Female chaplains now in majority at schools in synod
by David Lewellen | Special to Presbyterian News Service
ST. PAUL, Minn. — Church ties may be looser and students may be less religious than in past generations, but most Presbyterian colleges and universities still believe in the role of a campus chaplain.
Within the past year, two Presbyterian schools in the upper Midwest have filled vacancies, committing institutional resources to giving students spiritual guidance.
At the University of Jamestown in North Dakota, the student body is mostly Lutheran, Catholic or unaffiliated, and “we’ve never had 5 percent who were Presbyterian,” said President Robert Badal. But “the chaplain is there for all of our students. We want to provide them with religious meaning.”
“I’m thrilled to serve at a Presbyterian institution where the theology of the church can be lifted up and honored,” said the Rev. Dr. Candace Adams, who started as the new chaplain at Jamestown shortly before the current school year got underway. “I’m privileged to have the opportunity to work with young adults. I listen to their story and we say, ‘Where is God’s story in that?’”
The school has only 1,100 students, and many other positions are competing for resources, but restoring the full-time position of a campus pastor “may go down as one of the better decisions I’ve made as president,” said Badal, who has led Jamestown for 18 years and plans to retire at the end of February.
At Carroll University in Waukesha, Wisconsin, “I absolutely love my job,” said the Rev. Elizabeth McCord, who has just finished her first full year. “It’s still hard to believe that God gave me this gift to work in this environment.”
Working with undergraduates at a fluid, fertile time of their lives, “it’s so exciting to watch that and be involved in that,” McCord said. “There’s a lot of life and energy and joy for me to partner with people on campus and people in the community. It’s really rewarding and enriching to me.”
She is particularly enthusiastic about working with the “spiritual but not religious,” or those who come to campus with no faith background. “I encourage people to lean into whatever tradition they’ve had,” she said. “They’ve heard different things from the culture or the media or their friends, and they’re very open and curious.”
The appointments of McCord and Adams put women in the majority of chaplains at the seven Presbyterian-related colleges and universities in the Synod of Lakes and Prairies. Women also fill chaplain slots at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where the Rev. Kristin Hutson, serves, and at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, where the Rev. Kelly J. Stone fills the chaplain post.
McCord came to Carroll from a position at San Francisco Theological Seminary. Although her background is Presbyterian, she was ordained in the United Church of Christ because she was married to another woman, before the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) changed its stance on the issue.
“My whole experience of being nurtured and trained in the Presbyterian world is very important to my ministry,” McCord said. “But the UCC is a refugee community from other denominations. Arms wide open, come on in. I consider myself bidenominational.”
Adams comes to Jamestown from Spicer, Minnesota, where she was pastor of Hope Presbyterian Church. In addition to leading weekly chapel services and supervising campus ministry groups, her job also entails helping students find service opportunities in the community through the school’s Journey to Success program, a cross-curricular approach to developing students’ whole persons.
Adams and her husband adopted six children out of foster care, who are now ages 19 to 37 — “so I’ve been ministering to young adults for years,” she said with a laugh. “But they gave me what I needed to know about college life.” And for an extra dose, because she moved before buying a house, she has begun the college year living in an apartment complex with juniors and seniors.
At Carroll, McCord has started a Sunday afternoon service of music, scripture and prayer that is “worship, although the students prefer not to call it that. … Essentially, it’s church planting on a college campus.”
Although she loves traditional churches and worship, “to young people, meaningful church experience is a chance to be in community, to sit down and have a meal together, to talk about faith.”
As legacy churches shrink and age, “how do we redirect those resources to new churches and to young people in church? How do we communicate the spiritual resources of our elders, and honor those traditions and stories and experiences, and link them to the new church movement?”
She has more questions than answers, but “God put me in this space where I can do this work.”
Support from the Milwaukee Presbytery has been invaluable, she said. “They pray for us, and I pass that on to them — there are people off this campus who don’t know you personally but are praying for you.”
She added, “For me, education and Presbyterianism are intertwined. I went to seminary because I had a college chaplain who nurtured me.” At Carroll, “I think the Presbyterian identity is important. It helps us claim the values of holistic education. I can’t imagine doing campus ministry at a non-Presbyterian school.”
David Lewellen is a freelance writer based in Glendale, Wisconsin. He writes frequently for the Synod of Lakes and Prairies.
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