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Who are today’s university chaplains and what role do they play in universities?

Kristine Aune finds that university chaplains play a range of diverse roles in the university.
This article is more than 3 years old

Kristin Aune is a Professor of sociology of religion, in the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations at Coventry University.

Over the last two years, Mathew Guest, Jeremy Law and I have interviewed over 400 university chaplains, university managers and religion and belief organisations responsible for managing chaplaincy. We’ve also surveyed nearly 200 students who use chaplaincy services.

There are over 1,000 UK university chaplains. You might say they are the unsung heroes and heroines of universities. Their main roles are pastoral and religious and their functions include:

  • facilitating prayer space for students
  • advising university equality committees
  • leading a Roman Catholic mass or a Buddhist meditation group
  • creating a home from home for international students struggling with culture shock
  • pastoral care for students dealing with mental health crises

The breadth of their activities is surely unique in a university, as is their network of relationships: with students of their own faith, non-religious students, university managers, student services departments, Students’ Unions, local places of worship, and national religion and belief organisations.

Ministry of presence

Chaplains not only provide a “safe space”, they also embody it. They exercise what theologians call a ministry of presence. Being available is vital for their work. As a Jewish chaplain in our red brick case study university told us:

 I work with students. The most important thing I think is being a chaplain, a member of a multi-faith team, who is here to talk to anybody of any faith or none, or as we prefer to say, any world view, and act as a semi-independent listening ear.

A Christian international student told us: “As an international student, chaplaincy has been a great space to feel like home.” Those who use chaplaincy generally find it an excellent resource. 80% of students we surveyed agreed that “Chaplaincy and chaplains perform an essential role within today’s universities”. Four out of five students agreed with the statement “Chaplains provide pastoral support in a way professional support services cannot”.

However, as a Methodist chaplain interviewed at a 1960s campus university admitted, where the chaplaincy room was located away from the main thoroughfare, “most students don’t know it exists”. Nevertheless, chaplaincy at this university fulfils an important function, with one Christian student telling us:

Without the support of the chaplaincy, I don’t know how I would have coped. It has been central to my university experience.

A volunteer army?

But there is a problem: resourcing. While the majority of chaplains from established Christian denominations (the Anglican, Roman Catholic and Methodist churches) are paid, by those denominations or by universities, and Muslim chaplains are increasingly being paid by universities, there are many groups who are under- or un-funded: Buddhists, Sikhs, Hindus, Jews, Humanists, Baha’is, Pagans, Christian international student chaplains and others. A typical university has 10.4 chaplains, but 6.6 of them are volunteers and only 3.8 are paid. We estimate that volunteer chaplains provide £4.5 million each year in free labour to universities – a staggering 3,500 hours per week – and we think this is unsustainable. One of our 13 recommendations is that universities increase their funding and general resourcing of chaplaincy.

Volunteer chaplains are hard-pressed, combining chaplaincy roles with other jobs or family responsibilities, and unable to provide the consistent presence they and students they support desire. What’s more, universities find integrating volunteers into structures of accountability challenging, and volunteers resent being asked to sign volunteer agreements stipulating specific hours of work per week if universities are not providing them with training or resources they need to do their jobs. Less than 50% of volunteer chaplains are given access to IT or phone equipment, training opportunities, a line manager, or travel expenses, for instance.

As the student body is increasingly religiously diverse, so are chaplains. From 2007 to 2017, the proportion of chaplains who are Christian dropped from 70% to 63%, with a growth in numbers of Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and Humanist chaplains. Muslim chaplains are the second largest group, making up 9%, Jews the third largest (8%). Is chaplaincy still Christian or is it now multi-faith?

Both, is the answer, and a common arrangement is for a chaplaincy to be multi-faith, with volunteers from a number of different religious groups, but under the auspices of a full-time coordinating chaplain who is Anglican. Mostly this works well, but sometimes there are tensions between a university’s desire for chaplaincy to be multi-faith, with the reality that chaplains themselves are authorised by specific religious traditions who require them to be, for example, a Humanist, Sikh or Roman Catholic chaplain, not a “multi-faith chaplain”.

How universities see chaplains

We asked chaplains, university managers and students at five case study universities whether they considered their university to be hostile, neutral or friendly to faith. Although a few reported neutrality or hostility, the vast majority said they were friendly to faith, with some in red brick or 1960s campus universities remarking that although the institution was secular when founded, it has adapted to its diverse student body, and is working to ensure it provides for religious and non-religious students alike. The old stereotype of the secular nature of university life leading to students losing their faith is no longer accurate.

And while government policies or HE-wide guidance relating to equality issues or Prevent are implemented in various ways by universities and chaplaincy teams, there is a lot of evidence of universities using them in ways that are constructive for chaplaincy. For example, in our post-1992 university case study, Prevent-related funding had been used to increase prayer space for Muslim students and employ a respected local imam to lead Friday prayers.

The picture our research paints is a positive one: chaplains are doing a great job; chaplains and student services staff are vital, supportive resources for each other; there are lots of examples of great inter-faith work within chaplaincy teams. More resources are needed to support volunteer chaplains, and more training is needed by all chaplains.

The future is bright for chaplaincy, and if universities, chaplains, religion and belief organisations work together and learn from each other, chaplains’ positive impact can become even stronger.

The report Chaplains on Campus: Understanding Chaplaincy in UK Universities, by Kristin Aune, Mathew Guest and Jeremy Law, is available from the Church of England.

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