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.

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Three strategies to help black students on campuses today cope with trauma and other growing mental health issues (opinion)

Undoubtedly, COVID-19 has taken a toll on Americans’ mental health. That toll is even more severe among college students and other young adults. And, unfortunately, the negative impact on Black college students may be the most significant.

Suicide is now the second leading cause of death among Black children and teens ages 10 to 19. Higher rates of poverty, illness and discrimination in the Black community put Black youth at higher risk for depression, anxiety and other mental health issues. Black Americans are also less likely to seek and receive mental health treatment due to lack of access, cost or stigma. That’s one of the reasons why Michelle Obama’s decision to speak about her depression was such a big deal for the Black community.

As a licensed minister and national director of a faith-based organization that supports faculty members, administrators and students in higher education, I've worked with underserved college students for more than 10 years. Loneliness, homesickness and academic stress have been the major causes of the mental health struggles of the students I’ve worked with.

But today the pressures have escalated significantly. With COVID-19 exacerbating feelings of isolation, and the current political and social unrest at the forefront of many Black students’ minds, we must develop more effective strategies for coping with trauma and other burgeoning mental health challenges on our college campuses across America.

If you think your Black college students and graduates experience less racism than others, think again. According to a Pew Research report last year, Black people with college experience are more likely to say they have faced discrimination. Half of African Americans with at least some college experience also say they have feared for their personal safety because of their race. That share drops to about a third (34 percent) among those with less education.

And it's not just Black students who are concerned with, and passionate about, racism and racial injustice. The overwhelming majority of Generation Zers feel that Black Americans are treated differently than others, and most people in this age group support the Black Lives Matter movement. Remember that this generation has literally grown up with imagery of racialized violence and protests. Trayvon Martin died in 2012, when some of your students were just 10 years old.

So how can colleges and universities best support Black students on campuses this fall? As institutions across the country expand efforts to reach previously underserved or overlooked student populations, amid a semester that looks like nothing we’ve ever seen, I offer three pieces of advice.

1. Serving others has a powerful effect on student health. Thus, when helping students deal with anxiety, depression and other mental health concerns, encourage outward-facing engagement. The Black community has a long legacy of pursuing justice. For decades, African Americans have regularly mobilized around civil rights activism for ourselves and social service for our community. Many Black students come from schools, civic groups or churches that make a regular practice of service, including feeding the hungry, providing after-school tutoring and activities for children, and other practical acts of service that strengthen their communities.

In a decade of working with college students, I have observed that students who maintain such vibrant community connections while in college are better resourced as they encounter the stresses and anxieties of life on campus. Consider how your institution can offer opportunities for students to care for the community around them, whether they are living at home or on the campus. If in-person options are limited, encourage students to volunteer their skills and support online through digital mentorship and the like.

2. Don’t underestimate the value of faith for Black students. Black Americans in 2020 are bearing the weight of two pandemics: COVID-19 and the impact of long-standing racial trauma, both of which have left their mark this year in painful ways. Consider that within the past six months some students may have attended the first funeral of their lives (masked and socially distanced). Consider also that they may have participated in the largest demonstrations for racial justice since the civil rights era, and that for many students, both funerals and protests were likely experienced within the context of the Black church.

One way that colleges can help Black students adjust is to be aware that, for many of them, their faith is not checked at the door. It’s an integral part of their identity and shapes much of their lives.

Faith sensitivity is especially important for helping Black Americans process and heal from racial trauma. Many mental health practitioners are now acknowledging the vital role that a patient’s faith plays in the process of healing from trauma and have begun to incorporate elements of spiritual practices in counseling sessions. Studies have found, for example, that faith is “indispensable” in substance abuse recovery and is also a valuable component of the treatment of PTSD. A study by the American Psychological Association concluded that recognizing the connection between spirituality and trauma is “essential to a full understanding of human behavior.”

3. Offer more opportunities for connection. This final point may sound obvious, but we need to be more intentional about social connection than ever before. This year, it may be difficult for students to develop deep friendships. During a time of social distancing, we must be more proactive and creative about giving students opportunities for social engagement.

For example, make sure that students are aware of ethnic celebrations and social opportunities with cultural minority groups. If there is a Black gospel choir on your campus, even if it’s meeting online this fall, go the extra mile to make that option visible to all students.

Or take a step further: compile a list of local houses of worship and include Black congregations on that list. Make a few phone calls to Black civic groups and explain that your campus is welcoming Black students enthusiastically this semester. Ask if you can include their contact info on a list of off-campus resources. Then make that list available to students.

This semester will be anything but normal. But in trying new ways to practically support Black students during this challenging time, you can make your campus a welcoming place where all students can thrive academically, socially and spiritually.

Shaylen Hardy is national director of Black campus ministries at InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, serving students and faculty on more than 770 campuses in the United States.

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Survey finds many college students lacking in knowledge of religious traditions and in interfaith skills


Survey suggests colleges can do more to equip students to engage with religious diversity. Students from some religious groups find campus more welcoming and supportive than others.

A NLRB decision and a case before the U.S. Supreme Court focus on faculty at religiously affiliated institutions (opinion)

This spring has been the season for disputes about the rights of employees at religiously affiliated institutions of education. These disputes revolve around a common core: What kinds of questions about religious schools, colleges and universities -- and specifically about the religious functions of their employees -- does the U.S. Constitution permit courts to ask?

Advocates for religious schools and colleges in Kansas and California have given conflicting answers. They can’t have it both ways.

  • In Kansas, two faculty members filed a charge of unfair labor practices against Bethany College, a Lutheran institution. Recently, in a move that was expected but still earthshaking, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that it lacked jurisdiction over the case. The decision, signed by three NLRB members all appointed by President Trump, overturned a 2014 ruling in which the board had ruled that it could exercise jurisdiction over faculty at religious institutions who do not perform “a specific religious function.” Under the test announced yesterday, wherever an institution holds itself out as religious, is a nonprofit and is religiously affiliated, the First Amendment exempts it from the NLRB’s oversight.
  • In California, teachers at two Catholic elementary schools claimed that they were fired for legally impermissible reasons: one because of a cancer diagnosis that rose to the level of a disability, the other because of age. The schools have argued that they merit categorical immunity from discrimination laws with regard to employees who perform “important religious functions.” The Supreme Court heard oral argument in these cases in May, and a ruling is expected within weeks.

These disputes implicate different aspects of First Amendment law. In the Bethany College case, the NLRB drew largely on a 1979 Supreme Court case involving the doctrine of “entanglement.” In short, courts are not constitutionally empowered to peer too closely into the internal workings of religious institutions, especially if Congress does not explicitly direct them to do so.

The California Catholic schools pointed instead to the “ministerial exception,” a separate strand of First Amendment jurisprudence that affords religious institutions such freedom in choosing who personifies their teachings that antidiscrimination laws, even laws against race and sex discrimination, do not apply to the selection of employees that courts deem ministerial.

These two sets of ideas have evolved over time. By limiting the authority of judges and administrative agencies where religious institutions are concerned, they aim to preserve institutions’ freedom to govern themselves. Not a few religious liberty scholars have gone so far as to label this overarching concept the doctrine of “church autonomy.”

But some religious libertarians want to have their cake and eat it, too. In the Kansas and California cases, advocates for the religiously affiliated schools staked out two very different positions. Agreeing with Bethany College, the NLRB held yesterday that it could not hear its employees’ complaint because even to ask the question “whether faculty members at religiously affiliated institutions of higher learning are held out as performing a specific religious function entails an impermissible inquiry into what does and what does not constitute a religious function.” The California schools argued the opposite before the Supreme Court, insisting that whether an employee performs “important religious functions” is precisely the question courts should ask to determine whether the law should treat that employee as a minister, exempt from antidiscrimination protections.

What’s at stake in this thicket of constitutional law is the peace of mind and the job security of tens of thousands of faculty members who teach at religiously affiliated colleges and universities. To the extent the NLRB refuses to exercise jurisdiction, or that courts permit institutions to hire and fire entirely at will, faculty members who teach everything from chemistry to history to social work will lose some of the basic protections of labor and employment law. LGBTQ faculty could be vulnerable even despite the Supreme Court’s blockbuster decision last week, since First Amendment protections supersede antidiscrimination laws.

Judges owe it to these faculty, at minimum, to be consistent. If courts decide the First Amendment permits them to inquire into the particulars of employees’ religious functions in discrimination cases, but not in labor relations cases, that would be unjust. Either such questions are out of bounds and religious institutions’ employment practices are categorically immune from oversight, or courts should be able to exercise discretion in determining whether the facts of a particular case require them to defer to a particular employer.

Drawing the Line

If last month’s oral arguments in the California cases are anything to go by, the NLRB may have gotten ahead of the Supreme Court in choosing the former path. Many of the justices’ questions had to do with how courts should go about distinguishing ministerial from nonministerial employees -- not with whether courts have any business making such distinctions in the first place. U.S. appellate courts have developed different standards after the Supreme Court formally recognized the ministerial exception in a 2012 case, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC. Most of the time, courts have looked to whether an employee was or was not performing religious functions. But the Ninth Circuit, from which the California cases emerged, has required that there also be some objective indicator of an employee’s status as a minister, say, a job title, educational and training requirements, or how the employee identifies herself.

The Supreme Court is expected to rule in the California cases later this term, and it is unclear whether the justices will affirm the Ninth Circuit’s approach or adopt the approach of the other appellate courts. But what both approaches have in common is that they don’t just permit, they actually require courts to determine whether an employee’s role entails religious functions. Even the Trump administration, which took the side of the institutions, did not tell the court it lacked jurisdiction in this area. There is “a pretty defined set” of duties that are identifiably religious, the solicitor general’s representative argued, “so it’s not going to be an exceptionally indeterminate analysis.”

And this is common sense. While it’s clearly not the province of secular courts and administrative bodies to resolve questions about theology or ministry, courts do not and must not avert their gaze from everything that happens inside religious schools, colleges and universities. Using the same principles that they employ in disagreements among secular parties, courts routinely resolve property disputes, contract disputes and tort claims involving religious institutions -- including, increasingly in recent years, cases involving clergy sexual misconduct.

In last week’s decision protecting LGBTQ employees from employment discrimination, religion was, as Justice Stephen Breyer put it, “the elephant in the room.” But just as in other areas of the law, courts should be able to employ neutral principles in resolving labor disputes at religiously affiliated institutions, except in those instances where the nature of an employee’s functions requires that an employer receive special, deferential treatment. Reasonable people can disagree how and where to draw that line, but it’s a whole other matter to refuse to draw any lines at all.

Patrick Hornbeck is chair and professor of theology at Fordham University, where he is also a J.D. candidate at Fordham Law School.

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Hillel navigates realities of COVID-19 and various fall scenarios

Hillel, the largest campus organization for Jewish students in the world, is finding alternative ways to support students and foster a sense of community despite restrictions on large gatherings and disparate fall reopening plans among colleges.

Proposed rule focuses on faith-based colleges, religious liberty and free speech

The U.S. Education Department says its newly proposed rule would "level the playing field" for religious institutions applying for funding from the agency. But critics question the motives and assumptions underlying the rule.

At conservative Wyoming Catholic College, students read great books and ride horses

A conservative Catholic college in Wyoming educates students in great books, horsemanship and other outdoors skills and bans cellphones on campus. It also turned down federal funding.

American Academy of Religion offers new guidelines for teaching religion

American Academy of Religion releases new guidelines on what undergraduates should understand about all religions prior to getting their degrees.

The value proposition of Catholic universities today (opinion)

My brother and I have chosen very different paths in our professional lives. Tom is a brand executive at Nike, and I am a mission integration professional at DePaul University. Over the years, however, I have realized that our jobs are not that different.

I recently asked Tom for his perspective on branding as it relates to what we do as mission-integration professionals. “A brand is based on authenticity and integrity,” he said, “a relationship between what I stand for and what you want … That’s the job of a brand: to connect those things.”

I had never thought about the mission of a university as a relationship between what we stand for and what our students want.

The Jesuit philosopher Bernard Lonergan said a theologian “mediates between a cultural matrix and the role of religion within it.” My job as a mission-integration professional is to mediate between the cultural matrix that our students inhabit and the role of a Catholic university within it.

What, in fact, do Catholic universities offer in relation to what students want?

The findings of a recent survey of prospective students from EAB Enrollment Services suggest there may not be much of a positive brand identity, especially when the top three characteristics most associated with Roman Catholic colleges are “conservative,” “traditional” and “expensive.”

But the bad news is not just limited to Catholic universities. There are ominous signs that universities face a supply and demand crisis, challenging their core value proposition. With fewer high school graduates and an increasing public distrust of higher education, landing a job has become the main motivation for earning a college degree. A recent Edvance Foundation blog post posited that universities must help students envision their contributions to society.

Students imagine such contributions to society when they discover a problem they want to solve. Catholic universities must do the same and name the problems they solve.

Marketers say the bigger you frame the problem and your value in addressing it, the more loyal your customers will be. Automakers are not in the car-manufacturing business; they are in the freedom of movement business. Cars may become obsolete, but the urge to be someplace else is always upon us, as John Steinbeck observed in Travels With Charley.

Catholic universities equip students to address big problems like poverty, hunger and injustice. But how can we articulate that mission in a way that is broadly appealing?

Here’s a pitch for Catholic universities: we are in the business of integral human development, a concept from Catholic social teaching that pursues the development of the whole person -- from a spiritual, social, cultural and economic perspective -- as well as the development of all people.

In his World Day of Peace Message in 2014, Pope Francis declared, “The necessary realism proper to politics and economy cannot be reduced to mere technical know-how bereft of ideals and unconcerned with the transcendent dimension of man.” A year later in Laudato Si’, On Care for Our Common Home, he used the term “integral ecology” to describe the connections between environmental, economic, social and cultural systems. Education is vital: “Our efforts at education will be inadequate and ineffective unless we strive to promote a new way of thinking about human beings, life, society and our relationship with nature.” That’s what Catholic universities stand for.

The Value Proposition Today

If Ex Corde Ecclesiae provides the institutional framework of a Catholic university, then Laudato Si’ provides the vision for why Catholic universities belong in the American higher education marketplace at all.

Catholic universities do much more than prepare students for jobs or careers. They enable students to flourish in the many vocations they will have throughout their lifetimes. Popes have long espoused that work is the key to the social question; we transform ourselves, our communities and our common home largely through the world of work. And the fact is that our students want more than jobs and careers. They want meaningful work.

Theologians use the term “salvific” to describe things of enduring value. Mediating between today’s cultural matrix and the role of Catholic education within it demands a “salvific sensibility” that should remain the highest aim. How then might Catholic universities better share a salvific sensibility in a period of declining religiosity?

Historical mindedness establishes what marketing professionals refer to as brand provenance, which comes from the French provenir, meaning to originate. Historical legacy signals authenticity, and this can help Catholic universities better understand their “original” value in a crowded marketplace.

The term “catholicity” is a literal translation of kata and holos, two Greek words that when combined form the word “katholikos,” meaning “toward wholeness.” Pope Francis uses integral ecology in the way Catholic theologians have used the adjective “catholic”: as a means to present a holistic vision of reality. For almost 1,000 years, the Catholic university has integrated wisdom from all sources and all parts.

Not long after the great intellectual awakening of the 11th century, cathedral schools quietly morphed into universities in places like Paris, Oxford, Cambridge, Salamanca and Toulouse. Scholars and teachers organized themselves into guilds, much like their merchant counterparts, to protect their mutual interests as seekers of wisdom.

At the University of Paris, Thomas Aquinas critically examined the natural philosophy of Aristotle and integrated the interpretations of Jewish and Muslim philosophers to construct a synthesis of the whole: the Summa Theologica. Today we call this systems thinking.

When Pope Leo XIII positioned Aquinas as a model for the Catholic intellectual enterprise in his 1879 encyclical Aeterni Patris: On the Restoration of Christian Philosophy, he highlighted a specific tradition of scholastic inquiry and dialogical encounter. While today’s questions are not those of a 13th-century theologian, and theology is no longer the queen of the sciences, the rigor, logic, openness and intellectual breadth of Aquinas is a model for the Catholic university.

Before the modern research university took shape in 19th-century Germany and deified the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, the academy had always served some greater good, some larger vision. Is it time to recover a salvific sensibility that has been lost? Is it time to offer a broader idea of what education is about?

The Way Forward

We know Generation Z is different. Today’s students have little tolerance for anything that isn’t authentic. They need to believe that the institutions they engage with are a pathway to serve something bigger than themselves. Students want to develop their sense of the whole that is more inclusive and more compassionate.

At the same time, corporations are redesigning the workplace to offer things like the corporate Peace Corps and flex-time work. Why? Because young adults refuse to accept their parents’ view of work. They will not accept the death of a salesman as their fate. Today’s cultural matrix includes phrases like “the purpose economy” and job titles like “chief purpose officer” because graduates want to live a life of purpose and integrity.

This leads us to the most important value proposition of Catholic universities: to educate students to shape the future we want. Catholic universities belong in today’s higher educational matrix because they imagine the development of the whole person and of all people. They do much more than educate for jobs or careers. It should follow that those students who feel it is their duty to save our world will become the most loyal customers of all.

Scott Kelley is associate vice president for mission integration in the Division of Mission and Ministry at DePaul University in Chicago, the largest Catholic university in the United States.

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University of Redlands to acquire San Francisco-area seminary

In 'Goldilocks' moment, two very different California institutions announce a merger that will bring a Southern California university's offerings to a 150-year-old Presbyterian seminary in Marin County.


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