Kathryn Freeman and Elijah Tanner
Season 4 - Episode 411
Baylor resident chaplains live in residence halls on campus, providing pastoral care, guidance and community to the students they serve. In this Baylor Connections, two resident chaplains–Kathryn Freeman and Elijah Tanner—unpack the joys and challenges of ministering to students through the normal ups and downs of college, circumstances like COVID-19, and more.
Derek Smith:Hello, and welcome to Baylor Connections, a conversation series with the people shaping our future. Each week, go in depth with Baylor leaders, professors and more, discussing important topics in higher education, research and student life. I'm Derek Smith, and our guests today are Kathryn Freeman and Elijah Tanner. Kathryn and Elijah serve as resident chaplains at Baylor. Kathryn is in her fifth and final year of her M.Div. at Truett, while Elijah is in his fourth year of grad school pursuing his M.B.A. and M.Div. All Baylor resident chaplains are Truett students, and they're a pastoral presence in on campus residential communities. This role is a pastor in residence role that focuses on relationships, pastoral care and pastoral leaderships within the communities across campus. The resident chaplain program at Baylor began in 2001 and works with the Department of Pastoral Care in the Office of Baylor Spiritual Life in partnership with Campus Living and Learning. So you guys are both Baylor students and Baylor leaders. You live in community with students on campus and you're doing that all in the middle of a pandemic, in the middle of some crazy weather, and I know you're having a great impact on the students you're with. Kathryn Freeman, Elijah Tanner, thanks so much for joining us. It's great to have you both here on the program today.
Kathryn Freeman:Thanks for having me.
Elijah Tanner:Thank you.
Derek Smith:It's great to have you both on here and to hopefully get your insights together as you're doing the same type role but in different communities on campus. I want to ask each of you this first. Kathryn, I'll start with you. How long have you been a resident chaplain, and in which hall do you serve?
Kathryn Freeman:Yeah. This is my first year. I've only done it this year. Then I am a chaplain in South Russell.
Derek Smith:South Russell. What about you, Elijah?
Elijah Tanner:This is my fourth and probably final year as a chaplain, and I have been serving in Teal Residential College since I started.
Derek Smith:So South Russell and Teal Residential College. I know each residential campus community offers slightly different aspects, slightly different environment, and so you each bring something unique to that role. Elijah, I'll start with you. I know there's probably not anything like a typical day in what you do as a resident chaplain, but is there maybe something more along the lines of a typical week, and if there is, what sorts of activities might we find you engaged in?
Elijah Tanner:Yeah. A typical week normally combines a mixture of meetings, pastoral conversations and events. For me, what that kind of looks like, how it structures my week, is I have about one meeting with some of our leadership per day. I'll meet with them, talk through how things are going in their portion of the hall, talk to their own spiritual growth, how they can contribute to the spiritual growth of the residents that they are in leadership over. Then maybe later that day, I'll have a Bible study in our chapel, talk through some popular or difficult scripture passages. Then maybe later that week we'll have a staff meeting. I'll have a devotional for that staff meeting, talk briefly on a scripture that's been on my heart, or work through a spiritual discipline, something like that. Then the rest of the staff meeting, we'll discuss business items, things like that. Those are some typical items. A normal week might have other various things thrown in there. I also respond to student crises. If there's a crisis of spiritual matters or mental health or even a visit to the hospital, I might respond to that. You never know when that might be thrown into a week.
Derek Smith:What about you, Kathryn?
Kathryn Freeman:I would say some of the same things. I've taken students for coffee, or depending on the weather, coffee/ice cream. I think events, like going to the events that my COs ... The dorm I'm in is associated with the College of Education, so there's a lot of ... we have a student leadership council. They plan events, so trying to get to student-led events to support the student leaders here on the hall. Yeah, lots of meetings with staff here. Then I write a weekly devotional for our hall, and so sometimes, mainly on the weekends, preparing that, thinking through what I want to talk through in the devotional. Just supporting students however. I do a lot of casual hanging out at the front desk with the office assistants as well.
Derek Smith:We know you have some things that are still ... Sorry, Elijah. Go ahead. Some things are scheduled, but I imagine some things are just living in community and they pop up organically.
Elijah Tanner:Yeah. You're good. I was going to mention one of those, because Kathryn said coffee with residents, which I neglected to mention, but we have a budget specifically for coffee with residents, so those are ...
Derek Smith:That's nice.
Elijah Tanner:... some of these kind of unscheduled conversations that might pop up. Someone just wants to grab a cup of coffee that day because they're wrestling with a question or struggling with something, and that's a pretty common weekly item.
Derek Smith:What's it like being embedded in community like that? You both were in their shoes in years past at various institutions, so you know some of what they're facing. What's it like for you getting to share some of those moments?
Kathryn Freeman:I would say I think it's just like a real privilege. I think getting to walk alongside of students. It's not all spiritual stuff. Sometimes it's major stuff, relationship stuff. I think it's fun. I feel like it keeps me young. I know what TikTok is and know trends and stuff, and I feel it makes me feel younger than I actually am. A lot of the students here are just so impressive. I kind of crack up. I was telling some students the other day, it makes me feel like I was such a slacker in college, of just how socially aware and organized the students are here. Yeah, I would say just my overall feeling is just gratitude of getting to walk through life, even for this period of time. I think, also, too, just being a weird time here at Baylor with the pandemic and then last week with the winter storm, or two weeks ago, whenever that was. Yeah, I think just getting to support and just getting to know students and build those relationships, it's really cool.
Elijah Tanner:Yeah. It's kind of a two way street. Kathryn, you mentioned the fact that I enjoy the most, which is that it gives a lot of life to be embedded in the community, and I really enjoy that. The other side of that is that being embedded in a community, I try to always be conscious of the fact that we talk about, as chaplains, the idea of incarnational ministry, and our goal is to be the presence of Christ in any situation which we walk into, to really embody that so that it's shared with whoever we're with. Some of that's really a conscious factor in our work, which is the give as well as we get to take from the energy, the life of the residents, which is a lot of fun.
Derek Smith:Kathryn and Elijah, you and your fellow resident chaplains are Truett students. What drew you to the position? How'd you find out about it? It's a big decision to think about living in an intentional group of college students and making that decision while you yourselves are pursuing your own goals. Take us inside, Kathryn, start with you, what that was like for you just processing that and deciding to do this.
Kathryn Freeman:Yeah, so I was not aware of the chaplain program when I came to Truett. I had some friends that were resident chaplains and recommended that I apply, consider it. I think I was initially kind of leery. I'm a more introverted personality, and I felt like my friends that were chaplains were extroverts and that it was going to be overwhelming to just live in a community, have to throw all of these events, go to all of these events. It has not been like that at all, and I would say I think every chaplain has a different personality and how they read programs is different. I would say for me it's been great. I think it has played to my introvert strengths, which is I like to have very deep, meaningful conversations. I'm better in one on one situations. One of the things about doing this in a pandemic is we can't have events larger than 10 people, and so I feel like I've been able to really build relationships and not feel overwhelmed. I think what drew me to the position was I've always been involved with young people at my church, and the idea of getting to really practice the kind of ... We learn these deep theological concepts at Truett, and I think having to practice talking through those things with young people who haven't had the same training, is to me the best training you can have for ministry.
Derek Smith:That's great. Do you have anything to add to that, Elijah?
Elijah Tanner:Yeah. I think Kathryn was much more saintly in her approach to this position, because she had to change a lot more with her life. I just kind of kept rolling with the hill I was going on. This is actually my ninth year living in the residence halls. I was a CL for three years, on campus my freshman year, and then I was a hall director for one year right before I became a chaplain. I've just been here for a while. It suited me.
Derek Smith:That's great.
Elijah Tanner:I've grown accustomed to the water, and I've always loved being surrounded by people. I'm very extroverted, so I enjoy the idea of walking out my door and seeing people and having a random, spontaneous conversation. It was a pretty easy choice, I think, for me because of that. It's just the water I've been swimming in.
Derek Smith:That's great. It's not just one type of personality that does well in this, Kathryn.
Kathryn Freeman:Yeah. I was going to say, to add to that, I feel like even it has really stretched me, the idea of walking out and I'm going to have a conversation. I think it's great ministry training, but also to really getting to put into practice the things that we're learning.
Derek Smith:This is Baylor Connections. We are visiting with Kathryn Freeman and Elijah Tanner, both resident chaplains at Baylor. You talked about the fact that you're walking with students through sometimes just the day to day challenges that we all face, or stress when we're studying or dealing with struggles there, to some really big issues, whether it's life decisions they're making or illnesses in the family. What is it like stepping into those situations, and how does Baylor, how does Kristen Richardson or others in the team and pastoral care help equip you for those moments when they come?
Elijah Tanner:Yeah. We get training from Burt Burleson and from Kristen Richardson at the beginning of each semester, and then at staff meetings throughout the semester, where we talk about the role of empathic listening and some of the skills that go into that. We get scripture training and theology training from Truett, but then from Spiritual Life specifically we learn this skill of listening, which is really a powerful statement of the gospel that chaplains get to bring to any situation, mainly that a good listener reminds us that not only are we accompanied by a community of people to support us, but also that God listens to us and God cares for us. He hears our prayers, he walks with us through hard times, he's present with us in those times. That's a really powerful statement, so we talk about some different skills that go into that as well as do a good amount of introspection on some of the things that internally might either hold us back from being a good listener or push us forward as good listeners.
Kathryn Freeman:Yeah. No, I agree. I think that we get really great training, as Elijah said. Even just the idea of being a ministry of presence, because we don't necessarily solve, in conversations with students or whatever, but I think the temptation is we want to fix it, sort of like Job's friends, and I think what Kristen and Burt have taught us, empathic listening as a part of the ministry of presence, and just feeling like you're not alone. You have people here at Baylor that care about you and that want to support you however they can. But as Elijah said, whatever you're going through. Even if you can't vocalize it to me, that God knows and understands and is with you. I think we also get training on other parts of student life at Baylor, other programs at Campus Living, how we can be a resource for students and connecting them with maybe resources that maybe they're not aware of, that maybe we weren't aware of before, of things that students have access to. Yeah. I think the big thing is just preparing us to really be a ministry of presence with the people in our life here, in our communities, but even beyond.
Derek Smith:Well, as you describe that, I know that you're here to serve the students, but you're also growing as ministers. You're both Truett Seminary students. I'm curious if you could tell us really a couple of aspects of this. First, what is it that you're at Truett for? What are your ultimate goals, and what are some of the ways that being a resident chaplain is helping train you for ministry long beyond your time on this campus?
Kathryn Freeman:Yeah, I'll go first. I think long term I would love to be a professor and be on campus and working with young people. I think that things that I have learned from being a chaplain ... I think that verse, I think, where Paul tells Timothy, "Don't let anyone despise you because you're young." I think sometimes we minimize college students, young people. They're not real adults. They don't really have any real understanding of what's going on in the world. I think being embedded here with the students at South Russell has shown me that's not true, and that part of what college is, it's a very formative experience for who you are as an adult once you leave college. You're an adult when you come to college.
Kathryn Freeman:I think the big thing is how do you ask good questions? How do you learn? How is the learning process mutual in that I think sometimes it can be like, "Oh, I have all these things to share." At least, I'll speak to me personally. I feel like I can be like, "Oh, I have all these things to share. I know all of these things." But we're always learning. How do you communicate that and how do you help people ask good questions of themselves, of God? How do you help them grow beyond maybe their experiences growing up or whatever it is they're walking through?
Kathryn Freeman:I think that this experience has made me, I think, more empathetic, and I think more ... One thing I always struggle with is allowing myself to be interrupted. Part of being a chaplain is you're going to be interrupted. Your day is not going to go how you planned. That releasing of control and just letting the Holy Spirit move and be open to that, I think has been ... Regardless of career, I think in the world today, people are looking for people who will take time and listen, and I think this has really forced me to like, "Kathryn, you have to be okay with being interrupted and just move on with your day."
Derek Smith:Yeah. What about you, Elijah?
Elijah Tanner:Yeah. I am hoping to, when I graduate, work in a non-profit that does refugee and asylum seeker ministry, specifically with hospitality, so housing options. The way I'd describe it, if you don't know the field, is just taking the residence hall and putting it somewhere else, not on the college campus.
Derek Smith:That's good.
Elijah Tanner:So this is very relevant experience and training for me. The job has prepared me for a lot of that. But I think probably the biggest thing is I think of the power just of seeing and experiencing strong community. I had a really good group of friends growing up, and that really impacted me, so I know that witnessing good community is a powerful thing. So continuing to stay in this environment where there's a number of people, all of them are oriented around some single goal. For the first year experience, that may just be getting college done, but for residential colleges, and we have LLCs on campus as well, Living Learning Centers, or LLPs, sorry, Living Learning Programs, that's something a little bit more focused. So it could be they have the same major or the same interests, things like that. Seeing a community that's united by that. I think of Acts. They were one in heart and mind, and this is a little bit more focused concept. Not everything is united in the residence halls, but to see a group of people that have a common goal and to experience that, to live into it and then to be a minister or a leader in that community is powerful experience for bringing people together whenever you're in the outside world. That, I think, is hopefully what I take away most from being in this position.
Derek Smith:That's great. You guys, you have to balance quite a bit too. You talked about, Kathryn, your day's going to change, and yet you've got your own studies. How do you balance that because your day, as you said, is not your own, yet there's things you have to get done for your studies at Truett.
Kathryn Freeman:I think the older I've gotten, I don't know that I believe in balance. I think I think of my life more as a wheel, and at any given moment, certain things are bigger pieces of the pie, right? I think when I have a test or I have a paper, I try to communicate that to the student leaders, and I try to communicate that to the staff here, and I try to make that a bigger piece of the pie. Then maybe in another week where I don't have assignments due, a bigger piece of the pie is hanging out and having unexpected conversations or longer meetings with students. I try to set, understand that it's probably going to be out of balance and get to a place where I'm just okay with that. But wherever I am, trying to be fully present in what I'm doing. When I'm with students, this is the big piece of my pie today. So being here mentally and then leaving paper and school work stuff to the side, I would say is how I manage. I don't think that I balance. This is how I manage.
Derek Smith:That's good.
Elijah Tanner:I was just going to add I really like that image of the wheel. I think that's a good image. I'd say I don't balance. One of the things that this position has really taught me is what it looks like to hear God's voice constantly, right? We often think of hearing God's voice in terms of our vocation, maybe our spouse, things like that, but Paul talked about the idea of praying ceaselessly. God wants to speak to us always, in all things. One of the constant demands of the job is you don't know the importance of any given situation, and you might find that out much later. So you're really forced to constantly be listening to what God is doing in any situation. I'll get texts at 12:00 p.m., which for me, a married man with a child, is extremely late. I'm in bed for three hours at that point. But I'll get texts at 12:00 p.m. saying, "Hey, can you talk right now?" Sometimes I'll respond and say, "Is this important? What's the issue?" And sometimes it's, "Oh, I just lost a ping pong game and I was trying to get some practice." Or sometimes it's really something important and someone needs to talk right then. So I have to be able to discern, well, is God using this moment for something important, or is God using this moment for maybe me to say, "Hey, it's midnight. We can schedule time later."
Elijah Tanner:So I think balance for me may not look like having a lot of amounts of time for certain things, but just at any given moment discerning is this something that I need to be responding to? Is God calling me to be a minister in this situation? Or maybe is he saying, "Find the time for this later"?
Derek Smith:That's good. I'm curious with both of you now. Kathryn, I know this is your first year, so you've only had this role during the time of COVID. Elijah, you've seen both. When you think about this group of students that you all are serving, their college experience is looking very different than it would have looked a year ago at this time, or just about a year ago at this time, certainly what we all experienced. To that extent, when you think about community, when you think about added stress, does the time of COVID maybe even place any added gravity to you all on what you're doing in helping bring what makes Baylor a special place and bring that sense of community to them, when what we've known as community, at least physically, is looking very different?
Elijah Tanner:Yeah. Absolutely. I'm blown away, one, by the courage and spirit of our freshman that came in this year despite COVID, and are still willing to move forward with their plans and their calling. For one, that makes me think, "Okay, well if these students are this serious that they're going to do that, then I need to step it up too. I need to be at least that serious." Two, this job is all about reminding people that there's a bigger story, that God's got a plan for all of creation that he's tying us into, and that we should always put our lives in that context. So COVID, I think, is a constant reminder of that fact. It reminds us that the things that are affecting us are affecting the entire world. They're affecting all seven billion people. We may think they're small at times, but we are never completely separate from our community, so I think it's just a constant reminder of that fact.
Derek Smith:That's great. Kathryn, you accepted this challenge knowing COVID was going to be a part of it.
Kathryn Freeman:Yeah. I wasn't sure how it was going to look, and I would say my experience in my hall is I feel like people are more bonded, I think, with the people in the hall, on their floor community, and that that has taken on a larger role because they can't participate, or we haven't had maybe some of the larger Baylor traditions or events. I do think it's probably brought an added weight or pressure for residence staff in the planning of events. I think students, if you have to do Zoom classes, you don't want to do Zoom social events. So figuring out how do you create those bonds and create those opportunities for students to connect. I mean, I had students in the fall, because their schools had gone totally online, that had not had any sort of interaction with people their own age in months. So getting on campus and getting to Baylor was really important to them. But then also too, how do you navigate building relationships if you feel like you're kind of out of practice, I guess? That, I think, has taken on an added role. I feel like, at least in the fall, I was doing a lot more of, "Oh, you're an education major? They're an education major. You should make connections." I think the South Russell staff has done a really great job of being creative in their programming and trying to create those moments of connection. But yeah, this is all I have known, and for the freshmen, it's all they've known too. I think people are trying to do the best that they can. It certainly will be a very memorable experience.
Derek Smith:Sure. Great. Well, Kathryn and Elijah, as we wind down, we're heading into the final couple of minutes, I want to ask you both, just to tie it up, what aspects of this you think are going to be what really stays with you when you hope with your students? Elijah, I'll start with you. If you think about this role, it's a pretty special role in [inaudible 00:25:34]. You don't find this very often. Even here on this campus, there are few of you, all in our residence halls. What aspects of this do you think will stay with you the most when you're not a resident chaplain anymore, or what aspects do you hope will stay with the students that you impacted?
Elijah Tanner:That's a good question. As my last semester here, I've been thinking a lot about what I will leave behind me. I definitely know what I'll take, which is that I have seen God work through my conversations with residents in times when I did not have a clue what I was doing. I've gone into conversations before, and I knew what we were going to talk about, and I was just praying on the walk over to see this student, I was just praying, "God, please do something. I don't know what to say here. I don't know what I can offer." And came away from the conversation with the student feeling encouraged somehow, and I just knew that was God. I didn't have any experience with what that student was dealing with, but God offered support somehow. So I know I will take that with me. What I hope to leave behind, I mean, whatever God wants. Ultimately, I hope that it is some better vision of Christ and how Christ is found in community. I tried to orient my work around the idea of being open to other people, open just in the sense of letting them impact you and being willing to impact them. So I hope that students see that and that they realize that their lives are intertwined with people around them, and that they remember that.
Kathryn Freeman:Yeah. I think one thing I hope that my students take away is that they're valuable to God and that he has a plan for them in their life, that they're loved, not because of what they do, just because they're created in his image and he delights in them. I think students really struggle with this idea of something for nothing. I think we all struggle with this idea of God's grace being freely given. I have tried to spend a lot of time with my students encouraging them that I know you're disappointed with that grade, but that's not where your value lies. I think that is something really valuable even outside of college. I think the tendency to put our value in the things that we have. I hope to leave with my students that they don't have to do anything, but God loves them and cares for them and is with them. Then I think the thing that I will take away is just ... I think Elijah said it really great, well, is that this idea of praying without ceasing, of walking into conversations or giving the day totally to the Lord and watching the Holy Spirit do something beyond. I think just the value of those conversations, and to see the Holy Spirit show up in that way feels like such a privilege. I hope that I will take the importance of taking time for people and making space for people to share their stories, to share their hearts, because you just never know what the Holy Spirit is going to do.
Derek Smith:That's great. Well, I know you and your colleagues do really great and important work, and I appreciate you all helping to take us inside your world here. That's something that I think a lot of people at Baylor know we have. It's a program, resident chaplains, that people know we have and are proud of, that you really take us inside that and let us see those relationships. I want to thank you both so much for doing that. I know you're obviously very busy with all you've got going on, so to take the time today, I really appreciate you both. Thanks so much.
Elijah Tanner:Thank you, Derek.
Kathryn Freeman:Thank you.
Derek Smith:Thank you. Resident chaplains, Kathryn Freeman and Elijah Tanner, our guests today here on Baylor Connections. I'm Derek Smith. A reminder, you can hear this and other programs online at baylor.edu/connections, and you can subscribe to the program on iTunes. Thanks for joining us here on Baylor Connections.