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Kinds of Campus Chaplains

August 4, 2016
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Closing panel. Photo credit: Steph Robinson

The final panel of the Global Conference for Chaplains in Higher Education 2016 was called “Pulling Apart a Platypus,” which was a metaphor for a panel that looked critically at the differences between chaplaincies at various institutions. The panel and the metaphor were the brainchild of chaplain Robert Lingard from Southern Cross University in Australia. He recruited four panelists:

  • Jay Robinson of Monash University in Australia
  • Gunther Sturms of the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands
  • Mary Hudson of Syracuse University in the USA
  • Myself (Monica Sanford) of University of the West in the USA

No platypi were harmed in the course of this session.

From Rev. Jay Robinson of the Uniting Church of Australia, I learned that universities employ only a few chaplains on their own payroll and mostly to function as coordinators relying on the volunteer services of numerous chaplains to meet the needs of students. With the exception of two church-based institutions, all universities in Australia are public. They are also large; I heard no populations below five digits among all the Australia chaplains I spoke to. They seem to recognize the value of chaplains as they recruit numerous volunteers, but have very little interest in paying for that value. Like America, there is some controversy over church-state separation and the use of tax funding. Nevertheless, Jay and her fellow Aussie chaplains work hard to look after the students on their campuses. An innovation I particularly enjoyed was a jacket she wears that says ‘chaplain’ on it. She replicated this for the conference, which she worked tirelessly to organize, in the form of vests that said “Chaplain at Work – Please Bother.” I see a T-shirt order in my future.

From Gunther Sturms of the Netherlands, a Catholic, chaplaincy has a more secular and entrepreneurial face in the form of Motiv. This non-profit, attached to a technical school, provides team training, coaching, and events to help students wrestle with their calling – in this case to be engineers – and build their people skills. Gunther’s model appears more like corporate consulting than chaplaincy, including fees for service. Some audience members questioned what might be lost in relying so much on secular language and a secular model. Gunther believes nothing is lost, only that he and his team allow students (who are largely secular in the Netherlands) to raise the topic or religion rather than using religion as the starting point.

In an earlier in-person conversation, I learned from Gunther that he does not perform one-on-one counseling (no ‘open door’) or ministry of presence, which are two staples of chaplaincy practice I regularly use. For myself, I agree with Gunther regarding the relationship between religious and secular language, but I am uneasy about the loss of these specific practices. What sets chaplains apart from consultants or therapists, to me, is that we go where the suffering is and make ourselves available without waiting to be called (some counselors and social workers also do this, but in different ways). While students can make appointments with me, they don’t have to. Crisis, trauma, and panic do not adhere to any datebook. To my knowledge, Gunther and his team do not provide crisis services, which I find regrettable.

The third chaplain to speak was Mary Hudson, the Pagan chaplain at Syracuse University in New York. Mary represents the completely volunteer chaplain, endorsed by her faith tradition and carefully scrutinized by the university before being authorized to work on campus. Once approved, Mary became of ten chaplaincies who all commit to serving the campus twenty hours a week for no pay and in addition to whatever ‘day jobs’ they may hold. Mary manages this by being at the campus Starbucks early in the morning and holding events in the evenings and on weekends. When asked how she serves Christian students, by far the majority on American college campuses, Mary answered quite well. Like any chaplain, she is interfaith, but there is also a subset of Christian and quasi-Christian students who would rather discuss Christianity with her than with a Christian chaplain due to fear of judgment. I personally believe this fear is largely unfounded, but not entirely, in my experience. Our faith traditions imbue us with certain worldviews and assumptions that, even in the most well meaning chaplain can become judgmental. As a profession, we rely on a reputation as ‘safe’ people for difficult discussions (regardless of our own beliefs) in order for students to approach us to ask for help. Mary and my fellow chaplains at the conference were well aware of that, but still struggling to overcome outdated notions of what religious professionals are.

I presented last. I explained my paid position on campus that, in addition to, I am allowed to serve as a chaplain on a volunteer basis. By becoming a familiar and valuable member of the paid staff, I have gained the trust of a large part of the campus community, who as a result, support my work as a chaplain. Probably, like Mary, I will never find a full-time paid position as a campus chaplain in our largely Christian nation. However, if I can make myself valuable in other ways, either as administration or faculty, I may continue to serve my calling wherever I go, which is to be a chaplain. I may even occasionally bring that viewpoint to the fore in executive or committee meetings when discussing a topic that impacts student suffering, my primary concern as a Buddhist chaplain, in spite of other strategic or fiscal objectives.

We then opened the panel to questions, the most touching of which came from a Christian chaplain from New Zealand. She was dismayed to the point of tears about the lengths to which Mary and I go to serve students. We need to make the profession more inclusive and welcoming to chaplains from all traditions, she stated. Afterward, she sought me out for more conversation and a hug, despite my froggish voice as I spoke earlier (a bad head cold). I was in turn, heartened by her support, especially because I know that even Christian chaplains are struggling to prove their value to rapidly secularizing universities.

The panel was a great opportunity to meet other chaplains and share our common goals and struggles. I may even recommend something similar, though on a smaller geographic scale and wider professional scope (beyond campus chaplains), at my own university this year for the benefit of students in our chaplaincy program.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Peace Paul permalink
    August 14, 2016 6:00 pm

    Thank you for sharing your experience from this conference.

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