Why Convergence Matters: A Chaplain’s Perspective

Dave Wright, University Chaplain & Director for Spiritual Life & Civic Engagement, University of Puget Sound

April 12, 2017

In less than two months, NASPA will have completed hosting its first Convergence conference, inviting together Student Affairs professionals, those employed within the structures of institutions of higher education to do work related to religion and spirituality (for the sake of brevity, I’ll just call us chaplains), and those employed in structures outside of institutions of higher education that seek to meet the spiritual, religious, and secular needs of college and university students.  While these three areas intersect in diverse ways on campuses across the country, creating space in which we can talk to one another across all three of these distinct disciplines at the national level is something that does not happen.  Convergence comes, as has been well documented by Jake Jacobsen and Rhonda Hustedt Jacobsen in their scholarly work, at an evolutionary time for the role of religion in higher education.  Let’s take a brief look at what those complexities might involve for these three interrelated professions.

First, we have the slow and at times challenging integration of institutional chaplaincy into the world of student affairs, particularly in private liberal arts colleges as well as some private research institutions.  More traditional models place the role of chaplain squarely within a faculty appointment, or as an individual division with a reporting line that goes direct to a President or Chancellor, but as of a 2015 survey completed by the National Association of College and University Chaplains most chaplains in that professional organization report within the structures of student affairs.  While r/s/s resources can be supported and managed through other, more traditional student affairs positions, chaplains positions offer not only a higher and specific level of content expertise relating to r/s/s in higher education but do so from within the college or university.   This positionality situates chaplains to be able to offer r/s/s support and resources not only to constituents of their own r/s/s tradition but to the whole of the campus regardless of background.  In addition, chaplains within student affairs frequently address multiple needs consistent with that chaplain’s training and expertise – engagement with intercultural work, licensed counseling, civic engagement, student crisis response, and facility management are often listed on position descriptions alongside coordinating r/s/s programs or spiritual care or worship leadership.

The second evolution, less thoroughly explored (to date) by Jacobsen and Jacobsen, marks the ways that campuses are working to relate to and work with r/s/s communities that are either self-managing or an extension of a larger nonprofit or r/s/s organization.  This adds those external r/s/s organizations, a third variable, alongside student affairs professionals and chaplains in the contemporary landscape to engage r/s/s in higher education.  These organizations range from significant national or international organizations to resources offered by local religious communities, usually present in a local chapter/club/form/house that offers significant care to students but that is ultimately answerable not to the university but to a board of directors or other external hierarchy.   A part of the importance of these organizations is reflected in the ways that several campuses have been caught up in legal action with them over questions of freedom of speech and freedom of religion.  Simultaneously, the time and energy these organizations give to r/s/s identity groups on campus provide critical support for student communities, support, and engagement at a level that usually cannot be provided by student affairs staff or chaplains.  Relationships with these external organizations are managed (or not) in a diverse array of structures.  Some campuses – both private and public – have almost a wild west feel, in which external religious communities have full access to campus and can run their own programs with or without connection to institutional structures.  Others may limit the access such groups have, require a vetting process for off-campus r/s/s volunteers (usually staff of the external organization, not the college), or even offer fringe benefits (university email addresses, staff discounts to campus events, etc.) for these pseudo-volunteers.

The complexity and potential impact of these two evolutions are exactly why it felt important to me to reflect more thoroughly on why I support the effort to host Convergence in a few weeks: it is critical that we hold we space for these often unintentional collaborators to learn from and about and with one another.   We need to better understand the different types of training, the various (and at times possibly competing) priorities we bring, the tensions and questions that should be present in our shared work to support and care for campus members in ways related to religion, spirituality, and secularity.   While a few days at UCLA won’t answer all these needs, it is a place to begin – to open a conversation not when dealing with religious life professionals being moved into new institutional structures, not when a school is having a difficult process in relationship to an external r/s/s organization, but by our choice, with our intent to build bridges and connections amongst our diverse professional trajectories and personal paths.

This is a beginning.  A coming together.  A convergence.  As the current president of the Association of College and University Religious Affairs, one of the sponsors of Convergence, I hope you’ll consider joining us for this conversation – or at the very least committing to begin it on your own campuses.

Reverend Dave Wright is the University Chaplain/Director for Spiritual Life at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington.  Rev. Wright also is the current president of the Association of College and University Religious Affairs, an active member of the National Association of College and University Chaplains, a member of NASPA, and an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church.  At Puget Sound, he is the co-director of the college's Center for Intercultural and Civic Engagement, a multidisciplinary office that combines intercultural affairs, spiritual life, and civic engagement in a collaborative and intersectional structure.  His other primary areas of involvement include suicide prevention and institutional leadership regarding support for undocumented and DACA students

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