TMC Welcomes Dr. Sarah Jean Barton

This fall, TMC welcomes Dr. Sarah Jean Barton to her new position as Assistant Professor of Occupational Therapy and Theological Ethics. Dr. Barton holds a dual appointment at Duke University School of Medicine in the Occupational Therapy Doctorate Division of the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery as well as at Duke Divinity School where she is a core faculty member within the Theology, Medicine and Culture Initiative. In conversation with Interim Program Director, Heather Plonk, earlier this month, Dr. Barton reflected on what it has been like for her to return to Duke Divinity School, and TMC in particular, after completing the Henry Nouwen Faculty Fellowship at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan.

“It’s been a wonderful homecoming,” Dr. Barton says with a smile. “It’s been exciting to plug in and contribute to a place that formed me so immensely.” While completing a Doctor of Theology (ThD) at Duke Divinity School, Dr. Barton was a partner in TMC-related courses and programs, including co-teaching courses and mentoring TMC Fellows. “It’s been neat to see the progression of the [TMC] program – to be a part of it the whole way through.”

Dr. Barton’s return to Duke Divinity School affirms and further enables TMC’s mission to foster a re-imagination and re-engagement with contemporary practices of health care in light of Christian tradition and the practices of Christian communities. Dr. Barton’s work as a disability theologian enables her to make distinctive contributions to this mission. “Human limitation is at the center of questions that people ask, and at the center of how people experience hardship and joy in life. I’m really glad to be able to be a person who has expertise in that area and who asks questions in a slightly different way.”

“Because I am a disability theologian, I really value the perspective of people with intellectual disabilities,” affirms Dr. Barton. Her research centers on questions of belonging in light of baptismal identity in Christ. This work has led her to pursue a variety of questions, including “How can people with disabilities challenge some of our language in worship that is very intellectually focused or individualized? How might we emphasize the participatory and communal aspects of what is happening in liturgy? There’s not just one way of presenting or teaching something, or one way that everyone can access [what is presented or taught]. Liturgy is something that should be super-multisensory, with many modes of access. It’s about providing multiple avenues for people to come in … because liturgy pays attention to the fact that we are bodies, we have bodies.” Dr. Barton is convinced that people with disabilities “raise questions about how our liturgies have fallen short, how they’re insufficient.” People with disabilities “are opening up new ways of encountering what the Spirit is up to in our midst. They have a prophetic presence with us.”

Enabling human flourishing is the primary goal of occupational therapy, according to Dr. Barton. She describes her sense of flourishing in her own life and practice through sharing the story of a four-and-a-half year old girl with whom she worked several years ago. When Dr. Barton introduced herself to her new patient, this young girl looked up at her and said, “Do you know that you are a tiny creature?” Her question stuck with Dr. Barton. In conversation with her then-advisor and now-colleague Dr. Warren Kinghorn about the theology of wonder inherent in this question, she began to ask “What does it mean to be a theologian who resists the urge to be in control? What does it mean to be a clinician who resists the urge to be in control in situations that are messy?” A stance of wonder offers a counterpoint to the desire to control. “Part of flourishing is maintaining a sense of wonder and openness to how the Spirit is moving.” To remain open to the Spirit’s movement, Dr. Barton encourages medical practitioners to both “lean into the very human experiences” in which they work and to take “part in communities that form us in practices of wonder.”

Given her own integration of theological formation and a vocation to health care, Dr. Barton is well-positioned to mentor others who come to study as part of the TMC Fellowship. To those considering applying, she says, “Take the leap! Participating in the TMC Fellowship might require sacrifices, but it will also yield gifts and future relationships.” These future relationships will serve as a foundation to which Fellows can always – and currently do – return as they continue in their fields of practice. Becoming a TMC Fellow is “becoming part of a life-long learning community,” in which the faculty “already see the future Fellows as our colleagues. We are a group of people who are practitioners and academics, and people who have, our whole lives, tried to figure out the vocational balance between our practice and our study that not many people around us seem to appreciate or experience. We are here to talk through doubts and questions. We practice what we preach; we live what we’re talking about.”

TMC is grateful for Dr. Barton’s return to Duke Divinity School. We are eager to see how she will flourish as she lends her wisdom to our community. We trust that her “slightly different way” of asking questions will empower our current students and alumni in their vocations to health care. And we look forward to the future of TMC with her experience and voice as a part of our choir.

If you would like to learn more about Dr. Barton and her work as a theologian and occupational therapist, please tune in to her recent interview on Duke Divinity School Admissions’ DivCast, or visit her personal website.