what chaplains bring to the table

I’m using the term “chaplain” as my catch-all term for the people at Christian colleges involved in impacting students in specialized, relevant ways. It’s easier than writing “University Ministries director,” “spiritual life director,” “Vice President for Spiritual Development,” “Dean of the Chapel,” and so on. But that’s what I mean!

This week, I’m taking a look at Christian colleges and their connection to college ministry as a whole. This is a response to the criticism leveled at Christian schools on another blog, as I discussed yesterday.

I do believe that college ministers can learn much from each other. Today, I want to point out what Christian college chaplains bring to the table for the field of college ministry, elements we in other branches are wise to notice.

1. Academic development of their work. Of any group I’ve met in my research, Christian college chaplains seem most likely to take a seriously academic approach to spiritual development. Their world, clearly, is an academic one; they serve on the staff of a college or even as faculty. I would imagine the  Master’s and Doctorate degrees per capita is highest in this branch, too. So it’s natural that this quality would show up strongly here.

So when I’ve met with these women and men, they regularly reference both Christian thinkers and secular thinkers. It’s common for chaplains to discuss generational research, psychological development theories, and a wide range of books (that they’ve actually read!). This kind of broad thought about the work of college ministry – which I would argue we need much more of in our field – seems to be the forte of many of these college ministers, the women and men “chaplain-ing” at Christian colleges.

2. Theological development of their methods and messages. Connected to this devotion to thinking about these things, many Christian college chaplains seem to have developed pretty rich understandings of what they do and the messages they present to students over time. While this attention obviously varies among these ministers, my guess would be that this kind of serious attention to methodology is more the “norm” here than in any other branch of college ministry.

That includes helping students process big questions, whether they be theological “hot topics” or longstanding issues like churchmanship and ecclesiology. In chapel series, missions endeavors, service opportunities, and more, I’ve rarely – if ever – seen more attention paid to analyzing long-term development of students’ lives than in these environments.

3. Longevity. Again, this isn’t evident everywhere. But oftentimes chaplains end up shepherding college students for many, many years. Certainly, there are plenty of “lifers” in the other branches of college ministry, too. But I’m guessing that among Christian colleges, there may be a higher ratio of college ministers who have worked in college ministry – and often even worked in the same location – for 10+ years.

4. Fit with the institution. Clearly, when the institution is your employer, there’s usually going to be better assimilation there! (Although there are certainly Christian colleges where there is tension between ministers and administration.) But beyond that natural affinity, in many cases chaplains seem to have been able to connect well with the purposes of the institution and with individual staff, faculty, and administration members.

Even though chaplains may have a “head start” in that area, we can still notice the benefits – and work to emulate their connectedness. In many cases, even at secular schools, there is a real opportunity for much of our ministry to fit the institution in a way that is both edifying and glorifying. It’s not impossible to become seen as a “colleague” of the faculty and staff at your school, nor is it impossible for your ministry to be seen as invaluable to the campus community.

Continue this mini-series here.

Written from Cedarville University, Cedarville, OH

Road Trip #11 update (Day 36)
yesterday’s T-shirt: the Spartan tribe of San Jose State University
new c
ampus visits: Wilberforce University (#37), Central State University (#38)
click here to see all the explorations from Road Trip #11)

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