College and University Chaplaincy in the 21st Century:
A Mutlifaith Look at the Practice of Ministry on Campuses Across America

Edited by Rev. Dr. Lucy A. Forster-Smith
Woodstock, VT: SkyLight Paths, 2013


Nineteen chaplains collaborated on this book in order to “encourage a new generation of chaplains on campus and… enable colleagues [in both higher education and diverse religions] to know more about the enterprise of supporting a spiritually longing generation of students.”[1] These female and male authors come from a range of religious and racial backgrounds, but they are united in their awareness of how chaplaincy has changed over the last half century and the importance of developing new, vital models for their work. This is not a “how to” book; rather the author of each chapter offers a personal narrative and examples of his or her work in order to contribute to the greater whole of the volume’s scope. Essentially, the book seeks to inform others and justify the work of chaplains to others, and, as such, it does not set out a new agenda for chaplaincy per se as much as it provides examples of possible modes for chaplains in the twenty-first century.


The book organizes these reflections on chaplaincies into four parts in order to provide a general structure and to identify some overall themes. It moves from discussions of historical changes through the opportunities and challenges of religious pluralism to the ways in which chaplains serve in unfamiliar ways or outside of clear, traditional categories.

Part I, “Chaplaincy in a Changing World,” explores ways in which today’s chaplains find themselves in very different circumstances from their predecessors. Chaplains can no longer assume a privileged place on campus. Religious, racial, sexual, social-economic, and national diversity, the “secularization” of American culture, and transformations within higher education all combine to require chaplaincy to become creative and adaptive as well as faithful.

Part II, “ Multifaith Chaplains, Multifaith Campuses,” helps the reader to understand how complicated and rich chaplaincy can be in these new circumstances. Chaplains have the privilege of helping to expand the vision of students, guiding them to see that understandings of “community,” “church,” and “world” are in need of constant refinement.

Part III, “A Heart for the Community,” presents four chapters on the ways in which chaplains comfort, challenge, or reshape their academic communities. A pilgrimage, dissection lab, or memorial service – each of these can become opportunities for forming or transforming a student body.

The chapters of Part IV, “Caring at the Crossroads,” share a profound awareness of what chaplains are called to do as students leave their families and their familiar sources of identity and are compelled to ask “Who am I?” in new, often dramatically diverse, even liminal social contexts.

Part V, “The Chaplain and the Secular,” emboldens chaplains to be strong advocates for public discourse about faith commitments and religious practices even though chaplains are often “in the odd position of being hired to tend to a dimension of human experience that is widely understood within our hiring institutions as implausible.”[2]


The diverse authors recognize that every chaplaincy is distinct not only because of the unique characteristics of each chaplain but also because every college and university setting is different. Nevertheless, some themes are widely shared, such as creating meaningful places for communal observance or private conversation, and finding one’s own voice as being essential to helping students find theirs. Consequently, the intrinsic value of narrative is widely shared by these authors. Further, they are energized by the challenges and opportunities of the reality of religious pluralism on campuses and in the country.


Given the range of authors and religious traditions represented in the volume, and given the fact that chaplains serve students of all traditions (including no tradition), the authors choose to function in what might be called a “generous inter-religiosity.” Each religion is to be respected on its own terms with its own inner logic and frames of reference. The work of chaplains is not to convert as much as it is to clarify and refine what is already present in the student’s life. Consequently, tolerance and respect for diversity (including sexual diversity) are critical virtues and social norms. Indeed, in interreligious contexts, social norms can sometimes be more emphasized than theological norms.

In general, the theological anthropology underlying these chapters could be characterized as optimistic and progressive. The advisor to this collaborative writing project, Sharon Daloz Parks, has developed the idea of the “worthy dreams” held by young adults. Students, in other words, are brimming with potential for the good. Essentially, they require guidance and challenging experiences to bring this out (thus the book tends not to address specific difficult issues in detail as will be discussed below).

The authors wisely exhibit a “both/and” approach to theology. Instead of seeking to ground their ministries in an inoffensive generic universal religion, they embrace the tension of being both a representative of a specific tradition and a person responsible for the well-being of students regardless of their religious affiliation. Denominationally-specific campus ministries also welcome and work with students of all backgrounds, but the leaders of such programs tend to ground their work more explicitly in denominational identity and commitments. Consequently, religious and theological differences are indeed significant, but not ultimate – conflicting beliefs are inevitable but no one’s salvation is at risk for not believing or doing the right thing.


The aim of the book is to help others make sense of what chaplaincy is and can become in the absence of familiar paradigms and job descriptions. Church pastors and academic colleagues may not have any idea what a chaplain actually does, and chaplains themselves sometimes struggle to determine what the priorities for a day’s work should be. In the process, the book’s narratives provide examples of what innovative, boundary-pushing chaplains can do in what one author believes is a time of “remarkable freedom.”[3] Although this is not a “how to” book, one learns a great deal about how to be a chaplain from this book. I find myself rethinking practical realities such as student mourning, study abroad programs, and how to adapt rituals.

This is a very encouraging book, especially for Presbyterians concerned about the future of mainline Christianity, because it reminds us that college students are in fact hungry for a meaningful religious life in communion with others. Although many churches and presbyteries have not sustained collegiate ministries, chaplains and campus ministers are adapting to new circumstances and guiding college students in meaningful ways. We do not have to wait until young people get married and have kids before “coming back to church” – we can instead see that they are already worshipping and serving on the campus down the street. This book will help chaplains’ colleagues and future chaplains understand not just what chaplains do but also how their work shapes students, higher education, and the future of America’s religions.


Taken as a whole, the volume has a number of significant strengths. For example, the narrative approach of the chapters repeatedly underscores the critical requirement of studying the history of a ministry and its setting. Further, because chaplains live in the “both/and” of their personal religious commitments and their engagement with other traditions, they are able to help others see how being “interreligiously religious” leads us to deepen our own beliefs, not dampen them.[4]

Further, specific chapters strike me as particularly significant. Sohaib N. Sultan notes that as colleges and universities are creating Muslim chaplaincies, he and his colleagues are at the beginning of a new presence on American campuses: “Every decision we’re making feels historic.”[5] How Islam becomes a larger, more visible part of the American public square, including academia, is one of the critical questions of the next decade.

Rabbi Rena S. Blumenthal offers a critical warning of “the often superficial interreligious models that we tend to fall back on.”[6] Indeed, her discussion about the ways in which Judaism includes a distinctive combination of history, culture, race, religion, faith, and spirituality reminds us that terms such as “faiths” or “religions” are not neutral terms for a set of phenomena that Christianity, Judaism, etc. all have.

There are places where more seems needed. A book on chaplaincy in the twenty-first century needs richer discussions in three areas: war, sexual violence, and technology. Each of these is transforming higher education in the 21st century.

Today’s students can barely remember a time when the country was not involved in armed conflict. The critical years of their formation include periodic terror attacks (not to mention active shooters on campus). Some campuses (such as mine) have strong ROTC or veterans programs, and others have significant international student populations creating not only religious diversity but also the potential for hostility. While 9/11 finds mention in some of the chapters, the ongoing effects of America’s response need more explicit discussion. What does it mean to be chaplains and educators in a country perpetually at war?

Although the authors of the book discuss how their work has changed because of the presence of LGBTQ students, faculty, and staff, rarely do they explore the topic of sexual violence on campuses. As I write, news outlets and social media are following the unfolding story of the Stanford rape case, the latest of a series of high-profile crimes. Since chaplains tend to be exempt from mandatory reporting requirements now required under Title IX, we (along with some others, such as school counselors) occupy an important space on campus where students can talk about traumatic events without triggering a formal investigation. A more robust discussion on the topic of sexual violence could have helped chaplains think critically about this important topic.

Finally, technological changes such as the advent of the smart phone and 24/7 social media, the preponderance of videogames, and the ready access to pornography need further consideration. Chaplains need to think more substantively about these issues since they have the potential to reduce our students’ capacities for basic human interaction. The effects do not have to be completely negative – but a transformation is happening, and young people desperately need guidance.

Although the authors collaborated on this book, critical engagement with each other’s ideas does not come through explicitly, and one wants a synthesis of the rich material. There are good, useful individual insights, but the book, as a whole, does not hang together as well as it could. To be fair, part of this is due to the fact that chaplaincy’s variables include the nature of diverse institutions and the personality and training of the individual chaplain (not to mention his or her religion, race, sex, etc.). This means that there will likely be extraordinary variations in chaplaincy across higher education, perhaps too many to include in one volume.


[Review by David Keck]

[1] Forster-Smith, L. A., College and University Chaplaincy in the 21st Century, xvii.

[2] Ibid., 255.

[3] Ibid., 60.

[4] Ibid., 225.

[5] Ibid., 40.

[6] Ibid., 118.