Search finds chaplaincy at crossroads

The music is raucous, there is dancing in the aisles, and the band would not be complete without that clarinet. Dozens of polo shirt-clad students clap and stamp their feet singing the refrain.

“I will bless the Lord. Bless the Lord at all times!”

This is the scene at the first All-Campus worship of the 2006-’07 school year, a student-run evangelical service in Battell Chapel. Earlier that day, other Protestant Yalies held a traditional and liturgical service in the same chapel, with wine, but none of the dancing.

These forms of religious expression appeal to just a small part of the religious spectrum at Yale, which encompasses not only a plethora of Christian denominations, but hundreds of Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and those of the Baha’i Faith, among many others. In an increasingly pluralistic era, Yale has spent decades grappling with the question of its administrative approach to religion. In the next several months, many in the campus’ religious community will be closely following what could be one of the pivotal moments in the University’s religious history, as the administration searches for a new chaplain to oversee campus religious life.

This decision to appoint a new chaplain — replacing Rev. Frederick J. Streets DIV ’75, a 15-year veteran in the position — comes at a time of controversy and uncertainty in the Chaplain’s Office. Recent movements toward a multi-faith approach in campus religious life accompany sometimes less visible efforts to maintain awareness of active University-sponsored Protestant ministries, in particular the 250-year-old University Church. Advertisements and job descriptions for the chaplain position have stated that candidates need not be Christian, but while a non-Protestant chaplain would not serve the traditional role of pastor in the University Church, officials have said he or she must respect Yale’s religious history.

“The chaplaincy under my tenure has been to foster this diversity,” Streets said. “It’s not about proselytizing. It’s about caring.”

At stake in the appointment of a new chaplain is the balance between honoring the University’s multi-faith ideology and the University’s traditional links to the Protestant faith, an issue complicated by some Protestants’ wariness of the Chaplain’s Office’s recent shifts toward pluralism. Regardless of his faith background, the new chaplain will face the challenge of continuing to build the University’s multi-faith policy, while remaining true to his own faith and honoring Yale’s Protestant tradition.

Early days

Religion has never strayed far from Yale’s hallowed halls. The second oldest Ivy was first established as an institution “wherein Youth may be instructed in the Arts and Sciences [and] through the blessing of Almighty God may be fitted for Publick employment both in Church and Civil State.”

Yale’s puritan New England roots remain evident in many of the values expressed by the institution today, former sociology professor Michelle Dillion said in a 1999 paper on religion at Yale.

“An emphasis on work ethic, honesty and personal responsibility were all themes that recurred frequently in the interviews with Yale undergraduates and with its faculty and administrators,” she wrote.

While this “Puritan work ethic” may or may not still be in place, the actual nature of institutionalized religion on campus continued to evolve as the school itself grew, adapting to the culture that sprang up around it. The Church of Christ at Yale was established in 1757 because Thomas Clap, the University’s president at the time, decided that the local New Haven First Church was preaching a watered-down doctrine unfit for the proper education of young Yalies.

This founding of a University-based church was the beginning of over a century and a half of required daily chapel for all students at Yale College. The University Church continued to preach the same general Protestant values throughout the rest of the 18th and 19th centuries with the president of the University also serving as pastor until the end of the nineteenth century.

Only in 1926, when a group of students and faculty, along with the college pastor, petitioned the Yale Corporation to abolish required chapel, was the practice ended. Still, in its decision to remove the requirement, the Corporation stated that one of the primary aims of Yale was “to uphold and propagate the Christian Protestant religion.”

In accordance with the Corporation’s wishes, the Office of the Chaplain was created the next year and has remained in operation to this day under a succession of chaplains from various Protestant denominations. During this time, the University Chaplain has also been the head of the Protestant University Church, even as the office itself has shifted its focus gradually toward serving more faiths.

Last year, the University church controversially split from the national United Church of Christ, with which it had been affiliated for almost half a century, a decision intended to extend the church’s appeal to a broader student population. The church is now ecumenical, a term that is often misunderstood, Associate Chaplain Callista Isabelle DIV ’05 said. The church draws on multiple Christian traditions, she said, that are symbolically represented by the group of student deacons who come from a variety of different backgrounds.

“It doesn’t mean that we’re wishy-washy and don’t know what we believe,” she said.

Even while maintaining the flagship University church that continues to serve the Protestant community, the Chaplain’s Office now also seeks to serve the needs of a University looking to attract and serve all of its students, as well as their diverse religious beliefs.

Into a multi-faith millennium

As the University has moved farther and farther away from its Puritan roots, the Chaplain’s Office has embraced far more religions than its founders could have ever conceived. Streets said he has focused on expanding multi-faith activities during his term, establishing the student Multifaith Council while also serving as the pastor of the University church.

The Chaplain’s Office currently works in collaboration with Yale Religious Ministries to assist all campus religious groups, including the Catholic St. Thomas More, the evangelical Yale Students for Christ, and the Buddhist group Indigo Blue.

First encountering the Chaplain’s Office during her freshman year when she went to pick up the keys to the Muslim prayer room, Muslim Students Association President Altaf Saadi ’08 said she has worked closely with the Chaplain’s Office.

“The MSA was and continues to be very closely involved with the Chaplain’s Office also since they are such an important resource to us,” she said. “Whether it’s making arrangements for Ramadan and our holidays, giving us institutional support, or helping out financially with events we put on, they’ve always been there.”

Megan Goldman, the Jewish Campus Service Corps Fellow at the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale, said the diversity of religious life on campus at Yale has struck her since she first arrived on campus this past summer. She said the center receives excellent support from the Chaplain’s Office, developing relationships between staff members at both organizations.

“While it would be impossible to meet the religious needs of every student, Yale strives to do this and seems to succeed most of the time,” she said.

But Saadi said that though she recognizes the amount of support the Chaplain’s Office already provides, she would like to see more efforts extended to students of minority faiths in helping them establish their own communities with other like-minded students. She said she thinks the average Yalie is unaware of the resources the office has to offer.

One of the two recently appointed associate chaplains at the office, Shamshad Sheikh said she has seen a strong and diverse community at Yale that has much to offer students from all traditions. Sheikh said she intends to minister to students from all backgrounds, not just to those from her own Muslim tradition.

But along with the prominence of so many faith-based ministries working on campus comes ambiguity about the place of Yale’s University Church on campus. Goldman said the informal designation of Isabelle as a Protestant associate chaplain, while Sheikh is responsible for all faiths, spurred discussion among some in the campus’ religious community. She said the position of chaplain ought to be independent of a particular ministry in order to achieve a truly multi-faith environment.

“The Chaplain’s Office shouldn’t be taking a stance,” she said. “You need someone who really respects what other religions are doing and is not going to be catering to people of his or her own religion on campus.”

A declining Protestant community

On the other side of the spectrum, as the Chaplain’s Office has increasingly turned its focus toward embracing all faiths, many Protestant Christians on campus have said they feel isolated because they would prefer to attend a church that appears to have a more consistent theology.

Lucas Kwong ’07, former pitch of the Christian a cappella group Living Water, said he has had minimal contact with the Chaplain’s Office since he arrived on campus.

“I never even went to Battell Chapel at the beginning of freshman year, as my parents, who both came to help me move in, were theological bloodhounds and knew a theologically liberal church when they smelled it,” he said.

Settling at a Methodist church relatively unknown to Yale students and far off campus, the United Church of Westville, Kwong said he has appreciated the smaller size of his congregation. He said the church’s vision is to contextualize the Gospel for a post-Christian America.

“At Yale, we believe this means being a church that is passionate about social justice, creativity and intellectual pursuit – a church, in other words, where the average Yalie might feel at home,” he said. “If we are, Jesus will be made known, not through campaigns or marketing, but through authentic relationships with people at Yale.”

While Kwong has found a place in New Haven to practice his faith, Protestants from other backgrounds have struggled to find their place between the evangelicals — supported by various para-church organizations, including Campus Crusade for Christ and InterVarsity — and the University church. Jeffrey Morris ’05 DIV ’07 said he has seen great expansions in services offered to the Catholic community through St. Thomas More and support for the evangelical Christians through the para-church organizations. But he said the University has been lacking in providing support for the Protestants who used to constitute its entire student body.

“By far the greatest deficiency in Yale’s religious life is its lack of offerings for mainline Protestants,” he said. “Only a very few students attend services at Battell Chapel on Sundays, and just two denominations offer small on-campus ministries. The irony of the situation is that, while Yale has quite rightly expanded to provide for all sorts of new religious needs, it has not committed itself to preserving the historic Protestant traditions that gave rise to the University in 1701 and were central to campus life into the 1960s chaplaincy of William Sloane Coffin Jr.”

The difficulty seems to center in the Chaplain’s Office, which is responsible both for the University Church, descended from that first chapel established in 1757, and for all religious ministries on campus. At the head of that massive structure, charged with balancing responsibilities to a church, a tradition and a campus, sits the University chaplain.

A chaplain’s place

The chaplain serves at the discretion of the president of the University, who appoints the chaplain to serve in the position for five-year term.

“The chaplain has a very broad portfolio, is responsible for the general oversight of religious life on campus, coordinating with different groups on campus,” Yale President Richard Levin said. “The chaplain is also responsible for University worship on Sundays in a manner that has a long tradition of having originally been a religiously based school.”

Levin said the chaplain also provides an important source of comfort for students during difficult moments, including student deaths and national tragedies such as the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The position also retains unique ceremonial duties, in contrast to the numerous directors of religious life at other American universities. Erica Brown, assistant chaplain at Northwestern University and president of the National Association of College and University Chaplains, said the chaplain’s position encompasses more than just the administrative duties of organizing the religious calendar on campus.

“It’s part everything you do as a minister, it’s part working with student affairs … [and] it’s part working with all faith traditions on campus making sure everyone’s needs are met,” Brown said.

Also serving as a chaplain at a large, diverse university, Brown said she must maintain a fine balance, remembering one mentor’s advice that on Sunday mornings she was unabashedly Christian but on every other day somewhat less so. But she said it was still important for her to appear strong in her own faith in order to be effective.

“It’s certainly not as easy as it sounds, and it doesn’t sound very easy,” Brown said.

In a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender workshop where one of the participants started vociferously criticizing Christianity, Brown said she struggled to quickly figure out how to best represent her faith under the circumstances. Still, she said staying involved with groups from all different backgrounds and persuasions is essential to fostering an open and accepting community at a university.

“If you hold them at arm’s length, you’re never going to have a chance to find out what it is you do agree on,” she said.

During her time at Yale, Saadi has been involved with the Jews and Muslims discussion group, a model for interaction between faith groups in which she would like to see participation from the chaplain.

“It’s only natural to have a strong connection to your own faith, so I don’t think anyone expects the chaplain to put this important aspect of self aside during his or her chaplaincy,” Saadi said. “I do think, though, that a fair expectation is having that person engage in interfaith activities and dialogue and, even, to attend the religious services of other faiths just so that they can tap into and build an understanding of the many diverse traditions, congregants and students here at Yale.”

Isabelle said the advantage to becoming involved with people from many different faith traditions is that it can actually help a person grow stronger in his or her faith.

“Being surrounded by people of religious beliefs other than your own can help you articulate your own beliefs, while at the same time enabling us to see the common ground shared by various traditions,” she said.

Goldman said Yale should be trying to establish the Chaplain’s Office as a world-class source of religious development. She said that at the head of this office should be a chaplain strong in his or her own faith but also willing to learn from other people’s faith backgrounds, however different they may seem.

“Often the people most committed to multi-faith dialogue are the strongest in their faith,” she said. “I don’t think you have to question your own beliefs to be interested in what others believe.”

Active in Yale Students for Christ and the Yale Gospel Choir throughout her time at Yale, Amy Broadbent ’07 said she did not have much contact with the Chaplain’s Office but felt that the chaplain needed to be accepting of others while remaining firm in his or her own beliefs.

“I think that the chaplain needs to be strong in his or her faith because if he or she is not, then it is almost pointless for the chaplain to be called that,” he said. “Then it would just be a person who is interested in helping students, but not necessarily with a spiritual side.”

Rev. Mark Cartledge, a religion professor at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom who has written on the subject of the modern chaplaincy, said the level of faith expressed by chaplains varies widely from one institution to another. Everyone has some variety of a personal position on matters of faith, he said, and the details of maintaining that identity while serving the needs of the community need to be worked out in each individual situation.

“I am of the position that a chaplain should be true to his or her own theological tradition and convictions and at the same time create a supportive environment for others to express their cultural and religious commitments,” he said. “Obviously there are limits to this, which is the problem: Who defines the limits?”

Seek and ye shall find?

As co-chair of the search committee to find a new chaplain, Divinity School Dean Harold Attridge said he is looking for a person who will function in three areas: as head of the Chaplain’s Office, as a pastoral presence for the University at large, and as a speaker for the fundamental values of the University, which have survived throughout Yale’s history.

The new chaplain may or may not come from a Christian tradition, Attridge said. If Christian, he or she will serve as the pastor of the University Church; if not, the position of pastor will be filled by Isabelle.

“It will send the signal that the University wants to take seriously the idea of religious pluralism on campus,” Attridge said. “There will probably be others who will see that as a loss. Exactly what that relationship will be remains to be seen.”

In searching for a new chaplain, Attridge said the committee will be looking for a person to build on the multi-faith traditions that Streets has begun establishing in the last decade, but he said the candidate will undoubtedly have to balance his or her own faith tradition with the task of developing communication across religious lines.

“You don’t have to abandon other convictions in order to engage in a positive dialogue with others,” Attridge said. “Various Christian and Jewish and other leaders have recognized truth in other religions, even if they are also critical.”

Although the exact nature of the position will not be fully revealed until the new chaplain is installed next July, the University is still committed to supporting a chaplaincy rather than relegating religious life at Yale to the Student Activities Office, Attridge said.

With religion playing an active part in international politics, Brown said religion on university campuses today deserves to be treated with respect, and that supporting the institution of chaplain sends an important message in that regard.

“I think it’s not a given — once upon a time it was, but it isn’t any more,” she said. “It’s a real testament to the University that the chaplaincy will continue.”

According to national statistics, religious faith is alive and well among students on college campuses. Data gathered by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA concerning incoming freshmen in fall 2004 showed 81 percent of students attended religious services occasionally or frequently and 79 percent believe in God.

This national interest in religion and spirituality should be reflected in Yale’s policy, Streets said. The focus of the University should be on developing the student holistically, in mind, body and spirit, he said. In order to reach that goal, proper shepherding of students’ faith should be regarded as much more than just another extracurricular activity.

“The integrity of the institution is founded in caring for the whole person,” he said. “This is not abstract stuff that goes on here.”

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