Seeking a bridge builder: the qualities we should look for in a new chaplain

Not long after filling the position of Jewish chaplain, the chaplain’s office expects another vacancy to appear this December, and another search process to hire the next chaplain to the College. I was honored to serve on the Jewish chaplain search committee last semester, an experience which gave me much insight into the nuances and challenges of chaplaincy at the College. With the rather unique perspective as a chaplain search committee member, and with much experience working with the chaplain’s office, I would be negligent in my commitment to spiritual life at the College if I did not share some of that insight, especially with those tasked with identifying the next chaplain to the College.

I know that many people with stakes in spiritual life at the College have different priorities in choosing the next chaplain. I cherish the organizers of the #preachitforward campaign as good friends who taught me a lot about interfaith dialogue. I do not share my views here to disagree with the goals of that campaign. Rather, based on my own experience, I add my voice to the dialogue around the search process in the hopes of shedding more light on the challenges of spiritual life at the College. We would all agree that it is very important to raise awareness about the search process since, in my experience, many in the College community pay too little attention to religious activities on campus and many students rarely or never interact with the chaplain’s office.

I believe that in order to best serve the needs of the College, the next chaplain to the College must be deeply formed as a Christian pastor, deeply knowledgeable about other religious traditions and committed to engaging with them and deeply prophetic as a witness to the moral imperatives of our time.

First, Christian pastor. According to the job description, the College is seeking an “ordained, or otherwise credentialed, religious professional in one of the Protestant Christian traditions.” While the ceremonial and administrative roles of the chaplain are important, I have come to recognize the specifically religious aspect of the chaplain’s work to be most meaningful.  Many students will encounter the chaplain in the context of individual counseling. Although other qualified professionals at the College can provide students with valuable counseling services, students of all backgrounds need a resource for dealing with questions of faith and spirituality during turbulent college years. The chaplain to the College is not just another counselor, but a distinctly religious figure. A chaplain experienced in spiritual advising is crucial to the wellbeing of students of faith.

A broad diversity of Protestant traditions exists at the College. Navigating it requires a chaplain with great sensitivity to ecumenical relations. The Protestant student organizations, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, the Feast, Ephs for Christ and others, represent students of distinct backgrounds within Protestantism; there are also Protestant students at the College whose specific tradition does not fit neatly into any of the existing groups. The chaplain to the College, though presumably ordained or trained in one denomination, must be enthusiastic and well-equipped to support a wide range of Christian denominations in a spirit of compassionate ecumenism.

Second, committed to interfaith dialogue. One of the most important aspects of the chaplain’s office is the work that the chaplains have done in recent years to build and support a culture of solidarity and mutual understanding among students of different faiths and no faith. In addition to the Christian ministry, the chaplain will also serve the Williams Interfaith community, which brings together students of various faiths, especially those whose religions are not represented by the four chaplains or who may feel marginalized in the existing religious communities at the College. Appreciation for other religious traditions and a commitment to engaging deeply with differences is indispensable to the work of the chaplain. 

Third, prophetic witness. The chaplain to the College, grounded in religious conviction, should speak boldly about moral causes, calling us to fight for social justice and peace. The example and the words of the Chaplain should inspire us to draw close to the suffering and reach out with loving arms to the poor and marginalized. The work of the chaplain should empower us in the difficult task of loving in a world that in many ways is sadly torn apart by hate. 

The chaplain to the College does so much more than preside at Convocation and Baccalaureate; the chaplain is counselor, teacher, pastor, bridge-builder, mentor, friend and more. With my sincere appreciation for the work of the search committee, I offer a prayer of thanksgiving and hope for the future of the chaplain’s office.

David Vascones ’18 is a history and Spanish double major from Queens, N.Y. He lives in Prospect.

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