Serious About Joy: Katie Sellers Shares the Key to a Meaningful Theological Education and a Fulfilling Life

 November 9, 2023

'What brings you joy?' may be casual coffee chat for some, but for Katie Sellers, a postdoctoral researcher at Duke's Religion & Social Change Lab (RaSCL), it's the guiding principle for a fulfilling life.

"For me, it's one of the most functional questions in my life," she explains. "I've carried it with me for two decades, and I'll continue to do so. Attending to joy is essential because it sustains us - not only in our work and relationships but in our geographical and professional choices."

Sellers doesn't see joy as a series of fleeting moments but as an enduring way of moving through the world. It’s an approach that shapes her work as a qualitative researcher gathering community stories, forming meaningful connections, and discovering the common good. “It's a responsibility I take very seriously,” she says.

“There's a sense of truth in the stories I collect, a truth that can benefit others. Whether it's seminary life or religious education, my goal is to share knowledge that helps others learn and grow.”

As a former urban Catholic school educator and scholar in religious school systems, translating research into something true that can benefit the community resonates with her identity, both as an academic and spiritual individual. “It’s the ethos I was formed in,” she says.

As the newest member of RaSCL’s team, Sellers looks forward to learning more about divinity school education through stories shared in RaSCL's Seminary to Early Ministry (SEM) Study, the first long-term study of divinity school education. She hopes the findings will uncover holistic approaches that align with student needs. Learning how students thrive academically, spiritually, emotionally, and physically can spark greater joy all around in the long run. Ultimately, says Sellers, "I hope our research can serve as an expression of love for the community."


Photo Captions: (LEFT) Sellers discovered the joy of consistently cheerful interactions while scooping ice cream in her youth. "There was never a customer who didn't just smile - they radiated," she says. (MIDDLE) Sellers, in her happy place, hiking at New River Gorge National Park. (RIGHT) Sellers spots a bumper sticker with a message close to her heart. "Attending to joy is essential," she says.

[NOTE: The following interview is part of a series of interviews with RaSCL team members to explore the motivations, pivotal moments, and values inspiring their work.]


What's the one question that you never tire of asking?

"What brings you joy?" Professor of Theology, Michael Himes, asked this question of every incoming student to Boston College. He was a Diocesan priest who grew up in Brooklyn, studied in the UK, and had the most fantastic accent. He was the wise man on campus and offered every student during orientation words of wisdom around how should we spend our years at college and how we can make good use of our time. And so, he offers these three questions as a resource: What does the world need? What brings you joy? And what are you good at?

Learning what the world needs and what you’re good at are often discerned communally, but learning what brings you joy is something you must discern for yourself. He distinguished joy from happiness. Happiness is fleeting. I eat an ice cream cone, I'm happy, but then it melts and it's over. But joy is deep and enduring. I like knowing what brings people joy because it shows a lot about who they are and how well they know themselves.

The nerdiest thing about me is …

Oh gosh, where do I start? I'm a huge fan of NPR. Almost every day, I tune in to National Public Radio to stay updated on the news. I have this strong connection with the journalists, even though they don't know me. In an era where common experiences are scarce, NPR stands out as a unifying force. I love it for the sense of belonging and shared experience it provides. It offers a common story based on facts, delivered by trustworthy voices. It doesn't require fancy technology or Wi-Fi; a simple radio is all you need to connect with this shared narrative. It helps to foster better coexistence.

I also dive deep into Harry Potter trivia whenever I get the chance. If there's a Harry Potter trivia night at a bar, count me in!

What do you love most about conducting research? 

Gathering data, stories, and translating them into meaningful insights is complex. It is an incredibly beautiful thing to be able to learn about people's lives and experiences. I hold their trust as they share their stories, stories that matter not only to them but to entire communities, cultures, or faith traditions. To take those stories and all the trust that goes with them, that isn't something I should take without giving back in equal measure. And so, in thinking about the research I do, I'm always concerned with relationship and the needs of the communities that I'm working with. I always want there to be a reciprocity; to translate the research into something that makes sense, that's true, and that will benefit the community. To do anything less would be a misuse of the trust and power researchers hold.

Tell me about an aspect of RaSCL’s research that feels particularly meaningful to you. What impact do you hope it will have?

One thread I'm excited to explore revolves around early congregational ministers in the Seminary to Early Ministry (SEM) Study. I want to understand what curricular needs they identify in their current roles and the skills they wish they had acquired before entering their positions. Many of our conversations with participants inquire explicitly about what they wish they had known or studied differently. These responses not only fascinate me but also offer insights that could improve educational approaches and make them more responsive to students' needs. When participants articulate their current needs in ministry, it's a valuable perspective, especially during their initial year on the job. This is a period of rapid learning and realization of one's knowledge gaps. Exploring these moments and insights holistically might uncover ways in which the entire educational community can enhance its responsiveness and effectiveness.