly in the fall. We went all over New England, making the most of our time.

Staying for the Master of Theological Studies

I’m going to study religion, ethics, and politics. I worked for former Prime Minister Gordon Brown in London, so I have quite a lot of overlap with government. I helped work on policy around social action. I’m interested in the interface between religion and politics in particular. I think that things are changing. I mean, it’s been very interesting being in America, in a country that has, in theory, no established religion—versus Britain, where we have an established religion and yet we’re way more secular, and you cannot bring religion into the public space easily there. It’s very different here. Religion pops up all the time. I find that quite intriguing. I think it’s actually shifting back at home. I think people are realizing that religion can’t be left out of the picture in terms of world affairs and political decisions.

I didn’t feel ready to leave HDS after one year. I have various things to go back home to, but I want to think, “What would be the right thing for me to focus on for the next 20 years?” I want more time to reflect on it.

Writing

I keep a diary. Lately I haven’t been as rigorous about structured writing because I am always writing every day, something, anyway. If you’re going to write, keep writing, however bad or crazy it seems. I’m probably famous to some people here at HDS for my notebook because I write notes on everything. It’s partly being 52 and thinking that the brain is not going to remember everything, but I’m endlessly writing notes on sermons and talks, and just picking up all those stories, partly for future use, partly to pass on to other people. I do a lot of that. I collect a lot of information, which is going to be a nightmare to sort out at some point. So many people say such wonderful things.

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