Service for our souls: Why Macalester needs a chaplain

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When financial support for the Protestant chaplain ran out, students protested thatthe school was taking away their support system. At “Mac Needs a K.P. Hong” meetings, student after student testified that without K.P., they would have left Macalester, that he was “the only one” there for them in tough times.

The entire college is a support system working toward student retention and graduation.Why were students so concerned about this one staff member leaving? Because only a chaplain is guaranteed to be available for all students, specialize in pastoral counseling, and encourage reflection on values and doubt. That’s their job.

Each student has an academic advisor. But a professor specializes in teaching and advising on course selection, major and minor plans, and perhaps career planning. A recent survey of academic advising at Macalester revealed 71percent of students are satisfied with seeking other types of advice from other sources. Students’ satisfaction was most highly correlated with their advisor’s availability in the office or over email. But the system limits quality support: the better of an advisor you are, the more advisees you will attract, and the less time you will have to advise them. Sabbaticals may leave students without an advisor for a year.

The Health and Wellness center and Student Affairs offices welcome all students, but due to time constraints often focus on students in crisis. Students may worry about imposing if all they just want is to reflect with someone.

Resident Assistants are available only to students in dorms. The position’s involvement with campus policy may deter conversation with even the kindest RA. Trained peers can’t compare to experienced mentors. A supportive work-study boss, a pastor off-campus, a host family or a student org advisor is wonderful – if you have them.

Everything else on campus focuses on student success. Mellon Mays helps students of color become professors. Campus Life’s new Mentoring Program pairs students with college staff to develop as leaders. The Daily Piper blasts our ears with resources. If you take initiative, there is no reason for you not to succeed – right? Regardless of your home life or your health, education “is your responsibility.”

So people feel guilty when they fail. Shame can prevent them from reaching out to those same offices or professors that they “should” have reached out to earlier. If you want answers for how to succeed— on job interviews, study away, or volunteering— there’s an office for that. If you can’t even come up with the questions, go to the Center for Religious and Spiritual Life.

The CRSL is often seen as an identity collective for religious students, despite its central role in the college’s mission. Macalester wants to develop world changers, but “global citizenship begins with responsible and reflective local engagement.” Education is a “transformative experience.” Ideally, we practice both inner and outer change. In the classroom, we think critically about world issues. In the chapel, we learn compassion for ourselves and our world despite its issues.

A twenty-year old “Macalester Today” reminds us that conviction has fueled activist work throughout Macalester’s history. When leaders of the French Resistance against the Nazis spoke in chapel, a ’53 alumnus “received an awakening awareness of a hurting world and people with some practical blueprints to get at it.” Mary Ackerman ’70, former dean of students said, “the social issues are huge and real, and students are committed to them, but without the grounding in what gives you the energy, will, and hope to go on, the real nitty-gritty spiritual part of it, the tasks are hard to do. I think we’re going to need that strength to deal with abortion and hunger and plowshares and peace.”

“Faith is the strength by which a shattered world shall emerge into light” read the Helen Keller quote on the last year’s CRSL journal. The religious organization banners along the chapel walls help students ponder what they believe and how it influences decisions. But last semester, students came to the “Worthy Questions” program questioning what Macalester believes in. Amidst all the student-administration tensions last semester, Nola Pastor ’14 says she “lost so much faith in this institution.” The stone cross on the chapel reminds us that our four pillars of internationalism, multiculturalism, scholarship and service to society are built on a Presbyterian church foundation. How does that influence our decisions?

Lucy Forster-Smith is the only endowed chaplain at Macalester. K.P.’s associate chaplain position was funded by “soft money,” never part of the college’s regular budget. Rabbi Barry has always worked part-time in Religious Studies or at another institution. Eily Marlow works out of the Civic Engagement Center. Father Bob was part-time at the University of Minnesota before he was reassigned by the Catholic diocese this summer. MCSG’s resolution from last semester states that Macalester’s Step Forward Campaign (2006-2011) raised $156 million for its top priorities, yet still left students without adequate support.

The CRSL is still trying to be available for students, but losing two of six staff stretches any department. Each member had their role that the others worked to support. For instance, Lucy worked more with college administration and asked K.P. to do more counseling. Now shorter on staff, Sunday Mass and [email protected] are run by visiting community members. The CRSL won’t let administrative duties trump talking to students, but you probably won’t see the chaplains going to football games like Father Bob or visiting you in the hospital like K.P.

Department Coordinator Pattie Lydon has taken this year as a challenge to develop student leadership. Justin Rasmussen ’16 helps lead Sunday night Vespers, Macalester Christian Fellowship and participates in Multifaith Council. Sarah Fleming ’14 leads two religious orgs. Both students also work as Program Assistants in the chapel. While Sarah enjoys learning how to minister to others, with K.P. gone she doesn’t receive much support herself.

Students serving others need to be apprenticed, and need a place to rest. “Remember – our job here is to learn,” as Kathy Murray reminds each incoming class. We cannot be the sole support for our peers when they are going through a mental health crisis, coming out, or dealing with trauma. That’s a chaplain’s job.

It’s not about K.P. anymore. Mac Needs Another Chaplain.