Finding a new name not so simple

A pair of hands hoving over the keyboard of a laptop
 on March 30, 2023

On the campus where I work, there’s an ongoing conversation about the name of the Campus Chaplains’ Association. There are about 30 chaplains at the University of Toronto, roughly half from various Christian denominations, and others from the Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh and Muslim traditions, an Indigenous Elder, and representatives of the Pagan and Humanist communities at the university. Some of us are attached to colleges, others to national or international networks or student faith groups; some are salaried, while others are part-time volunteers. We meet regularly to share what we’re doing, to coordinate with the programming of the Multifaith Centre and the university’s Student Life division and Health and Wellness Centre, and to discuss our individual and collective concerns. Periodically, we come back to the question of what we call ourselves: we’ve all realized, from our conversations with students, that for many of them the word “chaplain” has little or no resonance beyond, perhaps, a vague impression of military or prison chaplaincy from films and TV. But what other name would work? We’re well aware that many hospitals have dropped the term “chaplain” and replaced it with “spiritual care provider,” but that somehow doesn’t seem quite adequate to our context, and we haven’t yet come up with a substitute term.

Of course, it’s hard to describe everything that academic chaplains do. Last September, during orientation week, I made up a poster for an information table with my contact information and the question, “What does a chaplain provide?” Underneath I listed things like “spiritual and emotional support,” “a listening ear,” “religious services (in the Anglican Christian tradition),” “connection to other resources on campus,” and “simple answers to complex questions – yeah, no, but I’m happy to explore those questions with you.” That last one opened up some interesting conversations, but mostly I wanted students to file it away for later.

Sometimes, I describe university chaplaincy in two categories: the things chaplains do on their own, for individual students or specific groups, and the things we do together. Individually, we support students in crisis (and refer to mental health specialists when the issue is beyond our scope of practice), and provide space for those dealing with personal grief, academic stress and international tragedies, like the Russian invasion of Ukraine or the recent earthquakes in Türkiye and Syria. Sometimes people ask whether end-of-term is a particularly busy and stressful time for chaplains, and I have to admit that it isn’t, usually – most students throw themselves into the writing and exam preparations their courses require, and the consequences are felt later. That’s when the conversations about handling pressure, accepting failure, trying again or changing direction tend to happen, and many of those conversations are impromptu exchanges rather than planned appointments. Of course, I offer liturgies (in Trinity College’s lovely neo-Gothic chapel) and other chaplains do the same, often in the beautiful shared space of the Multifaith Centre.

All of that fits with traditional expectations of chaplaincy, but what the chaplains do together might be less familiar. We gather leaders of student faith groups for conversation over shared meals, sponsor Indigenous solidarity events like the KAIROS blanket exercise, and support and participate in countless student-organized conversations on topics like “Distinctive religious garb – what does it mean in your tradition?” or “How does your tradition respond to interfaith relationships?” One of our most important ongoing projects is the “Dying and Death” seminar, an inter-disciplinary event for students in the health sciences professions, which now happens several times a year. Students from medicine, nursing, social work, pharmacy and other therapeutic fields have the opportunity to listen to specialist speakers from the palliative care and spiritual care professions, and then participate in small discussion groups facilitated jointly by a chaplain and a health-care professional. These have been among my most satisfying experiences as a university chaplain, knowing that we are helping students to think in new ways about spiritual and emotional questions that are rarely addressed in their training, but which will be enormously important in their healing vocations.

Sometimes chaplains have to advocate, not just for individual students in crisis but also when institutional policies (or lack of policy) foster discrimination against groups within the university community. We respond to instances of racism and sexual violence in our own community and in the wider world, and many of us are engaged in environmental and social justice activism of various kinds. We support and mentor student outreach projects. All in all, we try to bring a spiritual perspective into students’ experience of university life, offering insight and solidarity, combining the wisdom and grounding of tradition with an openness to exploration and questioning. We try to exemplify unity in diversity, and to be faithful to our own traditions while welcoming to all. And the conversation about what to call ourselves continues…


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