The importance of chaplains and why colleges should support them (opinion)
Crisis can spark clarification. The more significant the crisis, the more substantial the potential for clarity. In this time of sustained crises surrounding COVID-19, anti-Black racism, anti-Semitism, political dysfunction, mental illness and countless other personal and public traumas, what seems to be increasingly clear is that chaplains are essential for the heart and soul of higher education.
The historical roots of chaplaincy allow us to better understand its contemporary relevance. The term “chaplain” originates from the story of St. Martin accompanying an impoverished man in the rain, which took place at the gate to the city of Amiens, France, in 337. As crowds hurried past the half-naked and close-to-death beggar, Martin — a military officer at the time — took out his sword and removed his cloak. Martin sliced his cloak into two pieces, giving one half to the man and using the other half to cover himself.
After being so moved by this powerful turn of events, Martin dedicated his life to serving the poor, and years later, his cloak became a treasured spiritual symbol. The cloak was kept in a building that came to be known as a cappella, or “chapel,” and the person assigned to look after the sacred relic was deemed the capellano, or “chaplain.” To this day chaplains can be identified as “the keepers of sacred things.”
At a time when chaplains are found within a variety of institutional settings and social movements, one can make the case that they serve a vital role within the particular context of higher education, as learning requires those who are entrusted to care for that which is sacred, or in other words, “worthy of awe and respect.” Chaplains serve alongside people of diverse religious, spiritual, moral and ethical backgrounds. By inviting learners into the fullness of life, chaplains are called upon to draw from various traditions and practices to build community, provide guidance, lead rituals, facilitate interfaith cooperation and offer unconditional care. As college students are now increasingly pressured to succeed despite the instability of situations that surround them — and within a historical era of conflict, change and isolation — one can credibly contend the role of chaplain has never been more important.
As institutions of higher education strive to better serve their campus communities in the midst of extraordinary disruption, chaplains make crucial contributions to collegiate living and learning in at least three ways:
- Chaplains explore and honor identity. The ancient Greek aphorism “Know thyself” is one of the most well-known and often-repeated statements in human history. From Socrates and Plato to Ralph Waldo Emerson to this day, the phrase has promoted personal discovery and acceptance of distinctive identities. For chaplains in the context of higher education, learning often begins with the subject matter of one’s self, so that learners can explore who they are, embrace who they might wish to become and allow such affirmation to serve as a foundation for all that follows. By nourishing the inner life, chaplains provide students with the freedom to focus on the spirit within them while also exploring the world around them.
- Chaplains create and cultivate community. Presence is precious. To be present is not merely about sharing the same physical space but also about a sustained commitment to shared experience. When chaplains are present with others, especially in times of crisis, they provide learners with the capacity to foster and support educational communities of opportunity and accessibility in the midst of their diversity. In contrast to the common temptation to overindividualize the learning process, chaplains serve as a living reminder that humans being are, at their core, relational beings. By accompanying diverse learners through the twists and turns of their dynamic lives, chaplains link becoming to belonging and provide a reminder that being present alongside others can hold tremendous power and possibility.
- Chaplains illuminate and ignite purpose. In the midst of significant and turbulent times like crises, chaplains seek to link identity (“Who am I?”) with community (“Where am I?”) to offer a greater understanding of purpose (“Why am I?”). Rather than merely preparing students for a postcommencement occupation, chaplains help to nourish a lifelong discernment of vocation — or a sense of shared responsibility that embraces opportunity and encompasses multiple areas of life in service to our common good. By allowing learners to examine within, around and beyond themselves, chaplains empower students to name and claim their personal roots and public reach. They guide them to discover, as Frederick Buechner offered, the place “where your deep gladness and the world’s deepest hunger meet.”
So what does this all mean for those of us in higher education?
As someone who repeatedly witnesses the ways that chaplains accompany a campus community, I have found it increasingly clear that our students are worthy of awe and respect. In other words, our students are sacred. The hopes of our students are sacred. The dreams of our students are sacred. The affirmations, questions, curiosities, fears, faiths, doubts and failures of our students are all wonderfully sacred. By accompanying students through their increasingly complex educational journeys, chaplains deserve to be considered indispensable within the ever-changing context of higher education.
I am grateful to serve at an institution that values the roles and responsibility of our chaplains, yet I know that others are not as fortunate. My hope is that more colleges and universities can develop safe and brave spaces to consider matters of belief, doubt, worship, meaning, meditation, prayer, pluralism, God, wonder and devotion. Through the recognition that learners are far more than brains and learning is far more than grades, chaplains help to ensure that students receive something that is far more than a ticket to an entry-level job: a trajectory toward an extraordinary life.
Our current state of affairs can spark clarification about how we live and learn together. We all can explore and honor our identities, create and cultivate our communities, and illuminate and ignite our sense of purpose. As a consequence of crisis and the subsequent quest for clarity, we can better notice, appreciate, strengthen and sustain those who are called upon to serve as chaplains.
By supporting chaplains, we can more fully educate the whole student, both inside and outside the classroom. We can ensure that our graduates will not only do good but also be well.
Chaplains affirm that education includes not only the acquisition of information but also much-appreciated personal formation and much-needed community transformation. By providing chaplains with the resources required for tending to the hearts and souls of our students, we can better nourish and nurture the heart and soul of higher education. Not only is this all good news for those of us on campuses, but clearly, it is also good news for everyone in our world.
The Reverend Brian E. Konkol is dean of Hendricks Chapel and professor of practice in the department of religion at Syracuse University.