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Concerning The Soul

May 27, 2008


By Jeff Brown

There's no hiding Baylor's commitment to its Christian heritage; a simple stroll across campus shows the University's Baptist roots,

from the Scriptures chalked and engraved on sidewalks and chiseled in the design of buildings like Pat Neff Hall and the Baylor Sciences Building, to the many chapels and prayer gardens, to Truett Seminary's prominent location on the north side of campus.

But spiritual development at a university requires more than buildings and gardens; it takes intentional effort on the part of everyone, from administrators to professors to students. As an institution, the University provides students with opportunities for corporate worship and inspiration, small group Bible study and discipleship, and outlets for local and international missions and ministry. Baylor's Department of Spiritual Life, headed by new University Chaplain Burt Burleson, BA '80, is the centerpoint for such activities.

Chapel:

"Here's who we are at Baylor"

When he was hired last fall, Burleson quickly set to work reshaping the Chapel program, since Chapel often serves as a student's introduction to the other programs Spiritual Life has to offer. A staple at Baylor since the University's founding, through the years Chapel has taken on many forms.

"Back in the '70s and '80s, we had sort of moved away from the notion of it being a sacred time; it was called Forum," says Burleson. "We began to see a movement back in the '90s where we said, 'Shouldn't worship have a place on campus?' I think there's a need for there to be a steady voice at the microphone. Not just my own, but something saying 'Here's who we are at Baylor.'"

Burleson points out that requiring Chapel attendance sends a message to students that Baylor is a Christian institution that believes worshipping God is important. In addition to two mandatory semesters of religion classes--generally Christian Scriptures and Christian Heritage--students are required to take two semesters of Chapel, which meets for 45 minutes twice a week. Monday Chapel services are more open and informal, featuring topical speakers; Wednesday's Chapels are all about worship, in all its forms.

"It was pretty clear [when I started] that the school was dealing with how to make Chapel both appealing to students and yet something that stretches them a little bit and raises their understanding of what worship can be," Burleson says. "So what we're trying to do is something that connects with where students are, but also connects them to the larger Church."

Connecting to students where they are also means understanding where they are coming from. Baylor students today arrive from across a spectrum of backgrounds and denominations with differing styles of worship and practice, even among students coming from Baptist churches.

That diversity is reflected in the Chapel experience, which intentionally varies from week to week, says Ryan Richardson, MDiv '04, associate chaplain and director for worship. Every Wednesday service will include singing and a sermon, but the format will change--a traditional Baptist service one week, a more orthodox element the next week (such as corporate reading of a scripture or prayer), and perhaps a gospel choir or contemporary worship band leading out the following week.

"I'm not sure I'm concerned that students remember what all of our speakers say, or all the songs we sing," Richardson says. "I'm just concerned that they remember that we worshipped, and that we came together as the body. If they glean from their time in Chapel that we cared about their spiritual development, and that we cared to put nutritious spiritual food before them, I think that maybe the intent is where the lesson lies. That they would know that people cared deeply about their spiritual development, and more importantly that they would know that at the center of all we did was Christ."

Junior Curtis Schroeder understood that message during his time attending Chapel.

"It wasn't a surface-level spirituality preached by each speaker; they really challenged me in different areas of my life," he says. "Being in a place where you know that more than likely the guy to your left and the girl to your right have some sort of relationship with Jesus Christ and being able to share a church experience with them in a school setting was refreshing as a public school kid."

"I think the worship itself has the potential of forming students and impacting the church," adds Burleson. "So if they grew up in a church where worship is primarily centered in more emotional experience, to be in a place that engages the mind in worship as well would be a very significant thing. They are challenged to think differently about Scripture. That may impact their experience in church life here at Baylor, but it also has the potential to impact Baptist life. We're trying to plant seeds about what it means to worship God."

Resident Chaplains:

"If there hadn't been somebody there..."

Once planted, those seeds often begin to sprout back in the residence halls, where the resident chaplain program provides students with someone to talk to about faith and life. Truett Seminary students are placed in every residential facility to serve as a pastor to the undergraduates who live there; in return, the chaplains receive a stipend, an apartment in the hall, and the chance to put what they learn in the classroom to use in real-life situations.

The resident chaplain program was launched in 2001 as part of the Baylor Horizons project and funded through a grant from the Lilly Endowment. Baylor Horizons allowed the University to enhance its efforts in helping students examine the relationship between their faith and vocational choices and find opportunities to explore Christian ministry as their life's work. With the Lilly grant set to expire next year, Burleson says that the University will continue to financially support the resident chaplains, but hopes that an endowment could eventually fund this and additional pastoral programs.

"The resident chaplaincy program is so valuable because you're living life day in and day out with a community of people," says Marquette Bugg, now in her second year as resident chaplain for Collins Residential Hall. "There's nothing quite like it, honestly, when pastoral care situations occur. For example, last year, we had a student die in a car collision. When we found out at 2 o'clock in the morning, there was somebody in the building, somebody who knows the building. I knew the student who died, I knew her friends. You're ready and available if something like that occurs."

Getting to know the students can come in many forms. It may be as simple as sitting down together for a meal in the cafeteria, or as 21st-century as finding common interests via Facebook Web pages. Either way, it's all about building relationships so that when the big life questions arise, students have someone there who they can turn to, someone with a little more training and a little more life experience who they can talk things over with.

"My family was in the middle of a very nasty divorce as I came to college," says junior Reagan Marble, who has spent the past two years in Penland Residential Hall. "My faith was hanging on by a thread, and I wanted nothing to do with God or religion. I didn't want to pursue a relationship with the same 'God' that did this all to my family. But C-Mack [resident chaplain Christopher Mack] helped facilitate the restoration of my faith. Through multiple late night conversations, he helped me realize that what happened wasn't because God was out to get me. He helped me see what good was in it all, and helped me understand that sometimes God has a plan that we are unable to comprehend."

Bugg tells the story of a girl who showed up at her door and wanted to talk, but was hesitant to reveal the reason. After a bit of conversation, Bugg realized that her student was lost in depression and had plans to commit suicide. Eventually, Bugg convinced the girl to hold off on her plans and see a counselor.

"We're a year down the road now, and that girl, it's like a night-and-day victory story, watching her come out of a place that was so incredibly dark and difficult to have some redemption," Bugg says. "The Holy Spirit took something so broken, and now there's healing and restoration. She is different. And if there hadn't been somebody there, I don't know where she'd be. That sounds dramatic, but I don't know. She might have found somebody else, but I don't know that she would have found a 24-year-old seminary student with some experience."

By living in and among the students, the resident chaplains are able to interact with the students around them in ways that a single University chaplain could never approach.

"Just a few days ago, a student text-messaged me out of the blue, who I really hadn't talked to in several months," says Mack, now in his third year in Penland. "He said, 'My life's kinda going down the tubes, things aren't going really well. I made a lot of bad personal decisions recently. I really need you to help me out; can we meet? Can we talk?' There wasn't a program; I didn't ask, 'Hey, anybody who feels their lives are going down the tubes, sign up for this weekend retreat' or anything. But this student felt like he knew who I was, and there was enough buy-in to what the resident chaplain's position is at Penland and who I am to think, 'I can trust this person with this information.' And so they reached out and made a contact."

"As I've become these people's friend, I've also gotten a piece of authority from them," says Honors College resident chaplain Brett Gibson, BA '02, who has served the students in Memorial and Alexander Residence Halls the past two years. "They trust me not just as a friend, but as a pastor kind of figure. So as situations come up, they actually call me, or come over, or they e-mail me. They want me to minister to them; they know that they're in a place where they need that kind of spiritual guidance. There's something about the ministry of presence, of just being a presence that represents God, that represents something bigger, that seems to help."

"There's a student right now who I'm reading through Mere Christianity with, and he describes himself as an agnostic," Mack says. "That's not the type of opportunity you're going to get in other ministry situations, but he happens to live not too far from where I am. We know each other, we hang out, we watch Heroes together, so it's not just that we're always getting together to have deep, heady theological discussions. We're just living life together, and an important part of my life is my faith. He feels comfortable enough around me to be willing to say, 'Yeah, I'll explore some of that and allow you to share some of that with me.'"

"We are demonstrating a lifestyle," echoes Bugg. "I wrote on the inside of my door the other day, the side in my apartment, 'My life speaks my theology. What are you saying about God?' That's why I'm in that building. I get to demonstrate who I think Christ is. I get to demonstrate how I believe we are intended to live, as believers. I think that's what it's about. My life speaks my understanding of God, and I get to live that day in and day out in front of students."

"The resident chaplain program is, I think, one of the most important things that Baylor has done in the last 10 years in terms of spiritual formation," says Gibson, whose wife, Christina, BA '01, also served as a resident chaplain during the program's initial stages. "Baylor is wanting to maintain that Christian identity, and I think placing resident chaplains in these residence halls really gives them the opportunity to have those conversations about what it means to be not just a really good doctor, but what it means to be a doctor who follows Christ, or what it means to be a lawyer who follows Christ. How can I put those things together? I think the resident chaplain program and what we are able to do in that position fosters that kind of conversation that wouldn't be happening otherwise."

"I hope that I've facilitated my students in taking that next step. If the next step is for them to realize that Christianity is not the way they've always thought it is, then I hope maybe I've been able to engage them in some dialogue and plug them into some resources that can help them think, 'Well, what could faith look like?'" Mack says. "If the next step for them is to get more serious about their faith, I hope I've given them some resources that can help them do that. I'd like to be able to say I was someone who helped them make that next step in their life."

Missions:

"Developing leaders for worldwide service"

For many students, that next step is putting their faith into action. Rebecca Kennedy is the associate chaplain and director for missions, and her office works to find ways that students and faculty can help those in need outside of campus.

In recent years, Baylor's focus has shifted from general ministry teams to discipline-specific trips, where students can use what they've learned in the classroom to fill a particular need. A group of engineering students recently went abroad to install water purification systems, while a team of social work and religion students is headed to Rwanda this summer to work with women and children there.

"It makes sense on a college campus, because you have faculty who are experts in their field who are readily available to lead mission trips," Kennedy notes. "It supports the Baylor mission perfectly: developing leaders for worldwide service. And we should be doing it, because of our Baptist heritage. We have this long tradition, 400 years, where missions has been at the focus of Baptist life."

In some instances, an agency or missionary contacts Baylor looking for assistance. In other cases, faculty and staff initiate the trip. Dr. Susan Matlock-Hetzel followed the latter path. She and her husband, Dr. Roderick Hetzel, are both Baylor staff psychologists; the couple led a team of mostly psychology majors to New York this spring to work at Transformation Life Center (TLC), a Christian residential rehab facility for recovering addicts.

"Prior to our departure, the students read and processed together the book Addiction and Grace by Gerald May," Matlock-Hetzel says. "The team discussed concepts they learned from this book as well as many of their academic classes. Once at TLC, the team was able to put a face to the many concepts they had been discussing in their academics--truly living out their learning."

Sophomore Kristin Oca, a psychology major, went on that trip after hearing about it from her neuroscience professor.

"Knowing about the subject that was being addressed helped me to understand more fully some of the elements and factors that contribute to addiction as well as various methods of recovery," she says. "I've always talked of helping out others later in life. That was my reason for going to college in the first place. But what I didn't realize was that I don't have to wait until I have a degree for God to use me. ... God has been present throughout my life, but not until this trip has He ever been visible to me. I actually saw Him working in people--transforming lives, softening the hearts of the toughest men, and in the fellowship displayed by everyone in that small community. It was a life-changing experience."

Students going on one of the Baylor-sponsored trips work with the team leaders to raise money to pay for their trip, doing everything from car washes to yard sales to writing support letters. A grant from the Lilly Foundation has supplied scholarships for many students on such trips in recent years, but that grant expires next year.

"Our hope, and my goal, is to raise an endowment to replace the money that we'll be losing from the Lilly grant. We've already started that effort; there have been some families who have given," Kennedy says.

Other families have elected to support Baylor in bringing missionaries in from the field to speak to students about their experiences. The Harmon Missions Week Endowed Fund, a five-year challenge gift set forth in 2004 by Lynn and Jackie Harmon, helps the University secure quality speakers and missionaries and expand Missions Week on campus.

When asked why they feel it is important to give back, the Harmons expressed a sentiment that coincides well with the philosophy of missions work: "It's a matter of stewardship. As individuals, we are placed on earth for a finite period of time to do God's work, and the resources that we're allowed to work with are His," Harmon said. "I feel that we're merely stewards of these resources to do God's work in a greater way, and that is part of our obligation."

Of course, not all mission work requires fundraising; there's plenty for students to do right here in Waco.

"I'm also heading up local missions, which is going out into neighborhoods in Waco and doing what we call Backyard Bible Club," Kennedy says. "They do hospital ministry, Hispanic ministry, and children's tutorials, where they'll go to work with a local pastor who has set up an afterschool program for children who are struggling with school to come in and get tutored by college students. There's a wide variety of missions in Waco."

Like many Baptist schools and churches, Baylor also hosts Missionaries in Residence--missionaries currently on furlough who are provided with a place to live during their stateside service. In return, the missionaries speak in classes, hold Bible studies, and are available to meet with students who are interested in longterm missions.

"The hope is that we're educating students on how to live a missional lifestyle, so that if you're a teacher living in Carrollton, you still are expanding the Kingdom by using your unique gifts and talents and your calling," Kennedy says.

Fulfilling Baylor's mission

Baylor's mission statement says that the University's purpose is "to educate men and women for worldwide leadership and service by integrating academic excellence and Christian commitment within a caring community."

"There's no question that Baylor's goals center around creating community," Burleson agrees. "There's all sorts of ways in which the goals of Vision 2012 reflect that. So everything we're doing, from Chapel, to these living-learning kinds of experiences, to taking students who are engineers on a mission trip together, we want people to be engaged with one another around their academic journey."

That holds true whether they're working with people on the other side of the world, or just strolling across campus.

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