College chaplains have an important role to play and unique perspectives to offer as our denomination struggles to halt the decline in membership and develop vital and faithful ministries that address the developmental needs of our emerging and young adults, This perspective can best be heard when chaplaincy is recognized as distinct from other forms of ministry within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
I came to The College of Wooster in 1996 having spent twelve years of ministry in congregations and governing bodies. I had a number of preconceived ideas about 18–21-year-olds, and life on a college campus. After 14 years of chaplaincy here, I have come to believe that chaplaincy is a distinct form of ministry and that making comparisons or applying models of parish ministry is neither appropriate nor effective.
Seeking to engage higher educational ministry through models of new church development, youth ministry, evangelism, or program development leaves crucial gaps. While each provides some insights, skill sets, and resources, chaplaincy in our church-related institutions is neither hybrid nor hapa1. Recognizing this unique identity and function in the life of the larger church community makes it possible for us to better engage and understand the church’s ministry in higher education.
Comparison to churches. The community I serve shares important similarities with a traditional congregation. These similarities include an intergenerational community with one age group (18-21) making up a significant majority and members who run the gambit from very active to mostly bystanders. For chaplains, pastoral care involves marriages and funerals and work with individuals, couples, and small groups. Topics include relationships, vocation and career, chronic and terminal illness and mental health, as well as family systems. The scope of chaplaincy ministry to/with our students is developmentally narrow, but experientially rich, ranging from worship and sacraments, leadership development, Scripture study and theological education, along with service to the wider community, to teaching, evangelism, coaching and mentoring, leadership development, and administration.
Comparison to youth ministries. There are also some affinities with youth ministry due to the proximity in age and access to popular culture. These are less robust and more tenuous than the similarities with congregational ministry. There are differences in context and culture, and developmental tasks and capacities of emerging adults are very different than those of junior high and high school youth.
In her book, The Critical Years, Sharon Parks applies the work of several developmental theories, including Fowler’s work on faith development, to describe a stage that she calls emerging adulthood. The growth and changes that take place over the typical four-year college period are as breathtaking as those occurring in the early years of life. Students arrive at college with a largely untested faith, seeking affiliation with like-minded persons and groups, granting authority to persons and institutions outside of themselves, and operating out of idealistic and universalized spiritual and relational worldviews. They leave having had their faith tested and challenged by peers, academic course work and life experience. Graduates now own their choice of community, aware that other communities also have validity. They have claimed an internal sense of authority and an ability to critically assess outside claims to authority. They have tempered idealism with pragmatism born of experience that brings compassion and grace into their spiritual and relational lives.
Unique aspects. Higher education ministry nurtures this movement in all areas of its life and work.
The college or university creates a community, context, and culture quite different from that of the traditional congregation or youth ministry. Ecumenical and multi-faith as well as intergenerational, college and university communities congregate around questions of purpose, meaning, and faith. The dynamics and rhythm of the academic year don’t jive with the liturgical year – it took me years to figure out how to mark the seasons of Advent, Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost when students are absent from campus.
It has also been a challenge and a blessing to reconcile the Jewish high holy days and the fasting season of Ramadan with a calendar that is unconsciously and unremittingly reflective of the Christian year. Yet these challenges work together to create the context in which a dynamic, diverse faith community thrives. The life of this community is chronicled in numerous letters (or e-mails) written by alumni who talk about the lasting impact on their lives from the nurture and the challenges offered by the faith community at Wooster.
Colleges and universities, with their culture of intellectual challenge, late nights, insistent questions, pomp and circumstance, academic hierarchy, and four-year cycles demand that their chaplains engage a variety of roles.
As chaplains we represent the voice of faith in and to our institutions. I experience this as a kind of cross-cultural exercise — helping clarify, articulate, and listen (at times developing new vocabulary) to the concerns and values of both the academy and the church. When I served in the parish and the synod I was seen as theologically liberal. At the college, the simple fact that I am religious places me on the conservative end of the spectrum. The diversity of the academic community foregrounds the challenges found in creating heterogeneous communities. As chaplain I function variously as coach, mentor, peacemaker, interpreter, matchmaker, or group facilitator for members of the community. Chaplains are called to be deep listeners, to work toward the goal of creatively engaging individuals and the institution in the act of imagining religious and spiritual possibilities that push the boundaries of their individual religious experiences while exploring deeply the traditions and practices that are part of the world’s religious heritage.
Ministry in higher education has an identity all its own. Many of us who serve in this capacity are eager to share the fruits of our ministries, working to find the appropriate links, narratives, and language to fully engage the conversation.
Linda Morgan-Clement is chaplain at The College of Wooster, Wooster, Ohio.
1Taken from the Hawaiian term referring to persons of mixed or half-blood. In popular usage it describes persons of multiple ethnic heritage.