For more than 170 years, Baylor University's commitment to provide a rigorous academic experience grounded in Christian principles has been evident in campus life. In fall 2001, the University began a program to place George W. Truett Theological Seminary students as chaplains in on-campus residence halls.
The program, originally established as part of a three-year project funded by a grant from the Lilly Endowment Inc., was created to provide all-hours guidance for students. These pastors-in-training offer invaluable resources for students as they face struggles of school, relationships and life in general. The program now is a cornerstone of Baylor residential life.
Baylor Magazine asked Master of Divinity candidate Daniel Venzin, who served as resident chaplain at Penland Hall during the 2014-15 academic year, to share some of the experiences he encountered during his time living among first-year Baylor students. He immediately admitted the difficulty of putting into words an exact job description for a resident chaplain.
"No two chaplains have the same experience or minister to the same group of students," Venzin says. "For instance, my students at Penland Hall are going to ask questions and desire to talk about topics that are different than, say, students of the Honors Residential College at Memorial. When you take away the differences between halls and focus on one particular hall, diversity still runs rampant among students."
Here is a Venzin's first-hand account of life as a Baylor resident chaplain:
Since Baylor is a Christian university, specifically Baptist, it's understandable that a majority of residents are open to conversation about the Christian faith--or at least expect the topic to come up. It's encouraging to be a chaplain at a university where specifically Christian conversation is expected by the students, rather than another place where there are just as many non-Christians as Christians. With that said, while Baylor has deep roots in the Baptist tradition, our students now come from many other Christian traditions (Methodist, Catholic, Presbyterian, etc.), other faiths and some without any religious affiliation. For me, this is where being a chaplain is most challenging and exciting. What is my role among such a large community of diverse residents? What is the best way for me to reflect Christ in a resident's situation that he is going through? In my experience, I have found my job as a chaplain to be someone who can offer pastoral care for those in my community.
In his book The Contemplative Pastor, Eugene Peterson talks about a pastor being a person who is good at listening instead of speaking. He writes, "A lot of people approach me through the week to tell me what's going on in their lives. I want to have the energy and time to really listen to them so that when they’re through, they know at least one other person has some inkling of what they're feeling and thinking." In a nutshell that is what I try to do as a resident chaplain. These students, these residents already have a number of people lecturing at them. They already have a number of people giving them things to do. At the beginning of the year, Burt [Burleson, Baylor chaplain and dean of spiritual life] had us do an exercise regarding "empathetic listening" where he challenged us to learn how to be present and truly listen to what a student is saying and not feel the need to ask questions that would lead him or her to talk about what we want them to talk about. A large part of my job as a resident chaplain is listening to students.
College is a time when students are given a chance to explore the world around them. For me, I remember it was a time when I was forced to come to grips with the fact that not everyone’' faith looked the same as mine. As a chaplain, a large part of what I get to listen to is students unpacking their thoughts of this new world around them. When I listen, my hope is that those residents will walk away knowing that every topic, no matter how mundane or farfetched, is accepted and welcomed in the presence of a chaplain. I think far too often people try to separate sacred from secular, when the incarnation tells us that God came down from heaven so that we might be able to see God in the world around us. My hope is that my presence in the residence hall would be an invitation for students to see that we are called to bring our faith into all areas of our lives.
Someone asked me, "What is your favorite thing about being a chaplain?" I responded, "My favorite thing about being a chaplain is that I am able to speak grace into a person's life." I remember one instance where I ran into a student on campus and walked with him to class. He shared some things about himself, and then said, "Dan, I feel weird because now I know that you're going to be looking at me differently." My favorite thing was that I was put into a position where I could say, "There is no part of me that looks at you differently. I look at you now just the same as I looked at you earlier--as a person who deserves respect, kindness, compassion and grace." This student, his entire life, had been told that someone's value was decreased if they were going through what he was going through. How many jobs are there where you get to do something like this? How many jobs give you the job description of “Offer grace and remind people of how loved they are"?
Before I moved into Penland, I think I romanticized the resident chaplain position. "Are you telling me that these kids will have a person living merely feet away from them who they can talk to about matters of faith and anything else going on in their lives?" I looked at myself and said, "I'm a cool guy. I play sports. I have an Xbox. I can carry on a conversation about tough topics of faith like the Trinity and eschatology." I expected to have a line of guys outside of my apartment every day waiting to come talk to me about the deepest and hardest issues in their lives. What I found out, though, is that in my context no one really wanted to do that. Why would an 18-year-old man want to come talk to a stranger about things in their life that were personal? Before the 2014-15 academic year started, I asked one of the experienced chaplains about the hardest thing he had experienced as a chaplain. He told me that as a chaplain, one of the biggest things you have to learn is how to deal with rejection. When the ratio of students to chaplains is 560:1, there are going to be people who do not need you. There are going to be students who do not want to come to a Bible study or program about spiritual practices and formation. A question I had to keep asking myself was, "Although these students don’t need me, how do I keep the door open so that they can find me if they ever do need me?"
I learned that I needed to find a way to go to them. I needed to find a way to meet them on their playing field and not the other way around. I remember studying in my apartment one day and hearing guys sprinting up the hallway and then sprinting back down the hallway. This went on for a few minutes, so I poked my head out to see what was going on. What I found was that the students who live on my hall were seeing who could run down to the end of the hall and back quickest--hall time-trials, if you will. Being the competitive person I am, I had to throw my hat into this competition. Needless to say, they smoked me, and I promptly walked into my apartment and collapsed on the floor gasping for air for the next 30 minutes. It is small things like this, though, that helped me get to know the students. I had to learn how to be a part of the community that was already present as opposed to asking the community to be a part of me.
Over time, strangers became faces. Faces became names. Names became greetings. Greetings turned into acquaintances. Acquaintances turned into friendships. At first, I may not have known their names, but I knew a "Hey man, how's it going?" at least let them know that I saw them and acknowledged their presence. Over time, students began to know me as "Dan," and then "Lieutenant Dan," and then "Penland Pastor" or "Chaplain Dan." I have learned that ministry is hard. When you live with the people you minister to, those people see you on the days that you forgot to brush your teeth or wore the same clothes two days in a row. Those people see you when you've had a bad day. What is hard is how you go about speaking words of hope and encouragement when those ideas seem farfetched to you in that moment. I think this job is preparing me in a way that helps me see that being a spiritual leader means much more than giving a good sermon on a Sunday morning. Being a chaplain consists of investing your life in the lives of others. Being a chaplain means listening to the lives of the students and pointing them in the direction of Christ.