Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Job Requirements

Today I received a job description for a Program Coordinator of Spiritual Life / Chaplain which contained a paragraph of "Typical Physical Demands." They included, " Requires sitting, standing, bending, and reaching."

I flashed on the perceptiveness of the HR person who unknowingly filled out this institutional standard form.

College ministry requires sitting:  sitting with students in their joys and sorrows, sitting with faculty and staff, sitting through long official functions and dinners, and sitting in prayer and reflection.

College ministry requires standing: standing for something, taking stands, standing around.

College ministry requires bending. Oh yeah. If you can't be flexible, you won't last long in this profession.

And  reaching. College ministry includes the  prophetic dimension, calling students, administration, and the institution itself to aim higher and deeper.

There was more.

"Requires normal range of hearing and vision."  The HR person got this section very wrong. College Ministry requires abnormal hearing and vision in order to pick up the flutterings of the Spirit. To be able to hear what is really being said and what actions really mean.

What is your real job description?

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

A Substitute for a Chaplain?

A disturbing trend in PC(USA) –related colleges and universities has been to replace  a chaplain with  a coordinator of religious activities or a confederation of local pastors. While the ostensible reason for this is stated in financial terms, I believe that the underlying reasons are more philosophical.

The stated thought-process goes like this: (1) our student body is too diverse and a chaplain couldn’t minister to them; (2) we are a serious academic institution and therefore have no need of religious superstition; and (3) we are more tolerant than earlier generations of administrators and faculty, the position of chaplain is no longer necessary.

Since we need to cut expenses, the functions of the chaplain can be easily assumed by  (A) an existing staff person do religious programming and (B) local clergy give prayers or chapel services when needed.

Let me reflect on each of those statements.
 (1) “The student body is too religiously diverse for a chaplain from one tradition.” This concern usually comes from a generation where student bodies were more homogenous, and white protestant Christianity was the norm. Most higher education institutions today are religiously diverse. Flagship Ivy League universities maintain a chaplain and a staff to address multifaith concerns. The smaller the enrollment, the more concentrated those multifaith activities become in the person and office of a lone chaplain. For smaller institutions, a trend has been to acknowledge the increasing religious diversity of students by combining titles in the same position. Some PC(U.S.A.) examples are  “Chaplain and Director of Spiritual Life”,  “Chaplain and Director of Interfaith Campus Ministries”, and “Dean of Religious and Spiritual Life”.

The particularity of a chaplain’s religious tradition is a necessary  asset on a diverse campus. The chaplain is not a local, denominational pastor. The chaplain’s congregation is primarily non-religious, anti-religious, and Whatever. The chaplain serves the institution in helping the entire student body in its individual members’ spiritual journey. That means that the Presbyterian chaplain is also the voice on campus encouraging the Baptists, Buddhists, Wiccans, as well as the Atheists. (Not in the skill-set of most local parish clergy) The Presbyterian characteristics of hospitality, humility, and Otherness of God provide a good foundation for chaplains. 
A student life staff member with responsibility for religious organizations cannot provide this. Nor can local clergy.

(2) “Religion has no place in the academic enterprise.” This comment is sometimes heard from faculty fearful of the anti-intellectualism of their stereotyped Christianity. Presbyterians are the ones who take to heart the commandment to “worship God with all your mind.” The prevalence of this thinking (residual Enlightenment rationalism) on PC(U.S.A.) church-related institutions is an indication that we have done a poor job of communicating our Presbyterian academic ethos to new hires.

The chaplain embodies the unity of academic study and religious faith on campus.  Many chaplains have some academic involvement and teach courses. Thirty five percent have advanced degrees and almost thirty percent have faculty rank. Chaplains are immersed in the academic culture. This environment of rigorous critical thinking subject to public critique colors the way chaplains do their job. Sermons, workshops, and classes given by chaplains – in general – tend to have a higher academic rigor than those given other clergy.

(3) “We are tolerant.” This remark indicates the confusion between toleration and hospitality. Toleration is a post-modern virtue, and allows for passive non-involvement with The Other. Hospitality is a biblical virtue which actively welcomes and involves The Other.

The chaplain nurtures the spiritual dimension of the institution. This nurture is accomplished directly through public worship and communication, and privately, in pastoral conversations with presidents, trustees, faculty, staff, and students. This spiritual nurture of students increasingly encompasses alumni.  Most mission statements speak of educating “the whole person.” The Chaplain is the person on campus who continually raises the “whole person” issue.

The unique position of the chaplain allows her or him to be aware of the institution’s telos in a deep and special way. Only the college’s president shares this vantage point. The Chaplain sees the institution as a community, and recognizes in a deep, spiritual way how the individual parts of the community are connected.

(A) “An existing staff person can coordinate religious activities.” This may be true, but a healthy institution needs more than programming.  A program coordinator is focused on present student need and is reactionary in its responsiveness.  A chaplain is focused on the entire institution and is prophetic and visionary, as well as responsive to current student needs.
The chaplain acts as an identifiable focal point for the Transcendent on campus. This is broader and deeper than program coordination. This is a conduit for all areas of the institution to address the spiritual life of students. Recent scholarship confirms that attentiveness to the spiritual dimension of students result in better retention, grades, satisfaction. Those students also become more active alumni. Rev. Donna Schaper calls the “the transcendent role of chaplains.”

(B) “Local clergy can do the chaplain’s job.” Local clergy have gifts and callings appropriate to the local church. While students and faculty need a local worshipping community, there are … Congregations are self-selecting around theological and sociological foci. A campus community is incredibly more diverse in every aspect. Ministering in this diversity requires skills different from those needed in a traditional congregation in a local setting. 

The chaplain is the institution’s tangible connection to the denomination. Over a quarter  of PC(USA) chaplains act as the church relations officer. In the three types of church-relatedness used by the denomination since 1994, a specific chaplaincy is one of the marks of two of them. Only “historically” related colleges omit mention of chaplains. The Synod of the Covenant ‘s standard covenant with a college has a “funded chaplaincy” as one of the ways the institution shows its church-relatedness. Even when additional personnel are designated as Church Relations Officers, the denomination frequently uses the chaplains as connecting points.

I am well aware that the characterizations I have made do not describe every institution, chaplain, or chaplain substitute, and that institutions have vibrant programs. Nonetheless, an institution with a designated and supported chaplain has a better chance of developing those characteristics which define a church-related college or university. The position the institutional position of Chaplain is more helpful to a church-related institution than a Coordinator of Religious Programs.  

Suggested Readings
Astin, Alexander W. et al. Cultivating the Spirit: How College Can EnhanceStudent’s Inner Lives. Jossey-Bass. 2010
Mohr, Jim. “To Be a Chaplain”, in Branching Out: The Journal of the Presbyterian College Chaplains Association, Spring 2011.
PC(U.S.A.) General Assembly “On Being Faithful: The Continuing Mission of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in Higher Education” Adopted by the 206th General Assembly (1994)
Schachter, Ron. “The Changing Chaplaincy: The role of religious leaders oncampus as the spiritual needs of students evolve.” In University Business (UniversityBusiness.com), October 2008
Schaper, Donna. “The Transcendent Role of Chaplains”, in The Chronicle of Higher Education, November 12, 2004