(This story first appeared in the September issue of the Anglican Journal.)
For all its benefits, university can be an unsettling experience for young adults. Some are living away from the familiar shelter of home and community for the first time. Some will encounter ideas that shake their long-held religious beliefs, while others will be struggling with their sexual identity. Life on campus is hardly the lighthearted “Gaudeamus igitur” experience of collegiate song. Most students will face a phalanx of competing pressures: high tuition, academic and extracurricular conflicts, and peer and family expectations.
Enter university chaplaincy services, multi-faith islands of calm dedicated to the spiritual care and development of students. Often poorly funded and unable to offer secure contracts, academic chaplaincies attract a unique type of mentors who provide one-on-one pastoral care not offered by a college’s secular counsellors and health-care professionals.
“Approximately two-third to three-quarters of my time is taken up with pastoral counselling for residents and off-campus students-as well as staff and faculty,” says the Rev. Megan Collings-Moore, for eight years the Anglican chaplain at Renison University College, an Anglican affiliate of Ontario’s Waterloo University.
Today, most chaplains will tell you that dealing with student mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder is an increasing part of their role, and as funding for student health stagnates or drops at some schools, chaplains are more important than ever. “Last year I did a lot of triage for suicidal ideation,” says Collings-Moore. “University Counseling Services is frequently overwhelmed, and chaplains pick up the slack or help students manage until they can see a counsellor.”
To help forestall psychological distress, Collings-Moore provides chapel space where students can enjoy tranquility and listen to their inner voices. “Students are never solitary. They are always attached to their friends and family via their phones or laptops. So I provide a quiet area in the chapel with candles and cushions and encourage them to take time apart.” In addition to offering safe and comfortable hospitality at the chaplaincy drop-in centre, she opens the chapel to stress- and depression-easing sessions of mindfulness meditation.
A singularly rewarding aspect of her work at Renison-the site of Waterloo’s English as a second language program-is counselling the college’s many international students. “I do also help them make connections with chaplains from their own traditions, but often students are exploring faith issues, and it can be easier to do that with someone who is not connected to their own tradition,” says Collings-Moore.
At the University of Alberta, in Edmonton, the Rev. Richard Reimer, a Lutheran chaplain, echoes her point that student mental health is a growing issue. “Students are sometimes referred to me by staff members of faith at the university’s counselling services, and we work together in a complementary fashion,” he says. “A chaplain can help them weather the demands of the university and society, pressures from their families and their own demands on themselves,” he says. He strongly believes in helping students learn to breathe in the Christian tradition of breathing prayer or breath prayer-for example, the formulaic Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner.”
Throughout his chaplaincy, Reimer has been an outspoken advocate for the full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students in the life of the church. “There have been threats from some groups to withdraw financial support for what detractors have called a ‘pro-gay gospel,’ but it is part and parcel of the prophetic mantle of Christian ministry to advocate for the LGBTs community.” By prophetic mantle, he means the social implications of the gospel based on Jesus’ unconditional inclusion of lepers and sinners. “If we attach any condition, we make it less than the God’s gospel,” Reimer says.
For Reimer, who spends quite a bit of time raising half the money to sustain his underfunded ministry, the chaplaincy provides a community of faith-whose outstanding feature is constant peer support-amid the struggles of campus life. “Something happens organically, so students don’t get to the point where they are so stressed they break down,” he says. “It becomes a peer-to-peer ministry in which faith is an integral part of spiritual maintenance.”
In Saskatoon, the Rev. Emily Carr is testimony to chaplaincy’s often precarious financial footing. For two years, the former youth minister served as an ecumenical (Anglican, Presbyterian, United) chaplain at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon. But after she and her wife adopted a baby girl, she had to become a parish incumbent. “I loved the job, and I want to see campus chaplaincy grow. But the funding was not there. The position was just 20 hours a week for nine months a year, and I needed something more stable,” she says.
She notes that while some chaplaincies such as Roman Catholic and fundamentalist Protestant are often well funded, that is not the case for the mainline services that share the university’s code of ethics and can therefore fully support campus programs such as women’s health.
She remains, however, a staunch supporter of campus ministry and its unique mentoring role. “Chaplains are not like professors or administrative employees of the university. They’re not marking them; we don’t want money from them. So we can be more objective than others on campus,” she says.
That is especially important at this pivotal time of life exploration when young people must consider their larger life picture, unencumbered by the expectations of others. “Students are starting to feel out what kind of person they want to be, what their priorities are, and chaplains can help sort out those things,” says Carr.
Collings-Moore agrees: “Students have told me that frequently the chaplain is the only person on campus asking the big questions about what it means to lead a good life, or which values matter, so I think the perspective the chaplain provides is helpful. These are questions that the faith community can participate with them in.” Even providing a convenient nearby place of worship is a valuable service to new students disoriented by a strange city.
Moving from working with at-risk youth, Carr was shocked at the widespread incidence of anxiety and depression on campus and how quickly the excitement and optimism of September evaporate with the grind of university life. “I was expecting everyone to be happy,” she says. She recalls the case of a tall, good-looking, well-dressed young man who came to her office. “He looked like the captain of the football team and I asked myself, ‘What’s he doing here?’ Then he sat down and he just began to weep and [he] talked about his problems-his academic program, his family and all the drinking he was doing as part of campus culture.”
In her two years, Carr married students and presided at student funerals. “Chaplains are called when there’s a death on campus or a rape, and we can help by participating in conversations about these,” she says. Chaplaincy may also serve as an unofficial triage service, directing troubled students to therapy. But for her, the main benefit is the creation of community: bringing students together in a safe, supportive and eclectic environment for sharing food and having discussions.
At Dalhousie University in Halifax, Clement Mehlman has been an unordained Lutheran chaplain for 16 years. Mehlman, who taught English for 31 years before training for the chaplaincy, feels certain students may feel more comfortable with an unordained adviser. “I’ve always been interested in spiritual direction, but I’ve resisted the pedestal,” he says with a laugh.
He sees his role as that of a servant and takes his philosophy of chaplaincy from a Michigan minister who advised her colleagues not to form groups that students would feel guilty about not attending, but to find out what students are working on and join them in their work. “So one of my first acts was to send a note to the president of Be Glad, the bisexual, gay and lesbian group on campus, saying I’d like to meet,” he said. Today that gesture has evolved into a 170-plus network of students, staff and faculty that strongly supports the LGBT community.
Another high point of his chaplaincy was raising the funds to bring seven family members of one of his African students to Halifax.
Mehlman, too, has met students who were depressed to the point he worried they might take their own lives. Although he’s been able to intervene in a positive way, he doesn’t try to give therapy. “I don’t solve these problems, but I connect a person with an appropriate caregiver. And counsellors refer students to me.”
Ultimately, chaplains cannot take away the stress of campus life. But they can walk with students and help them navigate it-and be there as they wrestle with the big questions of where they want to go in life. And as student mental health issues overwhelm secular counselling services, the healing guidance of chaplains is more essential than ever.