The Collegian
Monday, June 27, 2022

Chaplaincy to redefine itself amid changing school community

It was 1974 when David Burhans became the university's first chaplain, charged by then-President E. Bruce Heilman with attending to the spiritual needs of the university community. The Office of the Chaplaincy was born.

Burhans established a small nondenominational Sunday worship service in the Cannon Memorial Chapel and founded programs for community service, a kind of outreach that what would come to define the chaplaincy's role on campus for the next 30 years before Burhans retired in 2004.

But today, the spiritual component of university life -- including community service -- is being addressed by several offices, meaning the chaplaincy is now being forced to redefine itself as the needs of its community evolve and the University of Richmond continues its rapid transition into a school that caters to an increasingly diverse student body, chaplaincy officials say.

"The chaplaincy is going through a complete reorganization," said acting Chaplain Kate O'Dwyer Randall, who has served in her position for 15 months. "Common Ground and the Center for Civic Engagement are tackling similar, but different issues. And with losing our outreach component (the Bonner Scholars program to the CCE in 2007), we have to redefine what we do."

President Edward Ayers in January appointed a working group of 12 people, including Burhans and several campus ministers, to determine how the chaplaincy could best serve the community. It's accomplishing that by examining chaplaincies at 13 other schools, including Stanford University, Johns Hopkins University and Brown University.

The group's final report -- expected sometime later this summer -- is only a recommendation to Ayers and will precede a search for a permanent chaplain, which could begin this fall. How long it would take to implement the report's findings is still unclear, chaplaincy officials say.

"It was Heilman's vision that the Chaplaincy would be an integral part of academic education," said Burhans, now the chaplain emeritus of the university and a special assistant to the office of advancement. "We need to educate the mind, but Heilman said we also needed to educate the heart.

"It's the chaplain to the university community, not chaplain of the university. That's very important."

The position has a powerful role in university affairs because the chaplain reports directly to the president. There is no requirement that the university chaplain has a doctoral degree or be an ordained minister, O'Dwyer Randall said.

Changes could include hiring a dean for religious life to handle administrative matters and a chaplain to only offer counseling to people in the community, O'Dwyer Randall said, or hiring several chaplains and a dean of the Chapel.

"Chaplain serves faculty, staff, students and alumni," O'Dwyer Randall said. "The person at the head of this organization as an administrator is also on call for 5,000 people. That's impossible. I've done it for a year and a half.

"You can't be a great administrator if you're tending to people, and you can't be a great minister if you're being a great administrator."

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Nationwide, O'Dwyer Randall says, university chaplaincies are wrestling with the same issues as the chaplaincy at the Richmond.

"More outreach is being connected to scholarship," she said. "More and more Centers for Civic Engagement are forming under provosts, which leaves the chaplaincies to say, 'What do we do?'"

O'Dwyer Randall said chaplaincies were also coping with an increase in students' spirituality, but a decline in their allegiance to specific faiths.

"I don't think we [the chaplaincy] are going through an identity crisis," she said. "I think what's happening is that it's kind of the combination for a perfect storm. Spirituality in students is radically different than it was 20 years ago. It's improving, but not denominationally.

"They don't necessarily identify as Catholic or Lutheran, they identify as spiritual. What does it mean to be a person of good character? What does it mean to be ethical? What are moral standards?"

Muhammad Sahli, the university's campus minister for the Muslim League, is a member of the working group. He said the chaplaincy was prepared to work with the whole university community in determining the chaplaincy's direction, but one of the chaplaincy's goals should be to address moral issues.

"In many universities, students don't learn about moral standards and ethical standards," said Sahli, an adjunct professor of chemistry at Virginia Commonwealth University. "The university can provide that guidance without pushing toward a certain religion."

But one thing does seem clear, according to O'Dwyer Randall: A need for the chaplaincy exists.

More than 220 students have visited privately with O'Dwyer Randall, an experienced grief counselor, just this year, she said. That's about a 100 percent increase over last year.

Former President William Cooper appointed O'Dwyer Randall as interim chaplain following former Chaplain Daphne Burt's abrupt departure in Dec. 2006. A search for a permanent chaplain stalled with Ayers' arrival and the need to fill the provost, law school dean and vice president of advancement positions.

Where O'Dwyer Randall will remain at the end of the process is still unclear, but she acknowledged she would like to remain with the university.

"My goal is to be able to continue to pastorally serve the students," she said. "That is my calling. It's what I'm good at. It's what I want to do. It's to teach, to do workshops, to do groups, to do individual groups, to do individual work"

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