Rev. Rick Spalding retires from College chaplaincy

After over 17 years, Reverend Rick Spalding will leave his position as chaplain to the College at the end of the semester.

Spalding joined the College’s staff as chaplain to the College and coordinator of community service in the fall of 2000, after moving from Boston. Since then, he has worked with students to engage in conversations across different religious and spiritual spectrums.

When he applied for the job in the summer of that year, Spalding had spent time working at Harvard, which confirmed his desire to work with emerging young adults. He was attracted to the opportunity he saw at the College to work across religious differences.

“By the late ’90s, there was this interest in thinking about how different religious groups interact,” he said. “What does it mean that we’re all here together? Williams seemed ready to engage with that question.”

Coincidentally, Spalding’s partner had grown up in Williamstown, so he had visited numerous times before he was hired as chaplain. For the first few years, the community service aspect of the job dominated his work. As the only staff member dedicated to community service, his job required him to constantly wrangle details: getting vehicles, finding places for students to volunteer and making connections with local schools.

When the College created a more robust infrastructure to support community engagement, including hiring a part-time staff member and then later founding the Center for Learning in Action, Spalding’s focus shifted to the work of chaplaincy. His relationship to the community engagement aspect of life at the College continued through Where Am I!?, the first-year orientation program that he created and supervised, which has run every year since the fall of 2002. With the help of students, Spalding launched the program as an alternative to Williams Outdoor Orientation for Living as First-years (WOOLF) that included community service and a reflective component on that service.

Helping organize First Days has been just a small fraction of Spalding’s work in the College community. He reflects on the job as containing three major parts: pastoral work, sectarian work and general service to the College. The pastoral work involves one-on-one supportive conversations with students. Sectarian work is dedicated to working with the Protestant Christian community, as well as supporting religious communities that don’t have a specific chaplain dedicated to them. Finally, he serves on committees, participates in events, helps handle crises and officiates weddings and memorials.

All three parts have contributed to what he sees as the primary motivation for the concept of chaplaincy.

“The College thinks it’s helpful for students to have people accompany them into the depths of this experience,” he said. “You come to college to figure out who you want to be as an adult. That project generates big questions in people’s lives. The way we do liberal arts doesn’t necessarily give you ways to answer those questions.”

He says education does not come with inherent meaning, and he tries to help students begin to think about how to make meaning for themselves.

Religious perspective can be a helpful lens, Spalding added, but the majority of his conversations with students have not been explicitly religious. He describes them as “supportive, spiritual, ethical.”

Through his work at the College, Spalding says he has developed a new appreciation for the complexity of religious diversity.

“I was attracted to the opportunity to engage across religious differences at Williams,” he said. Through the years he has come to believe that there is no single, underlying theory tying various religious faiths and people together. “I’ve learned that it’s not at all simple. There’s no substitute for hearing each person’s story.”

Father Gary Caster, Catholic chaplain, has worked with Spalding for just over a decade, and he says Spalding’s absence will be a profound change in the chaplain’s office.

“Rick cares deeply about each person with whom he comes in contact, and is the most guileless person I know,” Caster said. “However, Rick’s most beautiful characteristic is that he walks humbly and gently through life. … Rick’s example has touched all the varying dimensions of my work as chaplain, and I truly believe I am a much better person because I have had the privilege of working with him these past 10 and a half years.”

I can say definitively that the opportunity to work alongside Rick represents one of the genuine highlights of the nearly 30 years I’ve spent in higher education,” said Steve Klass, vice president for student life. “When things are broken, there’s simply no one else you want in the room. When something deserves celebrating, there is no one else you want voicing it. When you’re grieving, there’s nobody else you’d rather have present alongside you in that moment.”

Klass added that he had learned tremendous lessons from Spalding. “Rick has taught me the power of silence. It sounds counter-intuitive to say that, given his remarkable mastery of language and peerless public speaking skills but, perhaps, that’s what makes his deft introduction of silence all the more meaningful. Nobody I know is so capable of infusing stillness with as much meaning as Rick.”

Spalding says he is confident in the direction of the College after he leaves, and in the future of the chaplain’s office, including the work of his colleagues. The search process for Spalding’s succesor, led by Dean of the College Marlene Sandstrom, is now already underway.

After he finishes the semester he plans to move to Ipswich, Mass., on the north shore. Though he is uncertain of the exact direction of his plans, whether ecclesiastical, pastoral or in the realm of social justice, he looks forward to new challenges.

“I’m taking a step into open space,he said. “What’s right for Williams has been the defining question of my professional life for years, and I want to try living and maybe working on a different question than that one.”

Comments (3)

  1. shorter than the diatribe you appended to the piece he wrote himself and yet equally egregiously lacking in self awareness. I’m under the impression that this is an institution of higher learning & yet you display levels of mental acuity that would be embarrassing at an elementary level.
    Perhaps this will help you navigate what some of us like to call the adult world.
    Mirriam Webster define the term “bigot” as “a person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices; especially : one who regards or treats the members of a group (such as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance. First Known Use: 1660.”
    You have opinions – fine, we get it. They do you no credit and clearly paint you as a small-minded individual possessed of scant wit and even less intellectual rigour. You would genuinely be better served trying to grasp the wealth of useful and interesting knowledge that you instead deny yourself by fruitlessly trying to insist that everyone become as small-minded as you and your chosen brethren in the forlorn belief that by doing so you will somehow demonstrate your imagined superiority. In your other post you imply that you are knowledgable enough to be in a position to judge the degree to which Rev. Spalding is versed in matters biblical so I’ll assume you’re familiar with the story of the Levite & his concubine – you very much resemble the Levite.
    Should your familiarity with the testament be a little less than you like you suggest, I’ll paraphrase: you are contemptible. Your beliefs do not excuse this. It is possible to believe all that you espouse and still avoid that fate. You have not achieved this feat.
    Please, I literally beg of you, learn. The amount you don’t know is staggering & I can imagine how overwhelmed that must make you feel but remember, the journey of a thousand paces begins with the first.

    1. As an ex-Communist, I’m not sure what more I’m supposed to learn at this point. Does it improve your opinion of me if I report in this space that I used to believe the way you believe and that, over time and study, I have come to believe differently? I don’t think evangelical Christians are the enemy. I feel safer around them than I would around you. Please check out, The Enemies Within (2016). This is a new documentary film that will share with you my perspective and give you a clearer idea about the left and the physical threat it poses to those who love God.

      1. truly all I would have you learn is to keep your ill-informed counsel to yourself. failing that, simply to admit you do not know a great deal of which you nevertheless choose to take as fact. both clearly forlorn hopes as you clearly haven’t the wit or the necessary sense of self-awareness. you’d be better off watching “get me roger stone” if you wish to understand how far off the rails the connection between faith & politics has taken the electorate.

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