To many, the academic study of religion may seem like a remote discipline.

But the Yale Divinity School’s faculty and students are not content to stick to the books. To them, religion and innovation operate together in mutualistic fashion.

“I think innovation is very important to our mission in a number of ways,” said Gregory Sterling, the dean of the Divinity School.

According to Sterling, this priority has influenced much of the school’s work beyond the classroom, including the start of the Transformational Leadership Program under his tenure three years ago.

The program invites speakers who have a religious or theological background at Yale to discuss their work in other fields. The speakers offer two-day courses that count toward one credit. At the Divinity School, this constitutes a third of a normal class credit.

Transformational Leadership has involved figures from a diverse array of professions. Previous speakers have included Jonathan Reckford, the CEO of Habitat for Humanity, and DeRay McKesson, a prominent leader of the #BlackLivesMatter movement who spoke at the school’s inaugural event. The speakers discussed their experiences in nonprofit work and activism, respectively.

Sterling explained that he believes religion could bring a galvanizing force to social entrepreneurship and activism.

“Religion offers the power to motivate large numbers of people in ways that sometimes exceed current movements,” he said. “For example, science has known about the effects of climate change, but that hasn’t been enough to motivate a large enough amount of people to respond.”

Just as much as the Divinity School wants to hear from innovators, Yale’s entrepreneurship community wants to hear from the school. Cassandra Harvey Walker, program director for social entrepreneurship at Tsai Center for Innovation and Technology at Yale and the Yale Center for Business and the Environment, said that hearing different perspectives is critical in social innovation.

She described Tsai CITY as an organization that “brings diverse students together to solve real-world problems.” Some of these students come from the Divinity School, and Tsai CITY has actively worked to cultivate a relationship with those graduate students.

To foster a connection with students in the Divinity School, Harvey Walker said, Tsai CITY plans to offer office hours with entrepreneurial mentors to students in a location closer to their campus.

Harvey Walker also mentioned the Innovation Event Fund and the Student Innovation Fund as ways that Tsai CITY offers student groups and individual students up to a thousand dollars to fund entrepreneurial ventures that promote diversity and inclusion.

Using the Student Innovation Fund Grant, two Divinity School students, Heaven Berhane DIV ’18 and Arthur Thomas DIV ’19, traveled to Kibera — a Kenyan slum — to work with a nonprofit called Crossing Thresholds. While there, the students spent time conducting surveys and collecting information on the people’s needs for the community center that Crossing Thresholds plans to build.

Sterling said that programs like this are important because of the growing Christian population across the world, the benefits of global experience for students and the fact that such programs offer a chance to make a meaningful impact.

Entrepreneurship involves skills important for most academic professions, Sterling added.

“You have to be able to examine the same thing everyone else is examining but see what no one else has seen,” he said. “It’s something you have to do both in academics and society.”

Tommy Martin |