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.”